Searching for Oldman: Museum Collaboration Across the Globe

**Originally posted on the Smithsonian Collections Blog


Since 2010, a project has been underway at the National Museum of the American Indian to reunite archival records with our collections and reconstruct the provenance, or record of ownership, of objects. You can read more about what we refer to as the Retro-Accession Lot Project here. Our research began by utilizing our own resources in the NMAI Archive Center, the Museum of the American Indian - Heye Foundation Records, but has since grown to include archival resources at other institutions including one halfway around the world.

Early in the project it became evident that the history of the MAI, our predecessor institution, was intertwined with that of other organizations. It was also clear that the world of collecting Native American objects in the 20th century was a relatively small one. Many anthropologists and archaeologists worked for multiple institutions over the course of their lives; the result was that their papers were often spread between several locations. Objects for sale were offered to multiple institutions or collectors and if one potential buyer declined to purchase an item, another might scoop it up. For this reason, documentation about these transactions may exist in multiple archives. We knew that for some objects in our collection, the only way to get the full picture of their provenance was to expand the search to other institutions. This would also give us a better understanding of the interconnected network of dealers in Native American objects.


The George G. Heye Collection of North American Ethnology on display at the University Museum in 1910. 
Photo Courtesy of the Penn Museum.


In 2015, we expanded our search for collections documentation to the University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives. In 1908, George Heye struck a deal to place his growing North American ethnology and archaeology collections at the University Museum in Philadelphia. There, the collections were cared for and exhibited in two galleries from 1909 until 1916 when Heye withdrew them to create the MAI, much to the dismay of the University Museum staff, who believed he would donate his collection to their museum. George Hubbard Pepper and Mark Raymond Harrington, who would later join the MAI staff, were employed at the University Museum to care for the Heye collection, conduct research and collect additional objects. Due to these relationships, the Penn Museum archives hold documentation from this early period of Heye’s collecting. 


Surprisingly, correspondence in the Penn archives between Heye and George Byron Gordon, the University Museum’s director, pointed to a new connection. In a letter to Gordon dated July 19, 1909, Heye wrote that he had in his possession “a British Columbia painted skin from Oldman.” This led to the discovery of an incredibly rich archival collection on the other side of the world.

I recognized the name Oldman from Museum of the American Indian catalog records: William Ockleford Oldman (1879–1949) was a British dealer in ethnographic art and European weaponry. He sold to museums and collectors throughout Europe and the United States, including George Heye. The NMAI collections include hundreds of objects recorded as purchased from Oldman, but we had no record of a 1909 purchase. Searching our collections database, I found a painted skin from British Columbia acquired in 1909 but there was no source named: its catalog card simply indicated that it was a purchase.


2/2063 Painted Skin from British Columbia purchased from W.O. Oldman in 1909 and its catalog card. Photo by Ernest Amoroso.


Digging deeper, I learned that Oldman was not only a dealer but also a collector. He sold his personal collection of Oceanic objects to the Government of New Zealand in 1948. This collection, including his business records, is now part of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington.

To learn more about these business records, I contacted Te Papa’s archives and received word that they had several of Oldman’s sale registers as well as his collection ledgers and correspondence. Their archivist, Jennifer Twist, kindly provided a few photographs of the material so I could evaluate the type of information included. One photo from Oldman’s ledger confirmed not only the sale of the painted skin in June 1909 to George Heye but other objects Heye had purchased at the same time. Based on the descriptions in Oldman’s ledgers, I succeeded in identifying several other NMAI objects that were described simply as purchases on their catalog cards. As an added bonus, Oldman had recorded the date he had purchased the items and from whom. The painted skin that began this search was purchased by Oldman from the J.C. Stevens Auction on February 16, 1909. Documentation at Te Papa confirmed the items’ association with Oldman but also provided starting points for research into his sources and the hands objects had traveled through.

W. O. Oldman Sale Register CA000228/001/0001 page 209, New Zealand Museum Te Papa Tongarewa


It became clear that the information in the Oldman ledgers was pertinent not only to NMAI and our provenance research project but also to other museums around the world that also hold collections purchased from Oldman. Gaining a better sense of who Oldman bought from also has the potential to improve our understanding of how Native American objects made their way to Europe in the first place. 

To maximize the importance of the Oldman records to NMAI and to other institutions, we initiated a collaborative project with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to digitize the Oldman ledgers and make digital images accessible to the public. Te Papa has digitized five Oldman sale registers and two collection ledgers dating from 1902 to 1916. These collaborative research materials are now available for review on the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive here . Since the ledgers date from the early 20th century and are handwritten, we have also begun a Smithsonian Transcription Center project to have them transcribed. Please take some time to check out this important project and become a volunteer!

Without the connections we have made with other institutions, research about the NMAI collections—including the Oldman objects—would quickly have reached a dead end. By researching relationships between early collectors, dealers, and museums, we can fill in some gaps in our catalog data and restore the connections that have long been broken between our objects and the individuals that made, used, or sold these items.

Many thanks to Alessandro Pezzati and Eric Schnittke for providing access and guidance during research at the Penn Museum Archives and to Jennifer Twist, Mike O’Neill, and Victoria Leachman at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa for their hard work in collaborating with us on this project.