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Phillips, John M.

    Full Name: Phillips, John M.

    Other Names:

    • John Marshall Phillips

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1905

    Date Died: 1953

    Place Born: Kennett Square, Chester, PA, USA

    Place Died: New York, NY, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): metalwork (visual works), silver (metal), and silverwork


    Yale University Art Gallery director and silver objects expert. Phillips was the son of Marshall Phillips, a dairy manager, and Isabelle Smith Walters (Phillips). He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with B.A. in 1927 and, after briefly studying law, switched to English were an M.A. degree was granted 1929. When the silver collector Maurice Brix (-1930) died, Phillips, who maintained a life-long interest in antique silver work, cataloged the unfinished inventory. He was also hired to research the decorative arts collection of Francis Garvan the same year. When the collection passed to Yale University, Phillips accompanied the collection, joining the faculty in the art department, as Assistant Curator of Silver (to 1933). Phillips developed the popular decorative arts course at Yale in 1932, known to students as “pots and pans.” He was named acting directory of the Yale University Art Gallery in 1941 and assistant professor of the history of art at around the same time. During World War II, Phillips served first in Army Counter Intelligence in Boston before reassignment to the Looted Art Investigation Unit of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). There he worked with S. Lane Faison, Jr. in England and then in the Netherlands. His major responsibility was to recover Dutch art stolen by the Nazis. While performing these duties, he noticed that a Vermeer repatriated from Herrmann Göring’s collection, contained a depiction of a tankard from the nineteenth century. Suspecting a forgery, he assisted the Dutch authorities in exposing the master forger Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), whom he interviewed in prison. After returning from the war, Phillips was named permanent director of the Gallery and professor of the history of art at Yale in 1948. He was later named the curator of the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection of American Decorative Arts at the Gallery. While on a commuter train to New Haven from New York he suddenly became ill and died en route to the hospital at age 48. His major study of the silversmiths of New England remained incomplete at his death. He was succeeded at the Gallery by Lamont Moore. Students influenced by Phillips work included the art historian Joseph Burke. A John Marshall Phillips Fellowship in American Art was established at Yale in his memory. Phillips was a specialist in historic silver. He was responsible for promoting the career of the personally modest private scholar Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr. Though, like many historians of art of previous eras, he had little patience or appreciation for modern art, even modern-art exponents, such as the artist and early Marcel Duchamp collector, Katherine Drier (1877-1952), remarked that Phillips, “loves art and has a sympathy for it.”

    Selected Bibliography

    [complete bibliography:] “Bibliography of his Works [i.e., John Marshall Phillips].” Bulletin of the Associates in Fine Arts at Yale University 21 (October 1953): 7; American Silver. New York: Chanticleer Press 1949; and Lee, Ruth Webb. Antique Fakes & Reproductions. 2nd ed. Northborough, MA: [privately printed],1950; Early Connecticut Silver, 1700-1830. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery/Yale University Press, 1935; edited. The Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr. Collection of Portraits and Silver, with a Note on the Discoveries of Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr. Concerning the Influence of the English Mezzotint on Colonial Painting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955.


    [obituaries:] ” John M. Phillips, Yale Art Expert, Director of Gallery There, Exposed Dutch Forgeries, Silver Specialist, Dies.” New York Times May 9, 1953, p. 19; “John Marshall Phillips.” Connoisseur 132 (September 1953): 46; Magazine Antiques 63 no. 1928 (June 1953): 527; “John Marshall Phillips, with Bibliography of his Works.” Bulletin of the Associates in Fine Arts at Yale University 21 (October 1953): 1-8.


    "Phillips, John M.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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