John Merryman

Born February 24th, 1920, Portland, Oregon; died August 3, 2015, Stanford, California

John Merryman's father was a sergeant based in England, who married his mother Bert and moved to Portland, Oregon, where John was born in 1020.  He grew up in Portland during the depression and entered the University of Portland as a chemistry student becausehe said chemists could get jobs.  He worked his way through college as a jazz pianist, playing at bars and strip joints. He formed his own band, "John Merryman and his Merry Men", and arranged to give the school half of what his band earned.

He earned a Master of Science at Notre Dame, then pursued a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Chicago, where he realized that he did not want to spend his life in a laboratory, and determined to take up the law. He went back to Notre Dame and taught chemistry and math while he studied in law school. Merryman accepted a teaching fellowship at NYU School of Law and took his LLM degree there at the same time.

John was offered his first California job at the University of Santa Clara, where he taught for five years and also played piano professionally – as often as five nights a week. At Santa Clara, John met and married Nancy Edwards – and was fired after the ceremony because Nancy was a divorcee and Merryman’s contract specified that he would not violate any tenet of Catholic doctrine. Merryman has described being fired by Santa Clara as the second best thing that ever happened to him, because it brought him to Stanford; the best was having married Nancy.

John and Nana honeymooned at Highlands Inn in Carmel.  When they were checking in, the manager remarked that it was too bad they were not newlyweds.  When they explained they were, the manager congratulated them, and told them because they were the 3,000th newlywed couple, their entire stay was free.  The Inn subsequently posted an announcement of the honeymoon in the local paper, which John objected to, for some reason.  The Inn responded with an apology, and offered a free stay the next year for them and their children.  The next year, we took them up on the offer.

The law school dean at Santa Clara encouraged Stanford to find a job for John. He taught legal writing at Stanford on a two-year contract, then became law librarian, where he developed a new classification system and wrote two books on library science. In 1960, John was asked to join the Stanford faculty and to take on the subject of comparative law. He was sent to Italy for a year to teach and to study the Italian legal system, and on his return, authored his first major book, The Civil Law Tradition: An Introduction to the Legal Systems of Western Europe and Latin America.

John's friendship with Stanford art history professor Albert E. Elsen led to an unusual joint-effort. They created a class that explored the intersection between art and the law, covering social, historical, ethical, and property issues and invited students from the law, business, and art departments to attend. Merryman and Elsen collaborated on a book that remains the seminal work in the field of art and the law, entitled Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts. It is not only the best but also the most thoughtful and readable book in the field of art and the law.

John's wife Nancy had become an accomplished dealer in art, and through her contacts and Elsen’s, John was able to bring significant works of art to Stanford. A major work by Mark di Suvero, The Sieve of Eratosthenes, standing outside of the Cantor Art Center, was dedicated in honor of his 80th birthday.

John Merryman was a towering figure, both nationally and internationally, in more than one field of law. The Civil Law Tradition gave new direction to the discipline of comparative law. He was the primary creator of the field of art and the law. His many books and countless papers on international cultural property continue to define the key ethical, philosophical, and practical issues for a global audience.

Throughout his life, Merryman’s work was recognized through the honors bestowed on him. At Stanford, he was the Nelson Bowman Sweitzer and Marie B. Sweitzer Professor of Law, Emeritus, and Affiliated Professor in the Department of Art, Emeritus. He was a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fulbright Research Professor at the Max Planck Institute. He was named an Italian knight — un Cavaliero della Republica Italiana – and received honorary doctorates from Aix-en-Provence, Rome (Tor Vergata), and Trieste. He 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.” 

But most importantly, for me and my brothers, he was our father, and the husband of our mother.  He He filled an enormous gap in our lives caused by the sudden divorce by Don Edwards, our natural father.  John loved us, guided us, and brought us joy and comfort.  Each evening, before dinner, he would sit down at the piano, and fill our home with music.  We enjoyed extremely competitive games of Hearts, and rounds of miniature golf.  He thought our education important enough to send Bruce and me to the finest secondary school in the country.  I miss him terribly.

Pre-Stanford Years

Stanford University Press 


Daniel Shapiro

Travel with Lawrence and Leah Friedman


Lifetime Achievement Award, American Society of Comparative Law

Hommage à John Henry Merryman, père fondateur du droit de l'art

Renaissance Merryman: The Art of Law

Thomas Erlich: Remembering John Henry Merryman

Steffanie Keim, Fordham Art Law Society

Interview by Preston Becker

Mark di Suvero Sculpture

Motherwell Print

Family Emails

The John Merryman Story (video)

John Playing the Piano (video)