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Columbia Economics Ph.D. alumnus. John M. Montias, 1958

The history of economics would be duller fare should we fail to add a portion of ancestor worship as seasoning. Since my motto is “Economists are not born but they are made” and that for well over a century economists have been made in graduate schools, I would be remiss in not using Economics in the Rear-View Mirror to erect shrines from time to time to those economists who trained me.

During the academic year 1973-74 while an undergraduate at Yale, I took a graduate course taught by John Michael Montias on comparative economic systems.  Having been born in Paris, he volunteered out of interest in the topic to be the second reader of my senior essay about French mercantilism and the Physiocrats. I recall him as a thoughtful scholar and a kind man. He was one of four professors (the others were Raymond Powell, Abram Bergson and Evsey Domar) who in different courses valiantly tried to teach me the lessons of Richard H. Moorsteen’s article “On Measuring Productive Potential and Relative Efficiency” Quarterly Journal of Economics (1961) 75 (3): 451-467. The teaching efforts of Montias et al. did ignite in me a long professional interest in the economic theory of index numbers though I do not recall them exactly cracking the code in class for us. Montias’ own ambition was less on the bean-counting side of empirical comparative economics as on the theoretical side in pursuit of a formal systematization of a “macro”-institutional economics. We began his course by reading his essay co-authored with Tjalling Koopmans published in Comparison of Economic Systems: Theoretical and Methodological Approaches, Alexander Eckstein (ed.), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. I believe we can all agree that economic outcomes depend jointly on the economic environment, economic system and economic policies within the system. I also believe that the last sentence reads no better when expressed in mathematical notation. 

John Michael Montias’ greatest hits in economics were to appear after I had moved on. He had a passion for Dutch and Flemish art that led to seminal contributions in the history of 17th century Dutch art markets. Tulip bubbles are cool, but I’d say Vermeer is hot.

P.S.  Fun Fact: The U.S. Embassy official in Hungary who had to deal with Montias’ expulsion from Hungary in the early 1960’s, Edward Alexander, was in charge of the Press and Culture department of the U.S. Embassy in East Berlin during my  seven month IREX stay in 1978. There I fell in love and became engaged to an economist at the Central Institute of Economics in the GDR Academy of Sciences. Until my East German fiancée (Kerstin Rüdiger) was allowed to leave East Germany at the end of 1979 (and perhaps afterwards too), Edward Alexander had to deal with any diplomatic fall-out from our case.



From the 1989 Survey of AEA Members

Montias, John M.

Fields: 050, 110
Birth Yr:
B.A., Columbia U., 1947; M.A., Columbia U., 1950; Ph.D., Columbia U., 1958
Prin. Cur. Position:
Prof. of Econs. Yale U., 1964
Concurrent/Past Positions:
Assoc. Prof., Yale U., 1963-64; Asst. Prof., Yale U., 1958-63.
 Economic systems

Source: American Economic Association. Biographical Listing of Members, American Economic Review, Vol. 79, No. 6, (Dec. 1989) p. 334.


New York Times obituary

John Montias, 76, Scholar of Economics and of Art, Is Dead

John Michael Montias, an economist who became one of the foremost scholars on the painter Johannes Vermeer and a pioneer in the economics of art, died on Tuesday at a hospice in Branford, Conn. He was 76 and lived in New Haven.

The cause was complications from melanoma, said his son, John-Luke Montias.

Part of the Annales school of economists and historians, Mr. Montias was among those who, in the early and mid-20th century, promoted a new form of history by replacing the examination of major leaders and events with the microstudy of ordinary people and occurrences.

Through the scrupulous analysis of common documents ranging from notes and letters to receipts and legal papers, Mr. Montias peeled back the layers in the life of Vermeer, one of his favorite artists — and one of the world’s most enigmatic. His work opened the door for a new genre of art history in which artists were analyzed in the context of their societal and economic surroundings and not merely their works.

“I think he was important for all of us,” said Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, the John Langeloth Loeb professor emeritus at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. “When he started this in the 1960’s and 70’s, there was no one who approached the history of art from that point of view. His work was pioneering — accurate, extremely convincing, with many novel insights. What was not considered to be relevant to the work of art in the past, we all have subsequently used.”

Mr. Montias’s research was a primary source for Tracy Chevalier’s 2000 novel “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” about Vermeer’s relationship with the model for his iconic work, and for the 2003 film adaptation.

Mr. Montias began teaching at Yale University in the late 50’s, where he specialized in the economic systems of the Soviet bloc during the 1960’s and 70’s and served as a consultant to high-ranking government officials. His analysis of the economies of Eastern European countries at times drew suspicion, perhaps never more so than during his visits to Czechoslovakia and Hungary from 1963 to 1965; he was shadowed and eventually expelled from Hungary on suspicion of espionage. But if his work was economics, his passion was art, particularly that of the 16th- and 17th-century Netherlands.

“I came to Vermeer ‘sideways,”‘ he said in a 2003 interview for the Essential Vermeer Web site (, explaining the genesis of his second career. Having won a summer grant in 1975 to write a comparative study of Dutch art guilds, he traveled to Delft, where he discovered that no in-depth study of a guild existed.

“In the course of this research, I realized that, contrary to my expectations, previous scholarship on Vermeer’s life had not exhausted the subject,” he said.

And so began his quest to uncover the life of one of the world’s most mysterious artists, with Mr. Montias unearthing and poring over 454 documents related to Vermeer and his family that lay, long undisturbed, in the archives of no fewer than 17 Dutch and Belgian cities.

In 1989 he published “Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History” (Princeton University Press), in which he revealed secrets of Vermeer’s life: that Vermeer’s grandfather was a convicted counterfeiter; that his grandmother ran illegal lotteries; and that the artist himself fathered 13 children and died at the age of 43, destitute.

Reviewing the book in The New York Times, the art critic John Russell wrote that Mr. Montias had previously “proved that there is a great deal more to art history than shuffling slides in a library.”

“His new book does not crack the code of Vermeer’s personality, let alone the code of his inner experience,” the review continued. “But as detective work, and as a portrait of an era, it ranks high.”

In fact, Mr. Montias’s midlife obsession had adolescent roots. Born on Oct. 3, 1928, in Paris, he was sent in 1940, alone and by ship, by his Jewish parents to the safety of the United States — and an Episcopalian baptism — just as the Germans were preparing to invade France. He boarded at the Nichols School in Buffalo, where as a 14-year-old volunteer in the small library of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, he came across Wilhelm Bode’s gilt-edged folio volume of Rembrandt and was immediately captivated.

Mr. Montias’s curiosity resurfaced in 1954 when, as a Ph.D. candidate in the economics department at Columbia University, he considered writing his dissertation on the prices of Dutch paintings at auction. He failed to get financial support for his project, perhaps thought frivolous during the cold war.

Things changed when Mr. Montias met Mr. Begemann in the mid-1960’s, when they were both at Yale. A specialist in Dutch and Flemish art, Mr. Begemann gave Mr. Montias his first lessons in connoisseurship, and soon after he began to study the genre’s history methodically. His first project in the field — the 1975 summer grant — required Mr. Montias, already a gifted linguist, not only to learn modern Dutch but also to read 17th-century manuscript sources in old Gothic script.

“He decided to attack the archives in Delft, knowing that they had been scoured for information on Vermeer,” recalled Otto Naumann, a Manhattan art dealer who studied under Mr. Montias. “With the confidence that only a true genius can posses, he decided that he could do better, without first learning Dutch.”

It took Mr. Montias one week to find an unpublished document that mentioned Vermeer and but another to decipher it, Mr. Naumann said.

Mr. Montias published three more books about the 17th-century Dutch art market: “Artists, Dealers, Consumers: On the Social World of Art” (Hilversum: Verloren, 1994); “Public and Private Spaces: Works of Art in 17th-Century Dutch Houses” (Zwolle, 2000), with John Loughman; and “Art at Auction in 17th-Century Amsterdam” (Amsterdam University Press, 2003).

In addition to his son, of Manhattan, he is survived by his wife, Marie, of New Haven, and his mother, Giselle de la Maisoneuve, of Paris.


Yale Bulletin & Calendar obituary

Yale Bulletin & Calendar. September 2, 2005. Vol. 34, Number 2.

John-Michael Montias, economist and expert on Vermeer

John-Michael Montias, one of the world’s foremost scholars on the life of 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer and professor emeritus of economics at Yale, died July 26 of complications from melanoma. He was 76.

Montias, who joined the Yale faculty in the late 1950s, was a specialist in the economic systems of the Soviet bloc. He researched the economies of many Eastern European countries during the 1960s and 1970s. During the Cold War, he served as a consultant to some of the highest officials of the U.S. government. His publications from that period include “Central Planning in Poland” and “The Structure of Economic Systems,” both published by the Yale University Press.

Although his academic work was in the field of economics, Montias’ passion was art, specifically 16th- and 17th-century Dutch painting. While on a fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Social Studies in 1978, he combined the two interests by writing a comparative study of Dutch art guilds during the 16th century, poring over 16th- and 17th-century archival records in the process of teaching himself gothic Dutch. The result was his 1982 book “Artists and Artisans in Delft, a Study of the 17th Century.”

During the course of his research, Montias was surprised to learn that the scholarship on one of his favorite artists, Vermeer, was far from exhausted. He began a quest to uncover the life of the artist, considered one of the most enigmatic and mysterious. In 1989 he published the critically acclaimed “Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History.” In this book, Montias traced the artist’s life through notary records, discovering that Vermeer’s grandfather was a convicted counterfeiter; that his grandmother ran illegal lotteries; and that the artist himself fathered 13 children and died at the age of 43, completely destitute. Today, it is estimated that there are only about 35 Vermeer paintings still in existence, and the most recent work sold at auction was purchased for $26 million in London last July.

Montias published three more books about the 17th-century Dutch art market: “Artists, Dealers and Consumers: The World of Social Art” (1994), “Public and Private Spaces: Works of Art in 17th-Century Dutch Houses” (2000) and “Art at Auction in 17th-Century Amsterdam” (2002).

Born Oct. 3, 1928 in Paris, France, Montias came to the United States when he was 12. At 16 he matriculated as an undergraduate at Columbia University. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to Columbia, earning both his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961.

Montias is survived by his wife, Marie, of New Haven; his mother, Giselle de la Maisoneuve, of Paris, France; and his son John-Luke, and his fiancé, Samantha, both of New York City.

The Yale economist was buried in Grove Street Cemetery.


Image Source: Montias as Guggenheim Fellow (1961) John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Detail from “Montias at the launching party at Amsterdam University Press of his book Art at auction in 17th-century Amsterdam, 10 September 2002 (Photo: Gary Schwartz)

Irwin Collier

Posted by: Irwin Collier

One thought on “Columbia Economics Ph.D. alumnus. John M. Montias, 1958

  1. Bud:
    None of this mentions that Mike was the founding editor of the Journal of Comparative Economics. A very lasting contribution!!

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