The Met, the Mistress, and the Money

The story of how one man's collection made its dramatic journey to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

January, 2013. The Metropolitan Museum of Art held the official ground-breaking for the David H. Koch Plaza. When finished in 2014, the project will transform the four-block stretch in front of the museum along Fifth Avenue from 80th to 84th Streets, remaking the plaza and replacing the leaking 45-year-old fountains. The $65 million facelift is being paid for by Mr. Koch, a reminder that the Met is among the most magnificent museums in the western hemisphere. For Mr. Koch – a Museum Trustee as well as a billionaire – the gift will be smoothly realized, but such was not always the case for the many endowments received by the museum. That of Theodore M. Davis was a more convoluted story: his bequest a century ago became entangled in a lengthy and costly struggle, the background of which could have been lifted from a theatrical legal drama.           _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 

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Metropolitan Museum of Art entrance in New York City. Arad, Wikimedia Commons

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The Collector

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Theodore (“Theo”) Montgomery Davis (1838-1915) was the son of a consumptive country preacher and, at age ten, the stepson of an inmate-flogging, Michigan prison warden. Davis left home at fifteen, and four years later began practicing law in frontier Iowa City. His partner was an ardent abolitionist who in 1859 rescued firebrand John Brown and fifteen escaped slaves from a mob of pro-slavery pursuers shortly before Brown went on to Harpers Ferry; Davis, during  his ten years in Iowa, married the mayor’s daughter, invested in real estate and sat out the Civil War. 

In 1865 he moved to New York where he soon became part of the corrupt Boss Tweed ring. Theo’s brains and rustic charm – with the help of bribery, perjury and fraud – allowed him to escape the collapse of the Tweed Ring and to survive three separate congressional investigations into his affairs. By 1880 he became one of the richest men in the world, a retired attorney (and founding member of the New York City Bar Association) who had dined with Charles Dickens and Ulysses S. Grant and sold the ore from his iron mines to Andrew Carnegie. He also constructed a railroad across the Continental Divide to service his silver mine in Aspen, Colorado, and built a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, where resided his mistress along with his wife.

Davis spent two decades filling the house with old master paintings collected on his annual trips through Europe.  He bought much of the art through his agent, the young Bernard Berenson, who described Davis as “half genius, half red Indian.” Guests who came to see his collections included psychologist William James, who called him an “eccentric grand seigneur,” and his novelist brother Henry, who remembered Davis as an “opulent collector and charming host”. The charms of collecting faded, however, after Davis, with much fanfare, bought a portrait Berenson represented as a genuine Leonardo da Vinci; two years later it was embarrassingly revealed to be a forgery.

From 1902 until 1914 Davis paid archaeologists (five in all) to systematically explore his new passion, Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, and he became world famous for discovering a new tomb every year. The New York Times called one of his discoveries in 1905 “the greatest find in the whole history of Egyptian research,” and the Illustrated London News described the tomb filled with gold as “Egypt’s Richest Treasure Trove,” spurring Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan to visit his yacht and dig house. Davis ultimately uncovered eighteen tombs and several tons of treasure. His successor in the Valley the Earl of Carnarvon found only one tomb, though it became the most celebrated — Tutankhamun’s. Carnarvon’s archaeologist, Howard Carter, had also worked with Davis from 1902 to 1905.

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Artist’s rendition (for souvenir postcard) of Davis’s Newport mansion, The Reef, ca. 1890.  (Author’s collection)

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Theodore Davis and archaeologists in the Valley of the Kings, January 17, 1907.  (Birmingham Library)

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Jars containing remnants from the funeral of Tutankhamen discovered December 21, 1907 and presented to the Metropolitan Museum. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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 Bronze flower bowl, dating to the reign of pharaoh Thutmose III, discovered by Theodore Davis in 1901. Presented to the Metropolitan Museum and currently stored there.  (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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In 1906 Davis signed a will leaving his entire art collection to the Metropolitan, primarily due to his friendships with Director Edward Robinson and Albert Lythgoe, the head of the Egyptian Art department (when Robinson and Lythgoe had held the same positions at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Davis’s gifts had gone there).  The bequest was Davis’s legacy to the world; he called his collection “the child of my mind” (he had no children of his body).  Among the prizes promised to the Met, forty-nine paintings, including a Rembrandt, a “pure masterpiece” by Bellini, two Goyas and three Monets. Unique, however, was the priceless collection of Egyptian antiquities found during his digs, that Davis had been given as “keepsakes” by the Egyptian government (and a greater number of artifacts he had bought from dealers, who had received them from tomb robbers). 

The brilliant and beautifully carved Eighteenth Dynasty alabaster head (the top for a funerary jar) which Davis discovered in 1907 is as important and well-known an object as any in the museum. When he brought it home, Davis told the New York Times it depicted Queen Tiye, “a very beautiful and attractive lady whom I am sorry I did not have the opportunity of meeting.”  Since then it has been identified by the experts as a half-dozen different ancient Egyptians; in the special issue of the Bulletin the Met published at the time of the Davis bequest, it was said to be the “heretic pharaoh” Akhenaten. Current opinion holds it is Kiya, a secondary wife of Akhenaten (a woman far less prominent than his first wife, Nefertiti) and the possible mother of King Tut. For four years it sat on Davis’s desktop in Newport, until he loaned it to the Metropolitan in 1911. 

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 Alabaster canopic jar, ascribed to Kiya, discovered in KV 55 by Theodore Davis on January 8, 1907.  (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

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The Will and the Battle

By the time Davis died in February, 1915 (in the mansion he had rented for the winter on “Millionaire’s Row” in Miami, the home of politician William Jennings Bryan), the museum had completely cataloged the more than 1,000 objects in his collection. After the will was read the Times headline trumpeted “Egyptian Antiques for Metropolitan.” The estate plan had been carefully developed; some $400,000 was to be immediately dispersed, his wife and mistress each getting $100,000 cash. The two women were to split the income from the rest of his wealth each year until they were both dead, when everything was to be sold, and the remainder distributed equally among forty-six people (the recipients included two of the archaeologists who had worked for him and the Presbyterian missionary from Indiana who ran the girls’ school in Luxor that Davis had built and funded). Each part was to be at least $50,000 (the equivalent in today’s money of well over $1 million), and in the unlikely event there was not enough to meet that level, sufficient items from the collection were to be sold to meet Davis’s objective before the balance passed into the Metropolitan’s legal possession. 

Most of the beneficiaries were unaware of Davis’s plan. His wife, Annie, was clearly upset that she would be splitting her share with the person she called, “his mistress who has lived in our house.” Annie was considered a gentle and kindhearted woman, but one who never said or did much of anything. She had kept quiet about her husband’s indiscretion to avoid a scandal, yet in 1911 was unceremoniously evicted from the mansion. Aged seventy-nine when her husband died, she dedicated her remaining days to thwarting the distribution of Davis’s money.

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 Theodore Davis’s wife, Annie Buttles Davis.  (Boal Museum, Boalsburg, PA)

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The mistress that Annie opposed was an unlikely siren. Emma Buttles Andrews was daughter of the second-richest man in Columbus, Ohio, and daughter-in-law of the richest. At five-feet one she was eight inches shorter than Davis, and one year older. She was also Annie’s second cousin, and it had been during a stop in Columbus on Annie’s 1860 honeymoon that Emma and Theo had first met. Emma was everything Annie was not —  cultured, educated, self-confident and curious about the wider world.  Her husband, Abner, had become an invalid by the time Davis moved to New York, and the relationship intensified until it culminated in their cohabitation in Newport, around the time her husband was committed to an asylum. 

Emma and Theo were constant companions the rest of their lives, and she accompanied him on the two decades of expeditions he made to Egypt. Their liaison was controversial; painter Mary Cassatt thought Emma a “woman pirate,” and gossiped, “no one at Newport visits them.” A highpoint of their time together came in 1907, when Davis returned to the luxurious yacht on which they sailed the Nile together during the expeditions, and presented her with his latest find, what the Egyptologists at the time agreed was the solid gold, royal crown of the famous ancient Queen Tiye. It was mounted over Emma’s bed until it was turned over to the Egyptian Museum when they arrived in Cairo two months later. That the object later turned out not to be a crown (it is a pectoral necklace), and not Tiye’s, did not diminish Theo or Emma’s joy at the time.  

Joining Annie in her battle against Emma was a relative who was named in Davis’s will for two parts of the fortune, Annie’s nephew and her husband’s namesake, Theodore (“Terry’) Davis Boal. Terry Boal was brought from his parents’ house in Iowa City to live with Davis and Annie in Gilded Age New York when the boy was seven. Called “my adopted son” in Davis’s first will, he attended the Charlier Institute on 58th Street, and was known to have ridden horseback every day in Central Park. The boy eventually disappointed his uncle, however — hard work was never Terry’s style. He was expelled after two years from St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, and he missed the entrance exams at Harvard because he was in jail, following a fight with a Boston cab driver the night before. Davis sent him back to Iowa, and Terry spent the rest of his life living off the family fortune.

After the first meeting of the beneficiaries of Davis’s will and their lawyers on March 24, 1915, the Times had a new slant for the story: “Davis Museum Bequest Clouded,” the headline read.  Davis’s personal attorney, who had convened the meeting as the named executor of the estate (and who had been conspiring with Terry and Annie for at least two years), dropped a bombshell: He revealed a previously unknown document that the courts and press dubbed the “Million Dollar Agreement.” Ostensibly a letter written to Annie by Davis in 1911, it increased her immediate payment from $100,000 to a million. Since the entire estate was valued at around $3 million (not including the collections destined for the Metropolitan), the mysterious document – written in Terry’s handwriting but supposedly signed by Davis – made the rest of Davis’s gifts impossible, and would have forced sale of the paintings and antiquities. Guards were hired to patrol the Newport mansion to protect the art until the ownership was decided.

Davis’s old lawyer then resigned as executor to represent Annie. The ensuing legal battle pitted Annie and Terry against Emma and the rest of the beneficiaries, including the Metropolitan. The trial, which began in June of 1916, lasted longer than some of those named in the will; Egyptologist Gaston Maspero died that July of a stroke, which felled him as he rose to address the French Academy. Annie died of bowel cancer that March, and as her sole heir Terry pursued her case with increased enthusiasm. The trial concluded with two handwriting experts, who called the Davis signature on the document a forgery. The Rhode Island Supreme Court confirmed the lower court’s decision in January 1918, that the Million Dollar Agreement was indeed a fraud. The newspapers considered the case finished, and called the woman directing the Egyptian girls’ school “the $50,000 missionary.” The Metropolitan began preparing to access the collection.

But Terry did not give up. He and Davis’s half sister – the millionaire’s last surviving blood relative – joined forces to get Davis’s will thrown out on technicalities. If successful, under Rhode Island law the two would have split the entire estate. They lost in March of 1920, but then sued the Metropolitan over the bequest, arguing it was a device Davis had concocted to subvert Rhode Island law. Terry stated that the Met “by its attitude” (of entering the case to secure the collection) had “forfeited all rights to receive anything.”  The museum won that fight in 1922, but Terry’s battle against the Metropolitan went on. A decision against the museum in early 1924 was overturned on appeal a year later. Ultimately, there were eight different lawsuits fought over Davis’s estate, and Terry kept battling the Metropolitan until 1930, when the Newport Probate Court granted the museum permanent possession of the collection. When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Terry’s appeal, it was Theodore Davis’s final legal victory. 

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 Theodore Davis Boal (who carried on the lawsuit over Davis’s estate) and his wife Mathilde, ca. 1895.  (Boal Mansion Museum, Boalsburg, PA)

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The museum did not follow Davis’s request that the entire collection be displayed together under his name, and was unable to mount a special exhibit bringing together the paintings, Egyptian objects, classical antiquities, rugs, furniture, textiles, porcelains and amber he had donated “because of the serious disruption this would cause in so many departments of the Museum.” The Met did publish a thirty-four page special edition of its Bulletin highlighting the most important of the thousand-plus objects it finally owned (considering the paintings the most important part), as a “tribute, however inadequate, to the memory of Theodore M. Davis, distinguished lawyer and financier, eminent Egyptologist and collector, generous benefactor.”

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 “The Architect” by Francisco Goya (1820), presented by Davis to theMetropolitan Museum.  (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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 “Rouen Cathedral” by Claude Monet (1894), one of three Monet paintings presented by Davis to the Metropolitan Museum. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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met21“The Sibyl” by Rembrandt, presented by Theodore Davis to the MetropolitanMuseum. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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Although she did not merit a special publication, Emma Andrews also was a benefactor of the Metropolitan. She donated several antiquities during her life – including Davis’s scarab ring, pieces of mummy wrappings and papyri – and $25,000 when she died in 1922. Perhaps her most valuable gift was the journal she kept of her excursions through Egypt with Davis for twenty-four years. The journals reveal her as an observant, sophisticated, and witty individual; they provide a vivid description of the pair’s adventures, keen insights into their society, and unique records of the excavations which are still of value to Egyptologists today.  

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 Davis’s “Apepi” ring, made from a scarab inscribed for 17th dynasty pharaoh Apepi.  Left by Davis to his mistress, Emma Andrews. Andrews presented it to the Metropolitan Museum.  (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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In late 2014, in time for the one hundredth anniversary of Davis’s death, visitors to the Metropolitan will cross Mr. Koch’s elegant new plaza to reach the museum’s iconic front stairs and main entry. Once in the Egyptian Art department, they will pass by the three charming shabti statuettes found by Davis in 1905. Ten others from the same tomb were looted from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo on the revolutionary night of January 28, 2011, and have not reappeared. 

In his day, Davis was far more famous than Koch is now, notwithstanding the plaza donor’s notoriety for bankrolling the Tea Party. In a few years they will be equally obscure. As has been the case for over a century, however, old friends will continue to re-visit the elegantly sculpted alabaster head, with its delicate features, full lips and prominent chin. The almond-shaped eyes, inlaid with blue glass and obsidian, will still gaze serenely into eternity. Untouched by time or tempest, a face 3,500 years old will offer the viewer a tantalizing hope of entry to a place and time distant and beyond grasp, the royal court in Thebes of Amenhotep the Magnificent, the lost holy city of Akhetaten, and the world of ancient Egypt.

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For more about Theodore Davis and his story related to the ancient treasures of Egypt, see the book (click), The Millionaire and the Mummies: Theodore Davis’s Gilded Age in Egypt.

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Cover Photo, Top Left: : Detail of elaborate box with cartouche of Amenhotep III (1410 – 1372 BCE). Discovered in the tomb of Yuya and Tuya, one of the tombs excavated under the financial auspices of Davis. Ddenison, Wikimedia Commons

Photo, Third from Top, Right: Theodore Montgomery Davis, ca. 1870.  (courtesy author and Boal Museum, Boalsburg, PA)

John M. Adams

John M. Adams is author of THE MILLIONAIRE AND THE MUMMIES: THEODORE DAVIS’S GILDED AGE IN THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS (St. Martins Press, 2013). A native of Chicago, he is director emeritus of the Orange County Public Library and a former member of the Board of Governors of the American Research Center in Egypt. He edited the Egyptological newsletter “Sedjem” for five years and is a regular contributor to “Kmt: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt.”