Berthold Laufer (1874-1934), curator of Asian Anthropology from 1908 to 1934, was a pioneer in the study of Asian cultures. With a doctorate in oriental languages from the University of Leipzig, Laufer was a sinologist who was fluent in more than a dozen languages, many of which were non Indo-European. Polymath and polyglot, his interests seemed unbounded and his linguistic skills unequaled.
Between 1908 and 1910 he traveled throughout China and Japan as part of the Blackstone Expedition. His second and last journey to China was in 1923 as part of the Captain Marshall Field Expedition. In these two collecting trips, Laufer acquired around 19,000 archaeological, historical, and ethnographic objects dating from between 6000 B.C. to A.D. 1890. Three-quarters of the current anthropology collections from China were collected by Laufer on these two expeditions. Well-known and often studied subcollections include some 7,500 rubbings, 400 stone and glass snuff bottles, 230 toggles, 130 rhinoceros horn cups, 500 puppets, 1,000 coins, 1,000 jade carvings, 1,500 folk embroideries, 30 early cast iron objects, 500 items of Daoist and Buddhist sculpture, 400 Han Dynasty ceramics, 230 pewter objects, and 300 pieces of equipment for pets, mostly pigeons and crickets.
Berthold Laufer’s extensive personal library and correspondence came to the Library by bequest and enriched many areas of the Library's holdings. His collection of over 7,000 volumes in Chinese includes imprints from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, and includes such rarities as a copy of the official Ming Dynasty gazetteer published in 1461. He was also responsible for assembling many of the linguistic texts in the library, many of which are unique and irreplaceable sources. Laufer's extensive working collections in Western languages include thousands of scarce imprints and ephemeral publications, and are especially rich in east European materials.
Holdings in the Archives are comprised of 49 document boxes, 10 manuscript boxes, 8 record boxes, 4 flat boxes, and 6 note card boxes of material (40 linear feet), containing letters, envelopes, pamphlets, photographs, drawings, clippings from periodicals, bound volumes, mounted material, plates and tickets. The vast majority of the collection consists of writings on various subjects, usually pertaining to Asian studies. The collection also consists of 5 boxes of correspondence from approximately 500 individuals, as well as publications, expedition material, photographs, music recordings, and indices that Laufer made. The earliest dated document is from 1898 and most recent document dates to 1934. The bulk of the material is from between 1908 and 1934.
Image above: Dr. Berthold Laufer holds a Chinese drinking cup carved from a rhinoceros horn, c.1924. © The Field Museum, CSA49114.