by Carter B. Horsley
On Monday, May 19, 1997, a three-column headline
on the front page of The New York Times announced that
the Metropolitan Museum of Art had been "promised" 11
"major Chinese paintings."
The story by Judith H. Dobrzynski said that
the museum's director, Philippe de Montebello maintained that
the gift is one of the most important ever made to the museum
and "comes on the eve of the unveiling of the museum's renovated
permanent galleries for Chinese art on Thursday" [May 22].
The story mentioned that the paintings come
from "the renowned C. C. Wang Family Collection," adding
that the museum had bought 25 paintings from C. C. Wang, a painter
in New York who is now 90 years old, in 1973 and has subsequently
acquired even more. The new paintings will bring the total to
about 60 and the story said the museum plans to publish a catalogue
on the newly promised works and have an exhibition of most of
The Times story
noted that the gift was made by Oscar L. Tang, "an investment
manager who is a trustee of the Metropolitan and put up the money
for the paintings." The story did not disclose how much money,
but did recall that the National Palace Museum in Taiwan had insured
for $160 million two historical scrolls, which The Times
implied were comparable to the major work in the new gift, that
were planned to be included in the "Splendors of Imperial
China" exhibition that was shown at the Metropolitan in 1996.
It also said that the 1973 purchase from C.C.
Wang "formed the cornerstone of the museum's Chinese painting
department," a statement that ignores several decades of
collecting at the museum, adding that the 1973 purchase had been
"engineered by C. Douglas Dillon, then president of the Metropolitan's
board of trustees."
"Mr. Wang could not donate the paintings,
since they represent virtually all of his assets," The Times
continued, not noting that he had successfully auctioned an impressive
part of his collection of Chinese sculpture and porcelains at
Sotheby's in New York Nov. 27, 1990.
"Enter Mr. Tang, following a script devised
by Mr. [Maxwell] Hearn [the Met's curator of Chinese paintings]
and Mr. [Wen C.] Fong, a professor of art and archaeology at Princeton
University who is the consultative chairman of the Asian art department
for the Metropolitan," The Times story maintained.
The Times story left out a few details.
Mr. Tang made his fortune at Donaldson, Lufkin
& Jenrette, the investment concern, and then at his own investment
management firm since 1970, according to The Times.
The Times did not report that Mr. Tang is closely
related to Mr. Fong through marriage.
Perhaps more importantly, The Times's
lengthy story neglected to mention anything about a controversy
about the 1973 acquisition that appeared in The Times,
albeit less prominently played. I wrote that story. It had been
scheduled to be the off-lead of The Times and jump to a
full inside page, a more prominent and longer story than the May
19, 1997 Times story. The story was drastically rewritten
and cut, over my protests, but it at least indicated that there
were serious misgivings about the purchase by some well-known
The copy of my story that was printed in The
Times is available at the website of The City Review as
well as the original, full, edited story from which the printed
version was cut. In addition, I have written an update story that
details the museum's continued support of Wen Fong and my efforts
while at The Times to get The Times to publish the
story that documents the analysis of the paintings in question
by many of the world's leading experts at the time.
It is suggested that the stories be read in
the following order:
Although Wen Fong and the museum boasted that
they had gotten the cream of C. C. Wang's crop of Chinese paintings
at the time of the 1973 acquisition, the May 19, 1997 story in
The Times states that the star painting of the new gift,
purportedly a rare 10th Century silk scroll "that predates
all the famous hanging scrolls in China" and "the earliest
of three rarest and most important early monumental landscape
paintings in the world," had been held back by C. C. Wang
from the Metropolitan in 1973. Mr. Wang, The Times story
continued, "who escaped from Communist China in the early
1950's, once thought he could barter it for his son, who had remained
behind." His son, Shou Kun Wang, got out on his own and came
to the United States in 1979, The Times wrote.
The museum maintains that the painting is by
Dong Yuan and is known as "The Riverbank" and is comparable
to works by Fan Kuan and Gui Xi that are in Taiwan at the National
Palace Museum and were excluded from the "Splendors of Imperial
China" exhibition in after controversy in Taiwan over the
merits of transporting such fragile and valuable works. (See transcript
of PBS report on the Lehrer Report on the show with interview
and pictures of Wen Fong.)
The hardbound 1990 Sotheby's catalogue said
that "Wang Chi-chien is an artist, a teacher and a collector
of masterpieces of Chinese art." "It is rare to
find such a combination of talents and interests in one person,"
it continued, "and C.C., as he is known, is particularly
remarkable in being a collector of both paintings and objects....Born
in 1907 in Suchou, C.C. was raised in a scholar-official family
and started to paint at the age of fourteen. In the 1930's,
he studied in Shanghai with the painter Wu Hu-fan, who was an
important figure in the literati group of collectors, scholars
and painters....In 1949, C.C. came to New York where he continued
to develop his distinctive painting style." The Sotheby's
catalogue maintained that "In the 1960's, C.C. bought his
first object" and the majority of the lots in that sale apparently
were acquired at Sotheby's after 1973.
The newly installed Chinese Paintings galleries
at the Metropolitan are lavish and handsome and now show about
two-thirds of the museum's 1973 acquisition from C.C. Wang and
also devotes one room to the C.C. Wang Family Collection although
several of the works from his collection are in the other rooms.
The Tang family also has a plaque in one of the larger rooms.
The labels in the renovated galleries uses
the Pinyin spelling of Chinese names that is used by China today
but that differs from that in the museum's 1973 catalogue of the
C. C. Wang acquisition, which has not been for sale for many years
at the Metropolitan, and from one of Wen Fong's big books published
as recently as 1992. The cover illustration, a work by Ch'ien
Hsuan, is among those not included in the new show and the most
celebrated work of the 1973 acquisition, "Summer Mountains,"
by Ch'ü Ting is now "attributed to Qu Ding."
There is no catalogue or brochure available
on the works in the new installation.