James F. Ballard was a self-starter who had made his fortune from scratch in the manufacture and wholesale of drugs and chemicals. Born in Ohio in 1851, he received only an elementary school education in Michigan before going to work in a drugstore as a small boy. He moved to St. Louis, where at the age of twenty-three he joined a wholesale drug company, and within ten years branched out into business for himself and prospered.
Ballard was an adventurer by nature. He liked to explore, and traveled around the world. At the age of seventy-nine he died from filariasis, a parasitical and infectious tropical disease he had contracted two years earlier during his travels. He was one of the first internationally renowned carpet collectors in the United States and a major donor to the Met.
Ballard's passion for rugs started when he was fifty-five. In 1905 on a business trip to New York, he was suddenly attracted by an Oriental carpet he saw in a shop window on Fourth Avenue (Park Avenue South). Its exquisite design and palette of pale green with threads of burning red fascinated him and led to his first purchase of an Oriental carpet— for $500. This was the start of a great collecting story. For the next twenty years, Ballard traveled thousands of miles in the Near East and particularly in Turkey, where, in the bazaars of Istanbul, he bargained for most of the carpets. He spent millions of dollars, collecting more than four hundred examples, including some particularly rare and beautiful pieces that he spent years tracking. The Ballard collection covers five hundred years of carpet history and represents the various manufacturing centers in Anatolia, Egypt, the Caucasus, Iran, Central Asia, and western China.
In 1922, Ballard gave the Met 126 rugs from his collection. This donation formed the backbone (almost one quarter) of the Museum's present collection. Ballard expressly indicated that the Met should choose the carpets that would enter its collection, which led to its standing as one of the most comprehensive rug collections in the world.