Arms and Armor

Department of Arms and Armor

Arms and armor have been a vital part of virtually all cultures for thousands of years, pivotal not only in conquest and defense, but also in court pageantry and ceremonial events. Throughout time the best armor and weapons have represented the highest artistic and technical capabilities of the society and period in which they were made, forming a unique aspect of both art history and material culture.

The principal goals of the Arms and Armor Department are to collect, preserve, research, publish, and exhibit distinguished examples representing the art of the armorer, swordsmith, and gunmaker. The focus of the collection is on works that show outstanding design and decoration, rather than those of purely military or technical interest. Unlike the great dynastic armories now preserved as museum collections in Vienna, Madrid, Dresden, Paris, London, and Stockholm, The Met collection is a modern one, formed through the activities and interests of curators, trustees, private collectors, and donors over the past 125 years. The collection comprises approximately 14,000 objects, of which more than 5,000 are European, 2,000 are from the Near East, and 4,000 from the Far East. It is one of the most comprehensive and encyclopedic collections of its kind.

History of the Department

The Arms and Armor Department was created within the Museum in 1912 (view a photographic history of its first 100 years), due largely to the efforts of its founding curator, Dr. Bashford Dean (1867–1928). Even before this time, however, the trustees of the Museum made valuable acquisitions of arms and armor, most notably the collection of European arms and armor formed in France by Maurice de Tallyrand-Perigord, Duc de Dino (1843–1917), which was purchased in 1904. In 1913 the Museum received as a gift the outstanding collection of European arms and armor assembled over the course of fifty years by William H. Riggs (1827–1924), an American who had spent most of his life in Europe in search of historic and artistic arms. Between World War I and World War II a number of ancestral, dynastic, and private collections were partially or completely sold off, leading to many significant additions to the Museum's holdings. In 1919 major portions of the art collections formed by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913) were given to the Museum. This included Morgan's only piece of armor, the magnificent parade helmet made by Filippo Negroli of Milan in 1543. An important gift of more than 350 European small-swords, hunting swords, and daggers was donated in 1926 by the Parisian collector Jean Jacques Reubell (1851–1933) in memory of his wife and mother, each native New Yorkers. In the years that followed, the scope and importance of The Met collection continued to grow steadily with the acquisition of objects from the estate of Bashford Dean and from the outstanding collections formed by Clarence Mackay (1874–1938) and William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951).

The Collection

The strength of the department's collection lies in its diversity, depth, and quality. The section of European arms and armor is perhaps the best known. While European armor dating before about 1500 is very rare, the department possesses a selection of important examples from the 14th and 15th centuries, including a group of helmets and pieces of armor found in the ruins of a Venetian fortress at Chalcis, on the Greek island of Euboea, which document several distinctive and otherwise unknown forms of armor worn in the eastern Mediterranean before 1470, when Chalcis fell to the Turks. From the 16th century there are numerous examples of sumptuously decorated armor and weapons, including items made for the Electors of Saxony and their bodyguard troops; a select group of English armors made in the Royal Workshops at Greenwich, founded by Henry VIII; and a personal armor made for Henry II, King of France. French firearms of the 17th to 19th centuries are also a strength of the collection, with five guns from the personal collection of King Louis XIII, lavishly decorated firearms from Napoleonic period, and arms made for the industrial exhibitions of the mid- to late 19th century that are masterpieces of original design and traditional craftsmanship.

The collection of American arms features several swords ranging from the late 18th to the late 19th centuries, including ornate presentation swords made to commemorate actions in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. The legendary Colt revolver is well represented by a series of models dating from the 1830s to the 1870s, including a sumptuous gold-inlaid Third Model Dragoon revolver, one of the most elaborately decorated Colts ever made. Other highlights include a small group of late 19th-century Smith & Wesson revolvers decorated in silver and other materials by Tiffany and Company, New York's preeminent silversmiths and jewelers.

The collection of non-European arms and armor is equally distinguished. About three thousand objects, including the majority of Islamic and Near Eastern examples, which include pieces from Iran, Turkey, and India, plus large numbers of Japanese arms and armor, came to the Museum in 1935 as the bequest of George Cameron Stone (1859–1935). Overall the collection of Japanese arms and armor is considered to be the finest and most comprehensive outside of Japan and owes its foundation to Bashford Dean and several other American collectors, in addition to Stone. The department also has representative examples of arms and armor from China, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and other parts of the Far East, in addition to the most extensive collection in the Western hemisphere of arms and armor from Tibet.

What's On View

Approximately 800 objects from the collection are on permanent display in the arms and armor galleries located in The John Pierpont Morgan Wing. These date from about the 5th to the late 19th century and offer a broad range of the best examples from Europe, America, Japan, India, and various Islamic cultures. In addition, the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Gallery has periodically changing displays that focus on varied aspects of the collection.

Above: The Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Arms and Armor Court (gallery 371). Photo by Thomas Ling

View highlights

Department of Arms and Armor on Met Blogs

Met curators and conservators discuss the history of the Arms and Armor collection and its ongoing care and display.

Are you a knave or a knight? Test your knowledge of arms and armor in this iPad app, available for free in the iTunes Store.