Scope and Content
Title: Grace Nicholson Papers,
Date (inclusive): 1822-1951,
Date (bulk): bulk 1902-1948
Extent: Number of pieces: ca. 2560; 11 boxes, and 3 scrapbooks in Addenda
The Huntington Library
San Marino, California 91108
The Grace Nicholson papers were a gift from Thyra H. Maxwell, October 24, 1968.
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[Identification of item], Grace Nicholson Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Collection of business and personal papers of Grace Nicholson, Pasadena (Calif.), collector and dealer in North American Indian
articles, especially baskets, and in oriental art. Miss Nicholson designed and had constructed the Chinese building at 46
North Los Robles which houses the Pacificulture Center.
Born in Philadelphia on December 31, 1877, Grace Nicholson came to California late in 1901. By January 1902 she was purchasing
Indian baskets and other Indian artifacts in association with Carrol S. Hartman, an old family friend from the East, who remained
with her as friend and buyer until his death in 1933. Miss Nicholson took her Indian lore seriously, as she would her oriental
studies later in life; from the beginning she kept diaries and took extensive notes as she made excursions into Indian territory
to purchase baskets. Traveling north through California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and south and east through
Arizona and New Mexico, she collected, not only for herself, but also for such institutions as the Smithsonian, the Field
Columbian Museum of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania Department of Archeology. By August of 1902 she was already
busy establishing a shop and studio at 41-143 Raymond Ave., Pasadena, to handle Indian baskets and curios, and had set about
making contacts for securing a regular supply of artifacts from dealers, individual collectors, reservations, and from the
Indians themselves. She regularly paid higher prices than competitive buyers, thereby obtaining the finest pieces, and even
adopted a number of the best basket weavers, paying them to produce unique examples of traditional patterns. Quietly, she
maintained for many years at least two Indian families, and was often influential in interesting other benefactors in the
welfare of the several tribes.
By 1903 Grace Nicholson had become a friend of the Klamath River Indians, not only purchasing their baskets and other tribal
objects, but also photographing them constantly, taking care to mail to each a copy of his own portrait, a source of great
pleasure and pride to the recipient. A number of letters in the collection are from the Indians thanking her for the photographs.
They tell about local events, and we know that Miss Nicholson answered though her answers are not preserved. As for the Indians
of Arizona and New Mexico, no friendships with individual Indians seem to have been formed, but both Miss Nicholson and Mr.
Hartman visited the reservations a number of times, and were particularly interested in the turquoise and silver jewelry made
in the area. Two expeditions, one to the Klamath River area in 1905, the other, in 1908, to the Arizona Indian country to
witness tribal festivals, were described by Miss Nicholson in letters (1905-1908) to her friend Alice Pfromm, as well as in
the notes made enroute. The collection also contains manuscripts, written from 1906 to 1913 by Mary B. Watkins of Mesa Grande (Calif.) of Indian legends, folklore, and some vocabulary. Twenty letters (1915-1925) from Evaline Nelson recount
California Indian legends. In 1909 Grace Nicholson was awarded a silver medal for her ethnological collection exhibited at
the Alaska-Yukon- Pacific Exposition in Seattle. She was 29 years old. In 1913 Miss Nicholson lent a large collection of Indian
baskets and Navajo jewelry to the Los Angeles County Museum at Exposition Park for a special Indian exhibition. The period 1910-1920, more or less, was a time of increased public interest
in the Indians and their culture, and in the portrayal of Indians and Indian customs by white artists in paintings and sketches.
Miss Nicholson handled the work of a number of the outstanding artists in her galleries, among them, Joseph H. Sharp and Grace
Carpenter Hudson. Letters from the artists are with the collection. Gretchen Krause was Grace Nicholson's housekeeper during
most of both their lives. Already a trusted and valued family member, in 1911 Gretchen wrote a series of charming letters
to her employer while the latter was away on one of her many trips. German born, she returned on at least one occasion to
vacation in her native land; Miss Nicholson described how she put Gretchen on the German freighter Schwaben during the Hitler
regime, and how pronounced was the German atmosphere on board, with a portrait of Hitler on prominent display. After her employer's
death, Gretchen retired to a small house in Pasadena.
Even from those early years, it was evident to Grace Nicholson that the days of the Indians, of their traditions and handicrafts,
were limited, and that it would be necessary for her to look elsewhere for art collections. Thus it was that in 1903 she already
had begun to add oriental art objects to her acquisitions. At the same time her contacts with museums expanded, so that years
later when the Indian artifacts had largely disappeared and oriental art had captured the interest of the western world, those
same museums would find in the Nicholson galleries fine oriental collections from which to select. As early as 1916 she had
buyers in China and Japan, and in 1929 Miss Nicholson, accompanied by Mr. Hartman, made a momentous tour of the Orient, for
pleasure, but especially for purchasing, and as usual, she kept diaries of the trip. This journey marked the turning point
in her career: from 1929 on Grace Nicholson was interested in oriental art above all things, though not to the total exclusion
of her Indians or the hope of someday returning to her Indian notes. She became a Buddhist in faith, a member of several organizations
dedicated to the study of oriental things, and her famous Treasure House was definitely and authentically Chinese, having
been designed and constructed in Chinese temple style. There is in the collection a considerable amount of correspondence
from China, Japan, Korea; collectors from those countries regularly sent shipments. World War II effectively cut off both
correspondence and shipments; by that time her collections were lavish.
In 1941 Miss Nicholson, with forty years of professional activity behind her, began to plan for retirement from business with
disposal of the Los Robles building and of her collections. In 1943 she offered the property to the Pasadena Art Institute
as a gift, with a generosity in keeping with her character. Some legal and financial obstacles existed, so that the property
was deeded to the City of Pasadena, which gave to the Institute the right to acquire title before 1961 on payment of taxes
and costs; in the meantime the building was leased to the Institute. Miss Nicholson retained the use of her own living quarters
during her lifetime. In 1944 she moved her shop to a smaller place at 45 South Euclid Ave., Pasadena, continuing to live at
the old place on Los Robles. Gradually she spent less time at the shop, leaving it in the hands of assistants Thyra Maxwell
and Estelle Bynum. From February 1948, when she suffered from a lengthy illness, Miss Nicholson wrote no more nor did she
dictate correspondence. Death came on August 31, 1948.
Executors of the Nicholson estate, Thyra H. Maxwell and Estelle Bynum informed friends, relatives and clients of the death
of Grace Nicholson, then set about closing out her affairs. Correspondence after August, 1948 gives an idea of the types of
items remaining in the collections: Australian opals, gold Chinese snuff bottles, Indian baskets, oriental porcelains, jades,
Chinese paintings, collections of bronzes, Japanese dolls, Korean collections, semi-precious stones, Javanese and Chinese
textiles, Chinese bead work, Philippine dolls, etc.etc. The entire remaining collections were sold at auction to a single
buyer in December, 1950.
Scope and Content
The arrangement of the collection is as follows:
- Eleven (11) boxes (I-XI) of correspondence, arranged in alphabetical order.
- Six (6) boxes (XII-XVII) of other material, including Indian Notes and Diaries.
- Two (2) Letter books.
- One (1) roll of plans of building at 46 Los Robles, Pasadena (Calif.).
- One (1) box (1) of correspondence, arranged in alphabetic order.
- Ten (10) boxes (2, 4-11) of clippings, ephemera, and printed items.
- three (3) Indian scrapbooks.