A Passionate Collector

George Gustav Heye
George Gustav Heye Wikimedia Commons

When George Gustav Heye traveled the United States in search of new objects for his collection, he was known on occasion to drive his limousine an enthusiastic 90 miles an hour (the chauffeur a passenger). He was impressive in motion and no less formidable when he was still. Heye stood some 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed more than 300 pounds in his prime, according to a friend’s perhaps outsize estimation, and he smoked — what else? — big cigars. His collection of almost a million items, which is now within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, is the largest assemblage of Native American artifacts ever gathered by a single individual.

Heye (the name is pronounced, appropriately, “high”) was born in 1874 in New York City, a child of late 19th-century privilege. He graduated from Columbia College with an electrical engineer’s degree in 1896. In 1901 he helped to establish an investment-banking firm, and his considerable earnings, supplemented by money from family and friends, bankrolled his life’s passion as a collector.

And the motive for that passion? We may never know it for sure, though Heye himself has directed us to its first stirrings. On an engineering job in Arizona in 1897, as he recalled some years afterward, “I lived in a tent on the work and in the evenings used to wander about the Indians’ quarters. One night I noticed the wife of one of my Indian foremen biting on what seemed to be a piece of skin. Upon inquiry I found she was chewing the seams of her husband’s deerskin shirt in order to kill the lice. I bought the shirt, became interested in aboriginal customs, and acquired other objects as opportunity offered....”

“Acquired other objects as opportunity offered” wonderfully understates the reality of what Heye did over the next half century. He became a great vacuum cleaner of a collector, who traveled the country by car and by train (and made dozens of trips to Europe as well), scooping up Native American artifacts and shipping them back to New York. He bought from tribes, villages and dealers. He even quizzed small-town morticians about their recent dead who might have owned Indian artifacts — and he asked after the dying too.

Heye financed ethnographic and archaeological expeditions to sites in this country and to places as far off as Guatemala and Ecuador, and in 1916 he established for his collection the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation in New York City. After decades of up-and-down achievement and shifting fortunes, Heye’s museum became part of the Smithsonian in 1990, and a portion of his collection is now displayed in the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center, which opened in 1994 in the historic U.S. Custom House on Bowling Green in Manhattan.

The objects Heye bought often seemed too ordinary for their owners not to forgo. But as the way of life from which they emerged became increasingly remote and fragile, the objects, even the least of them, grew in importance. In their totality, they have an astonishing cumulative power to document Native American cultures. The public will experience that power to an unprecedented degree when, in addition to the Heye Center in New York, the National Museum of the American Indian occupies a striking new building on the Mall in Washington, adjacent to the Air and Space Museum, three years hence.

Heye died in 1957, and there’s been no proper biography of him. He surely deserves one. He accomplished something of enduring significance in his life of focused accumulation, though our contemporary sensibilities may not be entirely comfortable with an individual who appropriated, on a massive scale, the evidence of cultures not his. Some may even see in Heye’s actions a bloodless reenactment of earlier great wrongs. And yet, in his unstoppable course, Heye saved an irreplaceable living record that might otherwise have gone to oblivion. Out of his acquisitive passion has come a legacy of inestimable worth, to heirs on whom he never reckoned. Had he been someone other than who he was, he would have left us all poorer.

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