Fonds UBCA-ARC-1437 - Alan R. Sawyer fonds

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Alan R. Sawyer fonds

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  • Multiple media

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  • Source of title proper: The title is based on the contents of the fonds.

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Physical description

12.78 m of textual records and other material.

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Archival description area

Name of creator


Biographical history

Alan R. Sawyer (1919-2002) was an art historian, curator, museum director, collector, professor, author, and consultant specialising in pre-Columbian and Northwest Coast art. He was born in 1919 in Wakefield, Massachusetts, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942. In 1946 he married his childhood friend Erika Heininger Sawyer (1922-2012) and together they had five children (Dana, Diane, Brian, Lynn, and Carol). Alan and Erika were avid collectors, and their collection of pre-Columbian and Northwest Coast pieces was often consulted by researchers and exhibited across Canada and the US.

Sawyer received an undergraduate degree in geology from Bates College in 1941 before studying at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from 1946-1948 and earning his MA in Art History from Harvard in 1949. That same year, Sawyer became an instructor for the art department at the Texas State College for Women. He was employed as the assistant to the Curator of Decorative Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1952, and in 1956 was promoted to Curator of Primitive Art. While at the Art Institute of Chicago, he also worked as director of the Park Forest Art Center and taught courses at University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. From 1959 to 1971, Sawyer served as the Director of the Textile Museum in Washington, DC. He joined the faculty at the University of British Columbia in 1974, where he was a professor of art history until his retirement in 1984—when he was named Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts.

In addition to his teaching and writing activities, Sawyer traveled to South America to conduct field work and acted as an expert lecturer on study and leisure tours in Peru. As part of his research into Northwest Coast art and artifacts, he traveled to First Nation communities and assisted North American and European museums with determining artifacts’ provenance. He was the author of several works including Ancient Peruvian Ceramics : the Nathan Cummings Collection (1966) which was published through the Metropolitan Museum, and Mastercraftsmen of Ancient Peru (1968) that accompanied an exhibit at the Guggenheim which he curated. In 1969, Sawyer was awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Bates College.

Custodial history

Material in the possession of Sawyer’s former student Mary Frame was donated in 2022.

Scope and content

Fonds includes correspondence, notes, publications, maps, drawings, photographs, and presentation aids pertaining to Alan Sawyer’s academic research, writing, curatorial and appraisal work. Includes provenance information and research regarding Sawyer's private collection of art and artefacts including sales records, photographs, inventories, catalogues and correspondence.
Box 63 includes 3 rolls of unprocessed or unused film.

Notes area

Physical condition

Immediate source of acquisition

Material was donated to the archives by his daughter Carol Sawyer in 2015. Items in the audiovisual series were donated by Ms. Sawyer in 2018.


An earlier version of this document featured an arrangement with an undivided visual materials series. Those files (boxes 25-28) have been included in the Americas sub-series of that series.

Photographic materials and publications are included in the extent of textual records due to the intermingled nature of the materials.

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Finding aids

Online finding aid
Please see the finding aid for an inventory of files.

Uploaded finding aid

Associated materials

More material on Sawyer’s research into the artifacts of Northwest Coast First Nation communities can be found in the Alan R. Sawyer fonds in the Audrey and Harry Hawthorn Library and Archives at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

Related materials


General note

Photographic material from other institutions, such as items belonging to the Textile Museum or Guggenheim Museum, was removed from the files. Published material was retained only if authored by Sawyer, annotated, inscribed or otherwise personalized. Copies of journal articles or other publications without archival value to the fonds were removed.

General note

The term “Indian” is now outdated and is considered by many Indigenous Peoples to be offensive. However, it is retained in some places in this inventory as part of a proper organizational name or a publication title.

General note

The terms "Peruvian" and "Andean" are both used to refer to the Sawyer fonds' South American portion. Each instance correlates to the term used in that particular case. "Northwest Coast" (or variations thereof) may refer to the northwest coast of either Peru or North America.

Physical description

Includes ca. 46,860 photographs, ca. 72 maps, ca. 100 drawings, 14 audiovisual recordings (reel-to-reel) and 5 Super 8mm films.

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