DMA Insight

The Nora and John Wise Collection of Ancient South American Art

The following excerpt was written in 2003 by Carol Robbins, the former Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Curator of the Arts of Americas and the Pacific, for the publication Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years.

One evening in 1972, John Wise arrived in Dallas with a Paracas mantle. Margaret McDermott, inspired by the ancient art she had seen in Peru with René d’Harnoncourt and the International Council of The Museum of Modern Art, decided to buy the textile for the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (DMFA). Over breakfast the next morning, John Wise showed curator John Lunsford a color transparency of a stunning treasure-trove of ancient American gold. The seeds were sown for a phenomenal acquisition.

John Wise had come to his profession as an art dealer indirectly. He was a young broker on Wall Street when he married Nora Elizabeth Howells in the summer of 1929. After the stock market crash, he turned to selling inherited silver, furniture, and works of art, including George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, which he sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1,500. Wise's serendipitous acquisition of the large Central American collection of Minor C. Keith, as well as a group of Paracas textiles from Peru, led to his specialization in ancient American objects and textiles. John Wise became one of the first art dealers to treat this material as art.

Wise's ancient American holdings quickly gained recognition among museums and private collectors. The collection was shown at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1937 and the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts at the Delaware Art Center in 1942. In 1959 Stanley Marcus invited John Wise to participate in a display of South American gold for Neiman Marcus's South American Fortnight. In 1964 the gold was featured in an exhibition at the New York World's Fair. The world's fair show was reviewed in Time magazine, and Wise himself was the subject of a 1969 feature story by John Canaday in the New York Times. Wise's clients now included Robert Woods Bliss, Nelson Rockefeller, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The possibility of acquiring ancient American gold for the DMFA took hold in 1975. John Wise returned to Dallas in May for the opening of the ancient American galleries in the Museum's renovated East Wing. A luncheon at Margaret McDermott's home led to further luncheons in New York—with Margaret McDermott and Mary McDermott Cook, Harry and Ellen Parker, and John Lunsford—and viewings of gold. Nora Wise later later remembered numerous Bloody Marys and an animated discussion that turned from a selection of gold to the prospect of acquiring the Wises' entire collection. Another luncheon at Margaret's was followed by a slide presentation for Betty and Algur Meadows. Al Meadows had a business rule that limited presentations to ten minutes. John Lunsford covered the ceramics, textiles, and gold of fifteen cultures spanning 3,000 years in nine minutes. As the lights came up, Mr. Meadows said, "I'll tell you how we're going to do it."

Mr. Meadows' plan provided an annual income for the Wises for as long as either of them lived, but it anticipated that the Museum was unlikely to pay the full value of the collection; the Wises were in their mid-70s at the time. The Meadows and McDermott families had contributed matching funds in 1973 for the purchase of sixty ancient American objects from Mexico. Since this was clearly a larger project, Nancy and Jake Hamon and Lupe and John Murchison now joined them. As the negotiations proceeded, Harry Parker and Al Meadows seemed fated to alienate John Wise, and John Lunsford regularly received early-morning phone calls from Mr. Wise: "JOHN—it's ALL OFF." Lunsford's role was to listen patiently and respond appropriately. Again and again, Silas R. Mountsier III, the Wises' banker and close friend, persuaded John Wise to continue negotiating. Harry Parker and Margaret McDermott made additional trips to New York.

By mid-February 1976, the acquisition seemed assured, and the Museum planned an exhibition to accompany the announcement in the spring. John Lunsford, Jo Ann Griffin (then objects conservator), and I went to New York to inventory the gold and supervise its packing and shipment to Dallas. We met Nora Wise and Elaine Aikenhead, the Wises' assistant, in the boardroom of the bank, where we examined the gold—about five hundred pieces a day for two days. John and I returned a week later to select the ceramics and textiles for the exhibition. During these and subsequent trips, the magnitude of Nora's contribution became apparent. She was very much the woman behind John Wise.

The exhibition Selections from the Nora and John Wise Collection of Ancient South American Art, held from March 31 through August 29, 1976, celebrated the acquisition. The collection comprised nearly 2,700 objects: 1,050 gold, 702 silver, 215 ceramic, 627 textiles, 27 stone, 58 wood and bronze, and 13 keros. With a chronological range of 900 BCE to 1600 CE, it represented a broad survey of the ancient art of South America with particular strengths in Cupisnique, Paracas, Moche, and Nasca ceramics; late Nasca, central coast, and Chimu textiles; and the gold of Sicán in Peru and the gold of Colombia and Panama. As John Lunsford noted in the Museum's annual report for the fiscal year 1975-1976: "Only rarely does a museum acquire at one time a single group of almost 2,700 works of art. Such an event is truly staggering when superior quality is added to quantity." The contractual arrangement by which the Wise Collection would come to the Museum also included significant loans by Nora and John Wise, from which they would make gifts during their lifetimes and which would come to the Museum as a bequest upon their deaths.

During the summer of 1976, when the arrival of the van in Dallas coincided with the sighting of thirty funnel clouds (one of which touched down in North Dallas), the Museum staff wondered whether the riches of the Wise Collection had upset the balance of nature. An extended period of inventory reconciliation, condition reporting, cataloguing, and photography followed. Jerry Jane Henderson accomplished the tedious task of painting tiny accession numbers on the gold, silver, and ceramics. Jo Ann Griffin provided distinguished conservation. In the spring of 1977, the Wise Collection, beautifully presented by designer Barney Delabano in the expanded galleries for ancient American art in the East Wing of the Fair Park building, opened to great fanfare.

Excerpt from

Carol Robbins, “The Nora and John Wise Collection of Ancient South American Art,” in Dallas Museum of Art 100 Years, eds. Dorothy Kosinski, et al. (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), 37.

Related Multimedia

Oral History interview re: the Wise Collection with Barney Delabano, Carol Robbins, Silas Mountsier and Darin Marshall, moderator