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Once at Mia: Art in, art out

Look closely and you can see the name of Alfred Pillsbury under “lender.” It’s not hard: The cursive writing is clear as a carving, seemingly typed. As Mia’s registrars like to joke now, the primary job requirement for their predecessors long ago was good handwriting. And this person, probably a secretary in the director’s office, had a chisel for a hand.

A receipt for loans to Mia from Charles Lang Freer, the industrialist whose art collection now fills his namesake museum in Washington, D.C.

A receipt for loans to Mia from Charles Lang Freer, the industrialist whose art collection now fills his namesake museum in Washington, D.C.

It was 1915, the year that Mia opened. The museum had fewer than a thousand objects in its collection; most of the works on the walls were loans from East Coast institutions and collectors. Elsewhere in this early registration ledger is a 1917 receipt for loans received from Charles Lang Freer, the Detroit industrialist and early collector of American masters, especially James Whistler (he owned the artist’s famed Peacock Room, now displayed in Freer’s eponymous museum in Washington, D.C.). Ten of Freer’s paintings—”from the famous collection which he has given to the Nation,” Mia trumpeted—were shown in Mia’s “Japanese Room” for about two months.

The handwriting deteriorates in a later registration page, including three words no registrar wants to hear: "Could not locate."

The handwriting deteriorates in a later registration page, including three words no registrar wants to hear: “Could not locate.”

Pillsbury was a local exception. Uninterested in his family’s flour business, he collected art. A lot of it. He lived across the park from Mia, in a stone Tudor mansion filled with wooden beams, Oriental carpets, and Asian art. The registration page notes that his loans arrived at the museum “by hand.”

His name appears frequently in these early ledgers, the later ones, too. Pillsbury became the chairman of Mia’s board of trustees, and in his will he left a million dollars worth of Asian art to the museum—nearly a thousand objects, including a priceless and charismatic collection of ancient Chinese bronzes.

The hand of God disappears from the ledger after just a few pages, as though the clerk—so clearly qualified—were merely a fill-in. Things quickly go downhill. The category headers vanish. Notes are scribbled in later to clarify the comings and goings of loaned art, including three words no registrar wants to hear: “Could not locate.”