Mary Griggs Burke, 96; held large Japanese art collection

A poem card by Takeuchi Toshiharu from 1634.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
A poem card by Takeuchi Toshiharu from 1634.

NEW YORK — Mary Griggs Burke — who amassed the most comprehensive private collection of ­Japanese art outside ­Japan with a meticulousness, deliberation, and incisive eye that befit her subject — died Dec. 8 at home in New York. She was 96.

Her cousin Eleanor Briggs confirmed the death.

Assembled over half a century and exhibited throughout the world, Mrs. Burke’s collection comprises about a thousand artifacts, including paintings, prints, sculpture, textiles, lacquerware, ceramics, and calligraphy, collectively worth tens of millions of dollars.


It grew so vast that it had to be housed in its own apartment in Manhattan, adjacent to hers, with a curatorial staff. Students and scholars were encouraged to visit, and many did.

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The collection spans five millenniums, from the art of early Japanese cultures around 3000 BC through that of the Edo period of the 17th to 19th centuries A.D.


Its highlights include ceramic vessels from the Neolithic Age; screens from the Momoyama period (which immediately preceded the Edo) and from the Edo itself, including ‘‘Women Contemplating Floating Fans,’’ a six-panel screen in russets and golds, painted in the early 17th century and rarely seen in public; bowls and other artifacts used in traditional tea ceremonies; and woodblock prints in the ukiyo-e, or ‘‘floating world,’’ tradition. (The collection also includes a sampling of Korean and Chinese works.)

In 2006, Mrs. Burke announced that on her death her collection would be divided between the ­Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, with which she maintained a long association. The Met mounted an exhibition drawn from her collection in 1975 and a second, major exhibition in 2000.

‘’Mary’s collection really would give the Met the most — or one of the most; let’s be modest — comprehensive collections of Asian art outside of Asia,’’ Maxwell Hearn, the Douglas Dillon Curator in charge of Asian Art at the museum, said in an interview on Monday.


In the United States, works from Mrs. Burke’s collection have also been exhibited at the Asia Society in New York and the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Fla.

In Japan, her treasures were displayed at the Tokyo National Museum in 1985, the first Western collection of Japanese art to be shown there.

Mary Livingston Griggs was born in St. Paul in 1916, the daughter of Theodore W. Griggs and the former Mary Steele Livingston.

Her maternal grandfather, Crawford Livingston, made a fortune in railroads, banking, and other ventures. (A robber baron, Mrs. Burke cheerfully called him.) Her father’s family had prosperous lumber merchants and food manufacturers.

The young Mary Griggs grew up in a Victorian mansion in St. Paul that was awash in 18th-century French objets d’art but that was also home to a few Japanese pieces her mother had acquired.


She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1938 from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied literature with Joseph Campbell and painting with Bradley Walker Tomlin, a member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists.

Afterward, she earned a master’s in clinical psychology from Columbia. (Where Mrs. Burke’s interests dovetailed, her cousin said, was in her long fascination with the mindset of Japanese women.)

In 1954, she made her first trip to Japan. The visit had been suggested by the architect Walter ­Gropius, whose disciple Benjamin Thompson was designing a modernist house for her on Long ­Island.

Gropius, a titan of the Bauhaus school, was deeply influenced by the Japanese aesthetic and wanted her to experience its clean, spare lines firsthand.

Entranced by Japan and its art, Mrs. Burke returned dozens of times over the decades. With her husband, Jackson Burke, a printer and type designer whom she married in 1955, she began collecting Japanese art in earnest in 1963. At the time, the couple were among relatively few Americans interested in the genre.

Her husband died in 1975. She leaves no immediate family members.

Besides her homes in New York, Mrs. Burke, 96, had residences in Cable, Wis., and Hobe Sound, Fla. She served on the boards of many institutions, including the Met.

In 1987 she received the ­Order of the Sacred Treasure, an honor bestowed by the Japanese government for contributions to research, industry, and other fields.

Of all the artistic traditions in the world, Mrs. Burke was often asked, why was she so drawn to the Japanese?

‘‘It’s a deep neurotic need,’’ she replied, ‘‘better left unanalyzed.’’