Spotlights: Burton Yost Berry: A Sketch

Burton Yost Berry
Burton Yost Berry

This summer the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University is exhibiting Spotlights: Five Views into the Museum’s Collection. The museum’s outstanding collection of ancient jewelry is celebrated by Juliet Istrabadi, acting Curator of the Ancient Art, for her section of the exhibition.

The following is an excerpt from A Golden Legacy: Ancient Jewelry from the Burton Y. Berry Collection, a catalogue written by  published by the IU Eskenazi Musuem of Art (then know as the Indiana University Art Museum) in 1995 to accompany an exhibition of the museum’s famed ancient jewelry collection. That exhibition traveled to the St. Louis Art Museum, the Museum of Art and Archeology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and the Tampa Museum of Art, as well as being displayed here in Bloomington at our museum. We present this post today to honor Berry for both amassing his wonderful collection, and his generosity in donating it to our museum. He is truly a pivotal donor in the history of our museum. You can currently view a large selection of pieces from the Burton Y. Berry collection in our Spotlights exhibition, on view now through September 4, 2016. Additional works from the Burton Y. Berry Collection are regularly on view in the museum’s Gallery of the Art of Asia and the Ancient Western World, on the second floor. 

“I have lead a rich life. By modern standards I am not a rich man, my means are rather modest, but I endeavored to use them to their advantage,” Burton Berry said during a conversation in the late seventies. This occurred after he had donated his collection to the Indiana University Art Museum, making it in one fell swoop a prominent center for the study of ancient jewelry and minor arts.

This gift came from a man whose life began with a childhood in rural Fowler, Indiana. It appears, by his own description that already then the fascination with the collecting of things past was present. “I came from a frugal family. When an object had fulfilled its usefulness we cleaned it up and then put it away in the attic. As a child it was always a delight to be allowed to play amid these treasures of other years and to create my own make-believe world around them.”

After “growing up in the prairies of northern Indiana,” Burton Berry left Fowler to study at his home state’s principal institution, Indiana University in Bloomington, where he earned a A.B. degree in 1923 with honors and an A.M. in 1927. During his years in Bloomington, Berry became friends with Herman B Wells, who later went on to become president of Indiana University and its chancellor for life. This friendship was to last a lifetime, and it was probably a deciding factor for Burton Berry to donate the overwhelming portion of his collection to his alma mater.

Bull's Head (probably a pendant)
Image: Greek. Bull’s Head (probably a pendant), ca. 350–250 BC, gold, Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art 70.105.3

While studying in Bloomington, Berry became known as a man of unusual and wide-ranging talents, a foreboding of the dual personalities of a dedicated and successful foreign service officer and an equally successful and passionate private collector. Already then he is described as “a handsome and clever young diplomat so engaging and convincing he always could talk Mrs. Poolitsan, Greek proprietor of the campus punchboard, out of a few free shots.” The same source continues, “But he was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa, so smart in the head, he just coasted through the toughest parts of the curriculum. Faculty ogres would see his walloping the punchboard, and then lay in wait for him like a submarine. But he fooled them all, finishing cum laude and all that.”

For anyone wondering about his ability to adapt to pre-WW II Near Eastern conditions, the same article offers a clue: “For about two weeks at a time he looked like he had been sleeping under a bridge and then he would blossom out like a movie actor, dazzlingly and perfectly groomed.” Accepting and adapting to local conditions or hardships while patiently waiting to accomplish his goal seems to have been one of his trademarks.

Bloomington proved to be the steppingstone for Paris, where he studied international law for two years. Afterwards came a distinguished career in the foreign service, which included postings in Istanbul, Athens, and Bucharest, culminating with the ambassadorship of Baghdad, after which Burton Berry retired from the service in 1954. This “retirement,” which was to last three decades, centered around a pattern of extended stays in Istanbul, Beirut, and Cairo until 1975. This pattern was broken by the Lebanese civil war, when Burton Y. Berry decided to move to San Diego, California. After a short sojourn there, his final move was back to Switzerland, where he settled with his adopted son and daughter-in-law and saw the extension of his family through grandchildren. He led an active, full life there. After a long life abroad, he was buried in Fowler, Indiana, his chosen final resting place. Thus, he came full circle, returning to the roots of his family when he was buried there in August 1985.

Necklace with Herakles Knot Clasp
Image: Greek. Necklace with Herakles Knot Clasp, ca. 300–250 BC, gold, glass. Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art 70.105.14 g

Among Ambassador Berry’s accomplishments belonged the mediation for food supplies to reach the starving Greek population during World War II, and at the end of that war essential negotiations in Bulgaria and Romania. But to those who met private citizen and collector Berry, nothing was said of these far-reaching accomplishments. In fact, Burton Berry seemed to acknowledge only reluctantly that his work had been recognized by Indiana University with an honorary doctorate.

The keeping of reserved appearances while observing astutely with his lively eyes was second nature for him. Thus, for someone who met the collector only later in life, there was nothing which bespoke his rural childhood nor any knowledge of country existence. This would come out in dinner conversations with his friend Herman B Wells, when the two gentlemen would talk soybeans, corn, wheat, or pork bellies with great finesse, gusto, and enthusiasm.

There were passing impressions. Burton Berry was a quintessentially urbane man by nature, honed by many years of diplomatic service.  Tall and always impeccably dressed, he conveyed a sense of natural dignity. One met a man of great reserve, almost shy, but with a keen sense of humor and irony, and above all, a penetrating interest in his fellow human beings.

When looking for what drove Burton Berry’s collecting, he himself again gives some hints as he reflects on the effect of his childhood attic while in Istanbul: “The Bazaar, or more accurately that area of it that was devoted to the sale of “antiques,” was in fact a huge attic where, in time, I was to uncover what were to me fabulous treasures with which to play. Perhaps that is the explanation of the Bazaar’s attractions to me, or part of it, at least. Perhaps, too, as time went on, I enjoyed the thrill of knowing through gradually acquired expert’s knowledge I could purchase a mundane object there at a price which, while satisfying the seller, was well under that which someone who ‘collected’ such things would pay for the same thing.”

Cameo with Head of Herakles
Image: Roman. Cameo with Head of Herakles, ca. 100–300. Glass. Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art 66.35.1

When trying to characterize him, two traits come to mind: a keen sense of personal place and his own culture, and a great curiosity for cultures outside his own. These interests were awakened early in his life by his aunt, Lillian Gay Berry, a professor and chairperson of the department of classics at Indiana University during the pre-war era. By all accounts, she opened his eyes to the pleasures of the ancient world and the intricacies of its cultures. The young man seems to have admired her greatly, and he apparently learned a good deal about Greek and Latin history, literature, and culture before he ever set foot on the other side of the Atlantic.

It was when he moved abroad that he developed the passion for collecting. As an astute observer and a reflective man with a literary bent, Burton Berry later wrote a number of books in which he recalled his various encounters with collecting, the first of which was with “Turkish towels.” This turned into a collection of very fine, ancient embroideries which now are housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, another one of his generous gifts.

Besides jewelry, Burton Berry’s true passion was collecting coins and gems. He acquired a truly splendid coin collection which subsequently became the property of the Numismatic Society in New York, the country’s premier institution devoted to the history of coinage. Coins, in fact, held such an important place in his life that he devoted a special narrative to them: A Numismatic Biography.

He reports on his jewelry collecting in Out of the Past, a book which brings to life the dense web of relations between merchants and the Near Eastern countryside, among the merchants themselves, and between them and their customers. In Istanbul’s bazaar Burton Berry became somewhat of an institution, as he sat patiently, sometimes sorting out metal “scrap heaps.” These contained everything from modern gold watches and watch chains for repair to ancient artifacts. It was in this fashion that he slowly accumulated major portions of the collection.

Pair of Disc-and-Pendant Earrings with Erotes (Cupids) Riding Dolphins
Image:  Greek. Pair of Disc-and-Pendant Earrings with Erotes (Cupids) Riding Dolphins, 300-100 BC. Gold and garnet. Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Musuem of Art 70.10515 b-c

As a true connoisseur, Burton Y. Berry collected partly because he found great enjoyment in this activity. But more so, his activity was fueled by an irresistible curiosity to discover things from any new item. Like many other collectors, he did not see amassing his objects as an end in and of itself. This is borne out by the fact that he quite frequently saw, but did not acquire, a good number of the great “treasures” which came onto the market over the years, and which now are part of various great museums in the world. He was well aware of the role and importance of these treasures and at times advised that certain finds should go to the local museum rather than to private collections.

In later conversations, Mr. Berry showed himself quite aware of the cultural-political implications of his collecting. He was clearly concerned about the destruction of antiquities. But his view was very broad, transcending national boundaries, and he considered it of first and foremost importance to save ancient objects, even if it was through private collecting.

In his years of collecting, he became personally acquainted with other collectors, some of whom accumulated holdings of international renown. Among these were two of the truly outstanding Greek collectors: Helen Stathatos, who willed her magnificent collection to the National Museum in Athens, and the Greek Egyptian Anthony Benaki, who housed his collection in his villa near the Greek parliament, right in the center of the city. Both collectors, incidentally, like Burton Berry, were interested broadly in the arts and crafts of their countries, including embroideries, of which especially the Benaki now holds a splendid assortment.

The final disposition of collections after a lifetime is one of the issues each collector has to face.  Museums are often a first choice, and the museums of this continent are eloquent testimony to this beneficence, foremost the Metropolitan in New York, beginning with the collection of General Palma di Cesnola. As times change, the perspective of collecting changes. Several American collectors of antiquities active after the middle of this century changed their views on the integrity and legality of collecting and turned to other ways to pursue their interests.

Burton Y. Berry chose rather early on to bequeath the major portion of his collection to Indiana University. The first permanent loan arrived in 1962, coinciding with the opening of the new Fine Arts Building, which then also housed the Art Museum. In so doing, the ambassador expressly wanted his objects to be used in the course of learning, for classes, and cultural studies, but also for pure research, especially in the little-explored field of ancient jewelry and its history. A first step in this direction was taken with an exhibition and catalogue of gold jewelry in 1974.

Cameo with Bust of Bearded Man
Image: Roman. Cameo with Bust of Bearded Man, 100-300. Onyx. Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art 66.35.9

Two years later, the collector transferred the rest of his holdings to the university. In the following years, much time was devoted to the inventorying, basic cataloguing, photographing, and drawing of the jewelry and other items. By then some six-thousand-plus objects were at the museum, and Indiana University, realizing its enormous obligation, honored the collection with continuous research support for more than six years. In a small exhibition in 1979, a few selected highlights were represented to the public in a “welcome show. ” Besides jewelry, bronze statuettes formed the major focus.

In presenting the collection to his alma mater, Burton Berry had single-handedly made a university museum the repository of a major research tool. It was precisely what the collector wanted, and what he himself often talked about. He seemed to have parted from his possessions lightheartedly, never once uttering a word of disappointment.

Siren with Cithara Pendant
Image:  Siren with Cithara Pendant, 325–275 BC. Gold, Burton Y. Berry Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art 71.50.1

Throughout the years, Burton Berry regularly visited the campus, talking to the museum staff and those working with the materials. He was particularly interested in the use of computers, which were just appearing as PC’s, and he would ask questions about key-words, indexing, and other means to get better and more efficient handles on the vast holdings he had given to the museum. At one time he even granted a rare interview, which gave some further insights into his thoughts.

No major projects were planned in the later seventies, because the museum’s new building was not to open until 1982. After the Indiana University Art Museum was moved into the new building, plans were made to honor the collector with a major exhibition and publication. These were interrupted by the ambassador’s sudden death in 1985.

This volume is dedicated to the memory of Burton Yost Berry. He was a collector of great stature who very generously gave his life’s achievement, one of the largest collections of ancient minor arts ever to be assembled by a single person in this century, to a university art museum in the Midwestern portion of the United States of America.

In deciding to donate to an academic institution what he had spent numerous years and infinite patience and passion to bring together, Burton Y. Berry specifically looked for a home where his materials would act as catalysts for research and teaching. To those who have worked with the materials, the legacy that this remarkable individual left is a golden one. Even in the tedium of measuring, counting, describing, comparing, or analyzing but also in the quiet of the museum’s exhibition gallery, these small objects will always stand as a monument to Burton Yost Berry’s rich life.

We hope you take this opportunity to visit the museum and see Burton Berry’s collection and the rest of our Spotlights exhibition for yourself. It is on view through September 4, 2016. If you are interested in making  a gift to the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art please visit the give page on our website for more information. If you have any questions please contact us at

Eskenazi Museum of Art website


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