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John Henry Merryman: Art Law Pioneer and Much-Loved Colleague

John Merryman

John Merryman sits in front of a Michael S. Moore painting called “Rivers of Jewels.” Photo by Steve Gladfelter.

This blog was written by Sharon Driscoll, editor of Stanford Lawyer magazine.

It’s often said that the faculty makes a school. In the case of John Henry Merryman, one individual’s influence on Stanford went well beyond the classroom and the launch of a new field of law to the very art on the walls and sculptures on the grounds.

An internationally renowned expert on art and cultural property law as well as comparative law, Merryman dedicated his life to the study and teaching of law at Stanford, influencing generations of lawyers and art historians here and around the world from the time he joined the law faculty in 1953 until his death this week at the age of 95.

“John Merryman was a giant in several fields — comparative law and the field he helped create, art and the law,” said M. Elizabeth Magill, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and dean of Stanford Law School. “He was a devoted teacher and mentor to his students. He taught his last class, “Stolen Art,” only a couple months ago, and helped launch the careers of many of our graduates who work at the intersection of the arts and the law.”

Merryman, the Nelson Bowman Sweitzer and Marie B. Sweitzer Professor of Law, Emeritus, and Affiliated Professor in the Department of Art, Emeritus, died on Aug. 3, 2015, at the age of 95 of natural causes at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. His family will hold a memorial service for him on Monday, Sept. 21, at 3 p.m. at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus.  Donations in his memory may be made to the Cantor Arts Center.

Pioneering the Study of Art Law

“In 1970 no one spoke of art law as a field for serious study or even as a subject for teaching. That art law is today recognized internationally as being essential to every country interested in protecting its cultural patrimony, by every American art museum as vital to the proper conduct of its trustees and by all artists as protecting their rights, is due in large measure to the publications and teachings of John Henry Merryman,” wrote the late art historian and Stanford Professor Albert Elsen in a 1987 Stanford Law Review tribute to Merryman, “Founding the Field of Art Law.”

Merryman introduced the idea for the new course “Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts,” in 1970 to a somewhat skeptical law faculty. Merryman taught the course in 1971, the first of its kind. Elsen collaborated and co-taught with Merryman — the two delving into questions of tax, copyright, contracts, regulation, cultural property, ethics and more — creating a syllabus for the nascent field of study and publishing the groundbreaking book Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts, now in its fourth edition.

Before that, Merryman was a comparative law scholar of international standing.

“His great book on The Civil Law Tradition caused a fundamental rethinking of comparative law and subsequent scholarship — and courses based on that scholarship — were powerfully strengthened as a result,” said Thomas Ehrlich, dean of Stanford Law School from 1971 until 1976.  “John’s many works relating to art and cultural property, as well as his multiple courses in that arena, were no less groundbreaking. He deployed his strengths in comparative law to produce penetrating analyses on the ownership of antiquities, as well as on art and the law more generally. Students from across the Stanford campus and beyond flocked to John’s classes. John was one-of-a-kind, as colleague and as dear friend.”

John Merryman in front of art

John Merryman stands before  a painting by Dennis Ashbaugh titled “To Russia With Hate.”

Merryman was truly an international scholar who was both a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fulbright Research Professor at the Max Planck Institute. His expertise in comparative law and art law led to visiting positions at universities in Mexico, Greece, Italy, Germany and Austria. He was president of the International Cultural Property Society and on the editorial board for various publications, including the International Journal of Cultural Property and the American Journal of Comparative Law.

Widespread Recognition

He received numerous international prizes and honors over the course of his career, including the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic and honorary doctorates from Aix-en-Provence, Rome (Tor Vergata), and Trieste, and was celebrated in two Festschriften: “Comparative and Private International Law: Essays in Honor of John Henry Merryman on His Seventieth Birthday” and “Legal Culture in the Age of Globalization: Latin America and Latin Europe.”

In 2004 he received the American Society of Comparative Law’s Lifetime Achievement Award “for his extraordinary scholarly contribution over a lifetime to comparative law in the United States.”

“John was for all of us a model of civility and old-world charm.  He bore with unfailing grace the mounting burdens of age, continuing to write and teach deep into his retirement,” said George Fisher, the Judge John Crown Professor of Law and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Prosecution Clinic. “And he never lost his generous interest in the work of his friends and colleagues.  He was a scholar for the ages.”

“He was a truly innovative scholar, ahead of his time throughout his long career,” said Lawrence M. Friedman, the Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law.

“John Merryman virtually invented the field of Art Law and, together with his art history colleague Albert Elsen, he quickly brought the field to a level of excellence that few pioneer projects ever enjoy,” recalled Paul Goldstein, the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law.

Merryman’s expertise in and enthusiasm for art benefited Stanford beyond the reach of his scholarship. In the 1970s, when the law school was building its “new” campus, he chaired the design committee.

“When the law school moved from the Quad to its new home in 1975, John undertook to use his art expertise to persuade some of the best graphic printmakers to lend major works of art to the Law School where they became the best art collection at Stanford apart from the Museum,” recalled Ehrlich. “He identified a stunning Barbara Hepworth sculpture [titled “Four Square (Walk Through)”] to borrow as the centerpiece of the school’s courtyard, and when the loan was up he arranged a gift of the elegant Calder sculpture that replaced it (titled “Le Faucon”).  In honor of his many contributions to art, a good friend and admirer gave Stanford one of the largest and most handsome sculptures on the campus, created by Mark  di Suvero.”

The di Suvero  sculpture, “The Sieve of Eratosthenes,” was, according to a Stanford press release from March 2000, donated to Stanford by Daniel Shapiro and Agnes Gund, who wished to honor Merryman “by thanking him for all he has done for us and everyone interested in art by giving a gift in his honor to Stanford of a work of an artist that John thought was sorely missing on campus. And so now, because of John, there is Mark di Suvero’s ‘The Sieve of Eratosthenes,’ the work of a great artist to celebrate a great teacher and friend of art.”

Early Enthusiasm for Music and the Arts

Born in Portland, Ore., on Feb. 24, 1920, Merryman studied chemistry at the University of Portland and received a B.S. in chemistry in 1943. He continued his study of chemistry, receiving an M.S. from the University of Notre Dame in 1944, but then switched to law. He received a J.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1947. NYU School of Law provided him with a teaching fellowship and the opportunity to continue his legal studies and he received his LLM in 1950 and JSD in 1955. He taught law at Santa Clara University (then called the University of Santa Clara) and joined the Stanford Law faculty in 1953.

Merryman also was a professional, card-carrying musician, financing his early education by playing piano in a dance band he formed called John Merryman and His Merry Men. He continued to play piano throughout his life, sharing his enthusiasm for music and the arts at Stanford.

“John and his wonderful late wife, Nancy, were friends of my wife Ellen and me for over 50 years, since we first came to Stanford in 1965, as they were friends of countless others — literally from around the world,” recalled Ehrlich. “John had a joyful spirit that illuminated not just every conversation of which he was a part, but every room where he was present. He was a wonderful piano player of Broadway show hits, jazz and much more. John was a learner, and he was able to share his learning with his friends with such a twinkle in his eye that you quite forgot that he was really teaching you and helping along while telling riotously funny tales.”

That early enthusiasm barely dimmed in retirement, as he continued to publish — and to teach. “Stolen Art,” which he taught in fall 2014, was a new course he had recently developed, likely the first of its kind.

“Some years ago I had the pleasure of ‘taking’ John’s oral history. I was struck by the satisfying life revealed in his reminiscences, full of intellectual challenge and warm communal interchange,” said Barbara Allen Babcock, the Judge John Crown Professor of Law, Emerita. “He was an inspiration.”

Treasured Colleague

While his scholarship was international, it was perhaps most keenly felt at Stanford.

“In my 30 years as a faculty member at this remarkable place, John Merryman was clearly one of the most remarkable of my colleagues,” recalled Henry “Hank” T. Greely, the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law. “Hired here as the law librarian, he managed not one but two spectacular scholarly careers, the first as one of the leading comparative law scholars in the world and then later as one of the world’s very top  ‘art and the law’ scholars. His civil law work led to him being named an Italian knight — un Cavaliero della Republica Italiana. Which brings to mind an even more important point about John. He was always a gentleman:  gracious, helpful, self-deprecating.  I would say that they aren’t making them like John Merryman anymore, but they (almost) never did.  He was a great scholar, a wonderful colleague and a very good person.  I miss him.”

“John was a treasured colleague.  We all sought his advice on a range of subjects because of his incisive mind, his wit and his insight.  The world is a less interesting and elegant place without John,” said Magill. “We all mourn the passing of this wonderful man, who was a class act in every respect.”

Merryman is survived by three step-children, Leonard P. Edwards, Samuel D. Edwards and Bruce H. Edwards; four step-grandchildren; and five great step-grandchildren. His wife, Nancy Edwards Merryman (BA ’70), passed away in January 2013.

Read the San Francisco Chronicle’s tribune to John Merryman.

11 Responses to “John Henry Merryman: Art Law Pioneer and Much-Loved Colleague”

  1. Jeff Yurtin says:

    What a wonderful man and a full life. Wish I could have met him. Surprised there are not more comments.

  2. SLS Alum says:

    Art and the Law was my favorite law school class, and Professor Merryman was a wonderful professor. Rest in peace, professor.

  3. Dede Donovan says:

    John Merryman’s slim volume, The Civil Law Tradition, still is a global must-read for lawyers from common law nations around the world. It transformed the structure and content of the field of Comparative Law and formed the basis for most Comparative Law courses taught in U.S. law schools in the last thirty years of the 20th Century. It is likely one of the most influential books ever written on global legal systems.

  4. Mona Duggan, Deputy Director Emerita, Cantor Arts Center says:

    John Merryman was a wonderful friend to the Stanford Museum (now the Cantor Arts Center). With Albert Elsen and two volunteers, he founded and led for many years the museum’s Contemporary Collectors Circle, which is still thriving today. He also was generous with gifts of art. He truly was a respected figure at the museum, where he maintained a membership for many years. John also chaired the President’s Committee on Outdoor Art and was responsible for bringing to Stanford many of the important works that enrich the campus to this day. It was an honor to have him affiliated so closely with the museum and the arts at Stanford.

  5. Steve Berke says:

    I was fortunate enough to take the first offered class of Art and the Law, when John was still developing it with his extraordinary colleague Albert Elsen. It was even then a wonderful class, on both art and law. I always thought of them as being like a sports announcing team – John was the play by play, and Elsen the color guy. I also had the privilege and pleasure of being their teaching assistant the next year, and taking John’s comparative law class. In Art and the Law we had a field trip to the Andersons’ house and were able to see what their amazing collection looked like back then. I emailed John about that, and over the years about other things in the news that related to topics of Art and the Law (e.g., Elgin Marbles; is viewing an original art work better than a copy if you cannot tell the difference), and John was always responsive and welcoming. He was also generous enough to invite me to join his tour of the outdoor art at Stanford, and to do another one for us when some friends of mine wanted to take the tour after I told then how wonderful it was. He also offered to tour the Anderson Collection with me. As so well described above by his colleagues, John was always a gentleman and a scholar, and I will certainly miss him.

  6. Adrian Roscher JD '84 says:

    I had the privilege of being one of Professors Merryman and Elsen’s Art and the Law students in ’83-’84 and it was such a great course – the kind that made (and still makes) Stanford Law so special. I didn’t expect to see him at our 30th reunion last fall, but when my wife and I went to explore the Anderson Collection, there he was, in a wheel chair, but completely engaged in some very earnest discussion. I waited patiently for a lull just to say hello and thank him. I’m so glad I had that opportunity. RIP Professor Merryman.

  7. David A. Gantz says:

    John was a teacher, friend and mentor of mine for almost 50 years. In the 1960s he, along with Carl Spaeth and Thomas Ehrlich, made the Stanford Law faculty one of the strongest in international law in the nation. His energy and resourcefulness, and the quality and breadth of his scholarship, always amazed me as someone who unlike John came relatively late in life to law teaching. Even in his nineties John was still designing and teaching new courses. Having discussed the legal issues with him at length on several occasions, I suspect that one of the many sources of satisfaction for John during his long life was that the Elgin Marbles have remained in the British Museum! Stanford Law has lost on of its true giants.
    David A. Gantz, JD, ’67

  8. Maggie Hoag says:

    Never would have I become the art lawyer that I am without his mentoring and friendship. Thank you, JHM. Xo, Maggie Hoag JD ’05, Sr Counsel, Christie’s

  9. Beth Markham Nicholson says:

    Phil and I both regret never taking a course with Professor Merryman. However, we can remember him clearly even now, some 45 years later. He had a unique energy and warmth that made you wish you could sit down and chat. We envy those who did just that!

  10. Miriam Siekevitz says:

    I took Professor Merryman’s Art and the Law class in 1999 and was his teaching assistant the following year – one of the best experiences I had at Stanford. Prof Merryman invited his friends (artists, collectors, museum curators and directors) to lecture to the class and invited them to dinner in thanks. As his awed assistant I was invited as well, learning about Pinot Noir and how broad and far-reaching life could be, especially if one possessed the generosity of spirit and curiosity that he did. That was the year the Mark di Suvero arrived and he took us all to see it – He hinted that it was his interest that made the difference in its arrival, but never said that it was in his honor. He was kind on so many levels, from letting me use his office for a five-hour take-home final, when I lived too far away to go home, to thanking me for some very small (negligible) contributions on two publications. I am so glad he was still teaching so recently, both for him and his students. I raise a glass (of Pinot of course) to his long and beautiful life.

    Miriam Siekevitz JD, ‘2000

  11. Marc Weber says:

    I took his class in 2005 as a LL.M. student of UC Berkeley, Boalt Hall. Once I week I drove to SLS and with pride I was sitting in the class room. I got to know him much earlier, i.e., at a congress in Venice in 1999. I visited him in 2013 at SLS. Today, my most recent article was published (Legal Protection of Archaeological Objects, in: Mayor/Negri/Huysecom (eds.), African Memory in Danger – Memoire Africaine En Peril, Africa Magna 2015 (Journal of African Archaeology Monographs, Vol. 11), 85-94) which I dedicated to John’s 95th birthday. I never told him about this dedication because I wanted to surprise him. Last June, he congratulated me to my son’s birth. He was a Grandseigneur, a wonderful teacher and a respectful scientist. He will be unforgotten.

    Marc Weber, LL.M. 2005 (UC Berkeley), Zurich, Switzerland

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