|Robert W. de Forest|
De Forest also followed in the footsteps of his father-in-law, who had been the first president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, becoming a trustee in 1889, secretary of the board in 1905, and president in 1913—a position he would hold until his death in 1931. De Forest and his wife were themselves both collectors of American antiques, and it was largely due to his influence that the Metropolitan began to exhibit and collect American decorative arts. In 1922, Robert and Emily de Forest announced that they would donate the funds needed to build the new American Wing of the museum, ultimately contributing $272,000 to this endeavor—about $3.5 million in today’s dollars.
|John Fox Slater Memorial Museum|
It seems to have been Henry Kent who first raised the idea, even before the Hudson-Fulton, that H. Eugene Bolles might be willing to sell his collection to the Metropolitan. The matter required some delicacy, and Kent approached Bolles’s cousin and fellow collector, George S. Palmer, to ask if he thought the collection might ever come on the market. Palmer replied that it was quite likely—Bolles and his wife had no children, and the collection was getting so large that it was beginning to feel like something of a burden. Palmer wrote to Kent, “He is inclined to look for a suitable place for its permanent keeping. As he cannot afford to furnish such a place himself and cannot afford to present his collection to a public institution, he is approaching the point where he will be willing to sell it to be kept together in some public place.”
|H. Eugene Bolles|
It was clear to Robert de Forest and Henry Kent that the Bolles collection was ideally suited to become the nucleus of the Met’s American decorative arts collection. Actually acquiring the pieces was more difficult, since the museum had no designated funds to purchase American art. It was fortunate, then, that de Forest was the legal adviser to one of the wealthiest women in the United States, Margaret Olivia Sage, and that Mrs. Sage had long been a proponent of public service and philanthropy.
|Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage|
Mrs. Sage agreed to purchase the Bolles collection in the fall of 1909, as the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition was coming to an end. She then made a gift of the entire collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In one stroke, the Met had acquired a comprehensive collection of American antique furniture from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth century. Items from the Bolles collection were put on display almost immediately, but de Forest and Kent were dissatisfied with the way the pieces looked in the museum’s galleries, and the collection was so large—886 pieces in total—that most of the items had to be kept in storage or in study rooms. Clearly, a dedicated wing for American art, one with rooms of an appropriate scale, was necessary.
|Part of the Bolles Collection as it was displayed prior to the construction |
of the American Wing, ca. 1915