Biographical / Historical
Grace Nicholson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 31, 1877. She moved to California following her parents and grandparents death, in 1901 and was soon purchasing Native American baskets and other artifacts in association with Carrol S. Hartman, an old family friend from the East. Traveling north through California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and south and east through Arizona and New Mexico, she collected, not only for herself, but also for such institutions as the Smithsonian, the Field Columbian Museum of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania Department of Archeology and later the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. Nicholson kept extensive diaries and notes on her buying trips through Native American territory, especially of the Karok, Klamath, and Pomo Indians. Her subjects included Native American legends, folklore, vocabulary, tribal festivals, basket making, the art trade, and living conditions. Native American artists with whom Nicholson established long-term business and personal connections included Pomo basket weaver Mary Benson (1878-1930) and her husband William Benson (1862-1937), as well as Elizabeth Hickox (1875-1947) of the Karuk tribe. By August of 1902 she was establishing a shop and studio at 41-143 Raymond Ave., Pasadena and she regularly paid higher prices than competitive buyers, thereby obtaining the finest pieces.
In 1909 Grace Nicholson was awarded a silver medal for her ethnological collection exhibited at the Alaska-Yukon- Pacific Exposition in Seattle. In 1924, Nicholson designed and opened a new building for her collections nicknamed the "Treasure House" where she also handled the work of a number of the outstanding artists among them, Joseph H. Sharp and Grace Carpenter Hudson. Throughout her collecting career, Nicholson maintained a correspondence with George Heye selling and donating collections to the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation from 1916 until her death in 1948.
Following Nicholson's death, her Native American Indian art collection was left to her assistants Thyra Maxwell and Estelle Bynum who became the executors of her estate. Her 12,000-item Asian art collection was auctioned by the Curtis Gallery in November 1950 and purchased by Los Angeles businessman Edker Pope. In 1968, Maxwell donated Nicholson's papers and photographs to The Huntington Library and sold Nicholson's collection of baskets made by the Bensons, as well as a large collection of correspondence and myths from William Benson, to the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, of New York City (now the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution).