Mary Griggs Burke

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Obituary: Mary Griggs Burke built unique Japan collection

  • Article by: NEW YORK TIMES
  • December 20, 2012 - 10:37 PM

Having amassed the most comprehensive private collection of Japanese art outside Japan, St. Paul-born Mary Griggs Burke gave it its own home -- a Manhattan apartment, next to hers, with its own curatorial staff.

She died at home Dec. 8 at age 96.

Comprising about 1,000 artifacts -- paintings, prints, sculpture, textiles, lacquerware, ceramics and calligraphy -- the collection is valued at tens of millions of dollars.

In 2006 she said the collection would be divided between the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after her death.

"Mrs. Burke was this marvelous combination of a Midwestern girl and a New York sophisticate with the soul of a Japanese tea master," said Matthew Welch, deputy director of the Minneapolis museum. The institute was honored, he said, that "she never forgot where she was from and was committed to leaving a portion of her collection to us."

Mary Livingston Griggs was born in St. Paul on June 20, 1916, to Theodore W. Griggs and the former Mary Steele Livingston. Her maternal grandfather, Crawford Livingston, had made a fortune in railroads, banking and other ventures -- a robber baron, she cheerfully called him. Her father's family included lumber merchants and food manufacturers.

She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1938 and earned a master's degree in clinical psychology from Columbia University.

In 1954, she made her first trip to Japan at the suggestion of architect Walter Gropius, whose disciple Benjamin Thompson was designing a modernist house for her on Long Island.

With her husband, Jackson Burke, a printer and type designer whom she married in 1955, she began collecting Japanese art in 1963 when few Americans were interested in the subject.

The Minneapolis museum showed selections of the collection in 1977 and 1994. Spanning 5,000 years of Japanese culture, it includes Neolithic ceramics, rare Momoyama and Edo-period painted screens, tea ceremony artifacts and woodblock prints. It also samples Korean and Chinese works.

Her husband died in 1975. No immediate family members survive.

Burke served on the boards of many institutions, including the Met, where she was an emeritus trustee.

When the Tokyo National Museum displayed part of her holdings in 1985, it was the first Western collection of Japanese art to be shown there.

Burke was often asked: Why was she so drawn to the Japanese?

''It's a deep neurotic need," she replied, "better left unanalyzed."

Staff writer Mary Abbe contributed to this report.

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