Buried Finds: Textile Collectors in Egypt

January 31–July 15, 2012

Dikran Garabed Kelekian (1868–1951)

The impact of Dikran Garabed Kelekian—art collector and dealer—on the history of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century collecting, particularly in the United States, is difficult to overstate. Described by the art critic Roger Fry (1866–1934) as having an "omnivorous acquisitiveness," he is best known for his collections of modern painting and Islamic art. Kelekian acted as an adviser to great American collectors, including Henry Walters, whose collection forms the core of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; George Blumenthal, president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1934 to 1941; and Louisine (1855–1929) and Henry Havemeyer (1847–1907), whose collection gift remains one of the most important in the Metropolitan's history (see "The H.O. Havemeyer Family" within the 2011 exhibition The Making of a Collection).

Born in 1868 in Kayseri, Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire, Kelekian was the son of an Armenian banker. He studied ancient Near Eastern history at Robert College in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and continued his education in Paris. In 1892, Kelekian and his brother opened an art and antiquarian business in Constantinople. Kelekian soon garnered a reputation as a knowledgeable collector and dealer specializing in Islamic art, pottery in particular. He came to America in 1893 for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, acting as the Commissioner for the Persian pavilion. Not long after, Kelekian opened his first New York gallery, known as Le Musée de Bosphore, and one in Paris; he later opened a Cairo gallery. He served as a member of the jury for the Paris Exposition Universelle, the world's fair in 1900, and about 1902, he was appointed Persian Council in New York for his promotion of Persian art abroad; his gallery became the Persian Consulate. Kelekian's collections were featured in a number of international exhibitions: the Exposition des Art Musulmans at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (1903), the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, known as the St. Louis World's Fair (1904), the groundbreaking Meisterwerke Muhammedanischer Kunst (Masterworks of Muhammadan Art) in Munich (1910), and the Exposition internationale d'art byzantin, also at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, one of the first exhibitions to present Byzantine art to the public (1931). He also exhibited his collections at various museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1895, 1989, 1911) and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (from 1910 to 1951). Upon Kelekian's death in 1951, his son Charles (1900–1982) continued to operate a New York gallery.

Textiles, including those from late Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic Egypt, numbered among Kelekian’s many interests. Although he did not participate in or sponsor excavations in Egypt, Kelekian’s Cairo gallery served as a base for purchasing Egyptian antiquities, including Late Antique, commonly referred to as Coptic, textiles. Kelekian was collecting and selling these textiles at a time when the wider public was introduced to the later periods of Egyptian history and art. A Kelekian textile exhibited at the Byzantine Exposition in 1931 was the first Late Antique textile purchased by Werner Abegg, founder of the Abegg-Stiftung in Riggisberg, Switzerland, one of the most important textile collections and centers for textile conservation. Kelekian also sold textiles to modern painters, most notably the Fauve painters Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and André Derain (1880–1954). In 1943, the American artist Milton Avery (1885–1965), painted Kelekian in his gallery (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.400.1), posed before a Coptic textile. Sometime in the early twentieth century, Kelekian assembled an album of approximately one thousand textile fragments, containing ten portfolios labeled “collection de tissus. Européen, Persan & Orientaux.” In 2002, Kelekian’s granddaughter, Nanette B. Kelekian, donated the remaining 968 textiles in the album, 63 of which were Late Antique, and an additional 27 textiles of the same period to the Metropolitan. Two of the album pages and many of the textiles are on view in this gallery.