Frederick Walter Davis was born in Gilman, Illinois in April 1878, eight years prior to Edward Weston’s birth in Highland Park, Illinois in March 1886. (1) Notably, these two men were born approximately one-hundred miles from each but would meet for the first time, years later, in post-revolution Mexico City.

According to various documents, Davis spent his entire childhood in the burg of Gilman, about ninety miles southwest of Chicago. He was the youngest of eleven children, and during his adolescence he seems to have developed a fascination with train travel, probably due to the two railroad lines that intersected in Gilman. At the same time, it would have been hard for Davis not to be aware of the struggles of labor movements erupting in Chicago, memorialized by Upton Sinclair in 1906. Like the cardinal points on a compass, the tracks stretched due east, west, north, and south, and when it came time for Davis to jettison his small-town life, with all its tribulations and prejudices, he chose to head south at the age of 19. (2)

Not surprisingly, his first job was on a train – selling newspapers, candy, guidebooks, maps, and souvenirs to rail passengers. As an employee of the Sonora News Company (recently founded by an American based in Mexico), Davis’s “hawking” route was the Southern Pacific Railway line that connected Nogales, Arizona, to Guadalajara, Mexico.(3) In 1899, at the age of twenty-one,(4) Davis relocated to Mexico City where he continued working for the fast-growing firm, now headquartered in an elegant, six-story building at Calle de Gante 4 in the heart of the bustling city. The large Sonora News Company store, which occupied the building’s ground floor, specialized in offering a wide array of merchandise to the tourist trade, and Davis made himself at home in rooms above the store. According to period advertisements, visitors could buy “linens with hand-drawn threadwork, colorful serapes, carved leather, feather cards, opals, filigree, guidebooks, carved canes, fans, souvenir spoons, mantillas, and rebozos.” For more prosperous travelers, there were “Old Master paintings; bronze, marble, and ivory objects; fine porcelain and crystal ware; jewels and medallions; Empire and Spanish furniture; tapestries, rugs, embroideries, shawls, and vestments; Toltec, Aztec, and Tarascan relics; and prints, books, and engravings.”(5)

Realizing there was an ever-increasing demand for items superior to the usual tourist fare, Davis traveled throughout Mexico in search of talented regional artisans who were creating unique crafts of the highest caliber. His business acumen and genuine interest in Mexican culture and craftsmanship led to his rapid rise through the ranks of the Sonora News Company, and when the firm began opening additional retail shops in various locations, he was appointed treasurer. By the time he met Edward Weston in 1924, he was also managing the store’s clothing department, as well as a shop dedicated to Mexican paintings and crafts located in the historic Hotel Iturbide at Madero 17. Because of Davis’s efforts to locate and elevate the quality of these items, he was already well-known for his expertise and sagacity, so it was not unusual for American and European visitors to seek him out with questions about the authenticity, quality, rarity, and monetary value of objects they wished to acquire. Soon his clientele included multimillionaires Edward Doheny, Nelson Rockefeller and William Randolph Hearst, who often made purchases from Davis while their chauffeur-driven cars waited on the street.(6)

Fred Davis would continue collecting and promoting the artists and crafts of Mexico for the rest of his life. Around 1927 he hired Weston’s friend, Austrian-born Rene d’Harnoncourt, as his assistant, and for the next six years they would travel throughout Mexico on buying trips. Rene d’Harnoncourt would help Davis acquire and sell art objects, as well as organize displays in the Sonora News Company’s showrooms and assemble traveling exhibitions of Mexican paintings and crafts.(7) (This business relationship was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and a remarkable career for d’Harnoncourt, who would later become director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.) Another of Davis’s friends was former architect from Tulane, William Spratling, whose innovative jewelry designs were made into silver jewelry by artisans in nearby Taxco. Prior to Spratling’s revitalization of the Taxco silver trade, in the mid 1920’s much of the silver jewelry sold in Mexico was imported from Genoa, Italy. Recognizing another career opportunity for talented Mexican craftsmen, Davis began designing his own line of jewelry, training and employing local silversmiths. Often his designs featured cabochon amethysts, turquoise, and obsidian – all natural materials found in Mexico.(8)

Eventually Davis took over the management of the entire group of Sonora News Company stores, but around 1934 he left to join Sanborns, another retail operation founded in 1903 by two brothers from San Francisco.(9) This sudden departure and change of employers gave Davis the freedom to open a shop under his own name and devote all his time and attention to Mexican paintings, antiquities, and crafts for the next dozen years. Frederick Davis also used this time to purchase and renovate residences in Cuernavaca, which had survived destruction during the Revolution. All the while, he never lost his desire to continue acquiring the best examples of Mexican paintings and crafts (soon to be known as “folk art”) to fill his home. Distinguished visitors often visited the Davis home on Calle Amazonas for breakfast parties in his garden. The Davis guestbooks survive as a testament to wide variety of notable visitors, including private collectors and museum curators, entertainers, artists, authors, politicians, and academics – all who enjoyed his hospitality.(10) Davis leveraged his circle of friends into business collaborations with the most famous Mexican artists of the day, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jose Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, Miguel and Rosa Covarrubias, and other ex-pats such as Jean Charlot, George Biddle and Caroline Durieaux. Political pilgrim and artist Tina Modotti maintained a warm friendship with Davis, and along with Weston, found their way to Cuernavaca and Davis’s circle of friends until Modotti’s 1930 abrupt deportation for political reasons.(11)

In a major move, Sanborns was sold to Walgreen’s in 1946,(12) and Davis saw this event as an opportunity to retire at the age of sixty-eight. In 1951, Davis was instrumental in founding the Museo Nacional de Artes e Industrials Populares, a museum of Mexican folk art and antiquities located in the former Corpus Christi Church on Avenida Juarez opposite the Alameda.(13) After overseeing the early years of the fledgling museum, which presumably included numerous objects from his own collection, Davis’s friend Dr. Daniel Rubin de la Borbolla, a former director of Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Antropologia, took over that responsibility.(14) As the years passed, Davis became concerned about the fate of his collection, and he began looking for a way to preserve it for posterity. On August 12, 1957, the Latin American/English edition of Time magazine reported that the Mexican government had agreed to buy a large portion of Davis’s collection, with “the exception of his books, paintings by Orozco and Siqueiros and other contemporary art,” which Davis wanted to keep. According to the Time article, government experts were in the process of “tabulating each item to fix a price (estimated total: $40,000),”(15) and a new addition to the Museo Nacional de Artes e Industrials Populares would be built to house the collection. In September an article in Mexico/This Month made the official announcement: “The finest collection of Mexican folk art in existence has just found a permanent – and logical – home in the National Museum of Popular Arts. This is the famous Fred Davis collection, consisting of superb examples of some three hundred years of craftsmanship, carefully chosen through a lifetime of devoted study of the crafts.”(16)
The solution to Davis’s problem came at the right time because soon after he entered his eighth decade his health began to decline precipitously. In March 1960 a letter from Robert Charles Hill, then serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, conveyed his dismay upon learning that Fred Davis was unwell. Hill took this opportunity to express his appreciation that Davis’s extensive collection was now owned by the Mexican government.(17) In Ambassador Hill’s note, he especially lauded the exemplary role Davis had played as a representative of the United States:

Dear Fred; I have learned that you have not been well and I am sincerely sorry to hear this. We need you and your invaluable support in the daily job of propagating understanding and good relations between the United States and Mexico.

No one has done more for this great objective than you and I can attest from my experience during the past three years in Mexico to the fact that literally hundreds of cognizant people have spoken to me and to other Embassy officers in appreciation of your work and influence toward reviving the lost arts that made up the ancient cultures of this fascinating land.
The “Museo de Arte Popular” is striking testimony to your great contribution and there could be no finer gesture on the part of a citizen of the U.S.A. than through the gift to the Mexican government of your priceless collection of ecclesiastical vestments, artefacts and other examples of the early culture of Mexico.

I have often said that the most effective Ambassador of the U.S.A. is the American citizen abroad who so lives as to demand the regard and respect of the country in which he is a guest. You have fulfilled this role in a magnificent way. Mexico and its people have reason to and do possess deep regard, respect, and more – affection for you, and I might say further that your own country as well has reason to be most grateful to you.(18)

Fred Davis died of heart failure on March 7, 1961, just one month shy of his eighty-third birthday(19) and a little more than three years after Edward Weston’s demise from Parkinson’s disease on January 1, 1958.

About five years after Davis’s death, much of what remained in his estate (including eight of the photographs he had acquired from Weston) was carefully inventoried by his family, put into storage boxes and exported to California where they would remain, unseen, until 2023.

Today, we commonly place Fred Davis among his contemporaries as a silver designer, but he was so much more than that. Arguably the Davis’s legacy was as a collector of people: politicians, tradesmen, writers, mural painters, commoners, revolutionaries and government officials alike – and with these relationships he became a cultural ambassador who championed the revival of pre-Hispanic imagery and was a major force in elevating the creativity and quality of folk art in Mexico.


(1) See Frederick Walter Davis, November 3, 1917, U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration.
(2) Within the Davis family, it was generally believed that Fred Davis, who was homosexual, left for Mexico because of the prejudices he had encountered in his hometown.
(3) See Frederick Walter Davis, Certificate of Registration of American Citizen, June 18, 1912, U.S. Consular Registration Certificates, 1907-1918.
(4) “The Art Collector,” Time (Latin American/English edition), August 12, 1957, 28, MS 3009, Time Inc. Archive, The New-York Historical Society Library, New York, NY.
(5) See advertisement for Sonora News Company, circa 1910, online at
(6) “The Art Collector,” Time, 28.
(7) The most important of these traveling exhibitions curated by Rene d’Harnoncourt was The Loan Exhibition of Mexican Arts that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in November 1930. See “Fred Davis’s Shop, circa 1925-1957,” Box 2, Folder 19, Page 1, Series 4: Printed Material 1921-1979, Rene d’Harnoncourt papers, 1921-1983, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
(8) See “O Tempora, O Mores! The old Latin reflection upon changing times….,” excerpt, The News [Mexico City], March 1, 1959, 10-A; April 9, 1961, 10-A, Frederick Walter Davis papers, John Moran Auctioneers, Monrovia, CA.
(9) “Fred Davis’s Shop,” 1.
(10) Among the dozens of visitors who signed Davis’s Cuernavaca guestbook during the late 1920s/early 1930s were singer Marian Anderson, artist Jacqueline Lamba Breton, artist Jean Charlot, author John Dos Passos, British parliamentarian Winston Churchill, museum curator Henry Clifford, novelist Edna Ferber, artist Marsden Hartley, author Aldous Huxley, artist Frida Kahlo, writer Katherine Anne Porter, artist Diego Rivera, classical guitarist Andrés Segovia, artist Rufino Tamayo, and publisher Frances Toor.
(11) Albers, Shadows, Fire, Snow, 233.
(12) “Walgreen’s Goes South,” Time, June 24, 1946,
(13) See “The finest collection of Mexican folk art in existence….,” Mexico This Month III, no. 9 (1957): 23, 27, Frederick Walter Davis papers, John Moran Auctioneers, Monrovia, CA; Daniel F. Rubin de la Borbolla, “The National Museum of Folk Art and Industry, Mexico, D.F.,” Museum 15, no. 1 (1962): 38-49,; Francisco Morales V., “Una colección histórica,” Reforma, January 12, 2022, Citations courtesy of Dr. Beatrice Oshika.
(14) Dr. Rubin de la Borbolla [1903-1990] was a highly respected archeologist, anthropologist, and humanist whose chief interest was protecting the legacy of the indigenous people of Mexico. See “The finest collection of Mexican folk art in existence….,” Mexico This Month.
(15) “The Art Collector,” Time, 28.
(16) “The finest collection of Mexican folk art in existence….,” Mexico This Month.
(17) It is not entirely clear what the final arrangements concerning Davis’s collection were. Although some sources indicate that the Mexican government paid him for the collection, other sources, e.g. Ambassador Hill’s letter, strongly suggest that he donated his collection to the government. Of course, it is possible that portions of Davis’s collection were purchased, while other portions were donated. In any case, when the Museo Nacional de Artes e Industrials Populares closed its doors in 1998, the contents of the museum, including Davis’s folk art and antiquities, became the property of the Acervo de Arte Indigena (Indigenous Art Collection), a branch of the Mexican government that loans portions of its vast holdings to a network of indigenous art museums throughout Mexico. See Morales V., “Una colección histórica.” Citation courtesy of Dr. Beatrice Oshika.
(18) Robert C. Hill to Fred Davis, March 9, 1960, Frederick Walter Davis papers, John Moran Auctioneers, Monrovia, CA.
(19) See Frederick Walter Davis, died March 7, 1961, “Report of the Death of an American Citizen,” June 16, 1961, Department of State, Foreign Service, United States of America; “In Memoriam,” The News [Mexico City], April 9, 1961, 10-A.