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 Langdon Warner (1881-1955) 

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Few scholars of art have earned the level of acclaim of Langdon Warner, archaeologist and legendary connoisseur of Asian art. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 1, 1881, Warner descended from a long line of prominent Americans. His ancestors include a Mayflower passenger and a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Having grown up among the academic elite, Warner graduated from Harvard University in 1903. The following year, he embarked on an expedition to Africa and Asia with the explorer Raphael Wells Pumpelly. Captivated by the ancient sights and monuments, Warner was hooked. His first encounter with the ancient world inspired a lifetime of exploration and research: between 1906 and 1952, he made eighteen additional journeys abroad, mostly to Asia.


In 1906 Warner was selected by the trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for training in the Department of Asiatic Art. Warner travelled to Japan, where he immersed himself in the country’s culture and established useful contacts with prominent artists, collectors, and art dealers. He served as Associate Curator at the museum until 1913, when he took up residence in Peking, China. There, he established the American School of Archaeology in Peking on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. Subsequent appointments included Field Agent for Research in Asia for the Cleveland Museum of Art, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Curator of Oriental Art at Harvard’s Fogg Museum of Art. Warner expanded the Fogg’s collection of Chinese art by leading two expeditions to China in 1923 and 1925, acquiring some of the museum’s rarest and finest works of art. During the 1930s, he undertook similar trips on behalf of the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri (today, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art).


Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Warner was impatient to get involved with the war effort. He was temporarily assigned to the Special Service Branch of the Quartermaster Department in Washington, D.C. before teaching a course on Japanese language, culture, and history to Civil Affairs Officers. Throughout the war, he was involved with the Roberts Commission as a Special Consultant. He created the Official List of Monuments for Japan, China, Korea, Siam, and Thailand, as well as a published pamphlet entitled The Monuments of China.


In March 1946, Warner arrived in Tokyo, Japan as Expert Consultant to the Arts and Monuments Division of the Civil Information and Education Section under the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). His lifelong fascination with Asian art and culture was an invaluable source for the Monuments Men in the Pacific. A trusted liaison between art collectors, museum officials, and art dealers, his reputation alone opened doors and greatly expedited the efforts of the Monuments Men. In a letter to Roberts Commission headquarters in Washington, D.C., Monuments Man Lt. Cdr. George Stout remarked, “Langdon Warner is, without exaggeration, magnificent. I believe that, next to General MacArthur, he is the most highly regarded American in Japan. Two days ago, the Nippon Times broke out a full, two-column editorial on him. Hoover didn’t get that much space and so far Eisenhower hasn’t.”


Warner left Japan in August 1946 and returned to Massachusetts. He retired from the Fogg Museum of Art in 1950. In 1952 he was chosen to serve on the American Committee of Selection for The Exhibition of Japanese Painting and Sculpture, a traveling exhibition sponsored by the Japanese Government. A symbolic gesture of thanks to the United States, the exhibition opened at the National Gallery on January 25, 1953. Warner was also the author of many books on Asian art, including The Enduring Art of Japan (1952) and Japanese Sculpture of the Tempyo Period: Masterpieces of the Eighth Century (1959).


Langdon Warner died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on June 9, 1955. For his devoted services to Japan, he was posthumously awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasures by the Japanese Government. Today, his extraordinary legacy is visible in the careers of his many students, some of whom hold prominent positions managing the world’s greatest collections of Asian art. His international renown also endures. Memorial shrines in his honor, erected by grateful Japanese citizens, were constructed in Kyoto, Japan and at Hōryūji, one of the oldest and most sacred Buddhist monasteries in Nara, Japan.

Photo courtesy of the Warner Family (private collection).

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