The cover of a book with Charles L. Freer printed on the front in gold.
Letterpress book, volume 23 cover, 1907–1908. Charles Lang Freer Papers. National Museum of Asian Art Archives. Box 49, Folder 1.

Housed in the National Museum of Asian Art Archives, the Charles Lang Freer Papers consist of some 357 boxes of material in 131 linear feet (or thereabouts), organized into twelve series. It is difficult to exaggerate how rich the cache is or the copious, almost fetishistic detail with which it documents the activities, opinions, wishes, and directives of Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), the Detroit-based industrialist-turned-collector who is our museum’s eponymous founder. Freer was an inveterate organizer, a businessman with keen accounting and documenting skills that he imported from his experience in railroad car manufacturing into the private business of his collecting and domestic affairs. The result of his efforts, along with those of the colleagues and archivists who cared for the material after his death, represents the core of the Freer Papers. And these, along with Freer’s foundational gift of 9,500 artworks and the donation of his personal library, together constitute the triptych that is the Freer Gallery of Art.

In the words of one scholar, “Freer’s own papers constitute one of the most impressive of world archives.”1 The material ranges across a continuum of genres and media, memorial and relic mixing with document and record. Series 1 (“Genealogical and Biographical Data, 1880–1930”), for example, consists of eight boxes divided into about seventy-five folders; it’s an odd miscellany that includes documents relating to Freer’s origins and family background, club memberships, honorary degrees, plans of his Detroit house (including a “blue print for sewage disposal”), documents of his estate and the terms of bequests, various notes, and materials that run from the prosaic to the literally poetic (one folder contains “copies of poems and quotation”). A file for “empty envelopes” can be found in box 3, folder 22. Sometimes it can appear that everything Freer touched was to be preserved, and this is a sensitivity that can’t be explained simply by the systematic approach taken by professional archivists: Freer was quietly charismatic, a man who seems to have left a mark on everyone he met but who impressed himself especially deeply on those whom he took into his trust.

A handwritten letter on Hotel Continental letterhead.
Letter from Charles Lang Freer to Col. Frank J. Hecker, June 28, 1909. Charles Lang Freer Papers. National Museum of Asian Art Archives. Box 18, Folder 5.

To make some sense of the mountain of material, one can usefully distinguish between writings and records. In the former, one can find Freer’s diaries (some twenty-nine in number), notebooks, letters, albums of newspaper clippings, and occasional drawings, jottings, and scribbles. All these writings offer something to the researcher, but the letters are especially noteworthy—and not merely because they number in the thousands. Letters to Freer were preserved, of course, and these shed light on both the networks in which he operated and on the persona he so carefully curated. But we have far more material than that. For about thirty years, Freer himself arranged that the correspondence he drafted while in Detroit be duplicated, the originals being impressed by a copy press onto the pages of prebound leather volumes, a popular nineteenth-century technique called letterpress copying. (The practice seems to have begun in 1892 and fallen out of favor by 1910.) What’s more, one of Freer’s closest confidantes, Katharine Nash Rhoades (1885–1965), ensured that Freer’s letters to several colleagues and friends—though written while away from Detroit, typically while traveling—were also assembled and integrated into the nascent archive shortly after his death.

Voucher for Charles L. Freer's payment of $133.87 to Yamanaka and Co on Oct, 1908.
Cover page, voucher for purchase by Charles Lang Freer from Yamanaka & Co., October 1908. Charles Lang Freer Papers. National Museum of Asian Art Archives. Box 115, Folder 7.

Freer wrote vividly and copiously—even compulsively—about matters great and small, and if there’s reason to believe the collection of letters as we have it was subject to a measure of expurgation in the wake of his death, the corpus that remains provides an almost daily record of the quotidian and the extraordinary. Freer is now known primarily as an indefatigable and visionary collector of Asian art, but he was a multitude—a businessman, an investor, an employer, an advisor, a mentor, a patron, a friend, and a philanthropist—and it’s in his letters that the many versions of Freer emerge. On April 16, 1901, to take an almost arbitrary example, Freer was dispensing advice on the potential purchase of a manufacturing company; the next day, he was complaining that a fruit basket he’d ordered contained bananas instead of grapefruit. Clustering as they do in correspondence with a few dozen especially crucial collectors, dealers, scholars, businessmen, and friends, the letters allow us to reconstruct a man’s life along with several aspects of the social, business, and art-collecting landscapes in which he traveled, particularly the networks of dealers, collectors, and scholars who laid the foundation of Asian art collecting in the United States between 1880 and 1920.

And that’s just to mention the letters, which are a subset of what I’ve called “writings.” Amongst what I’ve called “records,” one can find invoices, receipts, ledgers, photographs, blueprints, copies of cables, and much more. Here, the documentary residue of Freer’s vouchering system has pride of place. Freer vouchered a wide range of transactions, including gifts and donations, but vouchering was central to the complex accounting, budgeting, and record-keeping practices through which he assembled his collection of American and Asian art. The vouchers are a provenance researcher’s dream, supplying a wide variety of data (purchase dates, dealers’ names, prices, shipping information) about thousands of objects collected over more than three decades in American, European, Near Eastern, and Asian markets. More than any other single research resource, Freer’s purchase records constitute the evidentiary basis for the scholarly understanding of Asian art collecting in the United States.

The essays that follow explore these and other themes. I’m deeply indebted to the National Museum of Asian Art’s two archivists, Ryan Murray and Lisa Fthenakis, for their enthusiastic interest in Freer’s papers and life, for their patient professionalism, and last but certainly not least, for their commitment to making accessible to all a remarkable corpus of material.

Sepia toned image of a man seen in profile, wearing a cap and long coat, trees along the horizon behind him.
Charles Lang Freer in the Catskill Mountains, July 1889. Charles Lang Freer Papers. National Museum of Asian Art Archives. Box 259, Folder 4.

Chase F. Robinson has been the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, since December 2018. A highly regarded scholar of Middle Eastern history and culture, he previously held senior leadership roles at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, serving first as provost and then as president from 2008 to 2018. From 1993 to 2008, Robinson taught Islamic history and culture at the University of Oxford, chairing its Faculty Board of Oriental Studies from 2003 to 2005. He has authored or edited nine books and more than forty articles that span the geographical and chronological breadth of the pre- and early modern Islamic Middle East. Robinson earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University and his doctorate from Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He is the general editor of Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization and a member of the editorial board of Past & Present. His editorials and commentaries have appeared in a number of magazines and newspapers.

1 Richard H. Collin, “Public Collections and Private Collectors,” American Quarterly 46, no. 3 (September 1994): 448–61.