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American Museum of Natural History, Expedition to China correspondence

Identifier: Mss .E973

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of 16 folders of material, primarily typewritten correspondence (some carbon copies), relating to the planning, organization and progress of the Expedition to China. The majority of the letters are between Laufer and Franz Boas (a famed anthropologist who had formerly worked at AMNH and at the time was running the anthropology PhD. program at Columbia University), with Laufer supplying regular reports on his work to Boas, who disseminated and coordinated the information among others: particularly Morris K. Jesup, the chairman of the Committee on Collections from Eastern Asia; and Jacob H. Schiff, who financed the expedition. Laufer and Boas also discussed the interpretation and presentation of the artifacts in Laufer's collections, with Boas providing editorial and critical comments for the proposed publication of the results. Anthropologist Clark Wissler is among the other correspondents.


  • 1900-1904
  • Majority of material found within 1901-1904



Please contact Special Collections; materials are sometimes restricted.

Historical Note

The American Museum of Natural History's 1901-1904 Expedition to China was one of the first American attempts to study the history and culture of a literate, technologically sophisticated civilization. Led by Berthold Laufer, the expedition was intended to be a holistic anthropological study, documenting the industrial and social life of the Chinese people. Laufer's work encompassed ethnology, archaeology and physical anthropology; his collections included books, paintings, inscriptions, bas-reliefs, bronzes, pottery, metal mirrors, theater puppets, and musical transcriptions.

Biographical Note

Berthold Laufer was born on October 11, 1874 in Cologne, Germany. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig in Asian languages in 1897; his dissertation was on Tibetan text. His interest in East Asia led him to study at least ten different languages.

In May of 1897, Franz Boas of the American Museum offered Laufer a position on the Museum's Jesup North Pacific Expedition staff. The Jesup Expedition was organized by the Museum to determine the relationship between the peoples of Asia and North America. Teams of archaeologists and ethnologists were sent to both sides of the Pacific for the study. Laufer was hired to lead the team working in the area of the Amur River and on Sakhalin Island in Siberia.

He arrived on Sakhalin Island in July of 1898 and remained there through the winter of 1899. While in Siberia, Laufer studied the Gilyak, Tungus (Evenki) and the Ainu. In March 1899, Laufer moved inland to Khabarovsk on the Amur River to study the Goldi (Nanai). Laufer was particularly intrigued by the art of the Goldi and their neighbors and made an excellent collection for the Museum. In total, Laufer collected over 1300 objects for the Museum while in Siberia and Japan. Upon his return, Laufer completed his only publication relating to the Jesup Expedition on the art of the Amur tribes.

After the Jesup Expedition, Laufer quickly returned to the Far East to lead the Jacob H. Schiff Expedition to China from 1901 to 1904. Jacob Schiff (1847-1920) was a wealthy banker and the leader of the American Jewish community from 1880 to 1920. Laufer's goal for the expedition was a holistic one - to study the history and culture of the Chinese people. Laufer collected over 7500 objects for the Museum as part of the expedition, roughly half of the Museum's total Chinese collections today.

In 1908, Laufer left New York and the American Museum to take up the position of curator of Asian Anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where he would spend the rest of his scholarly career. While at the Field Museum he undertook two more trips to the Far East; in 1908-1910 to Tibet and China as leader of the Blackstone Expedition and in 1923, again to China, on the Marshall Field Expedition.

In his lifetime, Laufer authored over two hundred works on topics ranging from philology to art and archaeology. He died in Chicago on September 13, 1934.


Stanley A. Freed, Ruth S. Freed, and Laila Williamson, "Capitalist Philanthropy and Russian Revolutionaries: The Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897-1902)," American Anthropologist 90 (1988): 7-24.

Laurel Kendall, Barbara Mathe, and Thomas Ross Miller, Drawing Shadows to Stone: Tee Photography of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, 1897-1902 (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1997).

Laurel Kendall, "Young Laufer on the Amur," in Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska, eds. William W. Fitzhugh and Aron Crowell (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988).

Christopher Winters, ed., International Dictionary of Anthropologists (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991).


"The Decorative Arts of the Amur Tribes," Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History 7 (1902). Chinese Pottery of the Hand Dynasty (Leiden: E.J. Brill, ltd., 1909).

Jade: A study in Chinese archaeology and religion (Chicago: Field museum of Natural History, 1912).

"The development of ancestral images in China," Journal of Religious Psychology 6 (April 1913): 111-123.

"Origin of Tibetan writing" Journal of the American Oriental Society38 (1918): 34-46

Ivory in China (Chicago: Field museum of Natural History, 1925).

(Sourced from the Anthropology Department:


0.5 Linear Feet (1 box)

Language of Materials



The order of the folders, as well as the papers within the folders, remains unchanged. Some papers, namely hand-drawn maps and fragile letters, have been placed in mylar sleeves for safer handling due to their fragility relative to the rest of the collection.


Decent condition; materials are in good shape with no visible water damage. A few fragile items have been placed in Mylar sheets for their protection.

Related Materials

AMNH Library Special Collections has China field photographs (89 albumen prints, 9 silver copy prints), PPC.L381.

AMNH Library has: List of books obtained for the Committee on Collections from Eastern Asia, located in RBC LC-1-A; and Chinese pottery of the Han dynasty, located in RBC 44-A.

The Anthropology Department at AMNH has a large number of Laufer’s papers in its archives, as well as the artifacts he brought back from the expedition. Many of the artifacts are digitized and can be seen here:

The Anthropology Department has also digitized the unpublished guide to the exhibition of Laufer’s artifacts, with notations by Laufer himself:

Physical Description

16 folders containing correspondence, shipping notifications, bills of lading, monetary information, and other papers regarding the Jacob H. Schiff-funded expedition to China between the years of 1900-1904 led by Berthold Laufer.


American Museum of Natural History, Expedition to China correspondence, 1900-1904 (bulk 1901-1904)
Language of description
Script of description
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Language of description note
The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation provided support to make this finding aid available in ArchivesSpace (2016-2017). Finding aid created with support from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Hidden Collections grant, 2012.
Edition statement
Information for this finding aid expanded on the original catalog record written by Ann Herendeen, 2004.

Repository Details

Part of the Museum Archives at the Gottesman Research Library Repository

American Museum of Natural History
200 Central Park West
New York NY 10024 USA
(212) 769-5420