Henry Osborne Havemeyer—known as Harry—was born into a wealthy family and became a powerful American entrepreneur. After having inherited from his father a thriving sugar refinery business established in 1807 in New York, he expanded its entities with assistance from his brother Theodore Havemeyer. In 1891 he founded the American Sugar Refining Company and was chosen as its president. His companies controlled sugar refining in the United States at the time of his death. Havemeyer had a strong personality and enjoyed leadership and control. He was also president of the Long Island Railroad (from 1875 to 1876) as well as the American Coffee Company. Harry divorced his first wife, Mary Louise Elder, and married her niece Louisine Elder in 1883. He and his second wife had three children: Adaline, Horace, and Electra. The Havemeyers have become known as two generations of great art collectors who figure among the major donors to the Met.
The Havemeyer collection gift remains one of the most noteworthy in the Metropolitan. It enriches nearly every department of the Museum. Of more than 4,500 artworks they gave, 150 are Islamic. Their collecting taste followed an avant-garde path. Aside from Old Master paintings, in the 1870s they began buying then-unappreciated Impressionist works, as well as Far Eastern art. Probably in the 1880s, Harry developed an interest in Islamic art. He was later followed by Louisine and their son Horace. Key figures who might have inspired the Havemeyers in this direction were Edward C. Moore, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and landscape artist Samuel Colman, who were all designers inspired by Oriental art and working for Henry and Louisine. (When Harry married Louisine, he commissioned Moore to design a silver flatware service for her. This service was made in Moore's Japanese style and shows the Havemeyers' taste and interest in exotic design.) Although the Havemeyers liked to travel and meet contemporary artists in Europe, they relied on intermediaries when collecting Islamic art. Their strong collection of ceramics from Raqqa in Syria and Kashan in Iran was mainly built upon the advice of Dikran Kelekian, a dealer, consultant, and friend.
Kelekian was an Armenian art dealer from Kayseri, Turkey, who had established galleries in New York City (ca. 1895), Paris, and Cairo. He was one of the key figures in Islamic art collecting in America and Europe, and very influential among his clientele. Kelekian originally came to the United States for the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893). Here he met the American painter Mary Cassatt. They became lifelong friends. Mary introduced Dikran to American collectors, among them her close friend Louisine Havemeyer.
By the end of the 1880s the Havemeyer family had three children, and their art collection had significantly increased. Hence they decided to leave their first residence—a modest brownstone townhouse at 34 East 36th Street, across the street from their affluent neighbor J. Pierpont Morgan—and moved north to 1 East 66th Street at Fifth Avenue, where by 1890 the construction of the Havemeyer residence in the Romanesque Revival style had begun.
If the Havemeyer house was in a conservative style on the outside, its inside was a real experiment in the realm of interior decoration. It was designed by Tiffany and Colman, who were both vividly inspired by the arts of the Far East and the Islamic world, which they incorporated in their style and also collected. It was Colman who motivated Harry to purchase Japanese art for the first time during his visit to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Hence the rooms were made with a profusion of patterns, unusual materials, a preference for exotic motifs with an Indian, Islamic, or Japanese taste, and a concern for the display of the collections of "decorative" objects.