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Major Donor of Chinese Paintings to Metropolitan Museum Says Museum Violated Contract and Threatens to Remove Many Paintings

Donor also disputes extravagant claims of museum about centerpiece of recent promised gift from C.C. Wang collection that was illustrated on the front page of The New York Times

by Carter B. Horsley

The May 22, 1997 reopening of the Chinese Paintings galleries at the Metropolitan Museum was preceded by a festive party in the galleries May 19 for major donors and the upper echelon of the museum's patrons and leading figures of the Asian art community.

Among the honored guests were C. Douglas Dillon, a former president of the museum's board of trustees and a major patron of the Chinese Paintings department for whom the galleries are named, Mrs. Vincent Astor, Oscar L. Tang, a New York financier who provided the museum with the funds to purchase 11 paintings from C. C. Wang, a New York collector who had sold the museum 25 paintings from his collection in 1973, Mr. Wang, and Robert H. Ellsworth, a well-known dealer and collector of Chinese Art who has given hundreds of works of art to the Metropolitan.

Mr. Wang's name had not appeared on the invitation because he had not signed all the pertinent transfer papers by the time the invitations had to be printed.

The evening was deemed a success by many who attended, but not all.

Mr. Ellsworth stormed out of the elegant dinner in the galleries shortly after arriving in them. (Ed. note, 6/4/97, the dinner was actually held in the museum's Temple of Dendur gallery on the first floor, preceded by cocktails in the Great Hall, also on the first floor, during which time the painting galleries on the second floor were open for viewing.)

In an interview last week, Mr. Ellsworth said that he left the party because he was surprised and shocked to discover that one of the galleries that was supposed to house 30 paintings from a major donation of his to the museum contained other works from other collectors.

Mr. Ellsworth said that he had a legal contract with the museum that the 840-sq. ft. gallery was to display 19th and 20th Century Chinese paintings from his donated collection on a rotating basis.

He said that unless the museum, which has a small bronze plaque in the gallery honoring him, lived up to the contract immediately he would talk to his lawyers about removing his collection from the museum.

"I've waited 10 years to get them hung. If the museum doesn't, just return them," Mr. Ellsworth said. He suggested that the museum's Chinese Painting department "probably has a lack of interest" in more recent Chinese paintings. "I think I probably made an error in judgment in thinking it would expand" its interest to cover the full history of Chinese painting, he continued.

Less than half the wall space in the gallery that has a small bronze plaque honoring Mr. Ellsworth is used for works from his collection.  One of the most striking works given by him on view is a large and striking picture of a lotus by Zhang Daqian, an artist also known as Chang Ta-Ch'ien who was a famous collector and self-professed "forger." (6/21) 

Mr. Ellsworth is the author of a three-volume study on late Chinese painting, published by Random House in 1987.

When asked if his displeasure at the opening was related to controversies over attributions of some paintings in the C.C. Wang collection at the museum, Mr. Ellsworth said no.

(See small article that appeared in The New York Times in 1976 on a controversy over the museum's 1973 acquisition of 25 Chinese paintings from Mr. Wang; see longer article that The Times did not publish in full on that controversy; see article on update of that controversy prior to the recent announcement of the Tang gift; see article on the Tang gift and The New York Times' front page article about the gift; see article about the controversy disclosed in The City Review that ran as the lead article on Page Six of The New York Post, May 31, 1977.)

Mr. Ellsworth is familiar with the works in part because he had appraised all the paintings in the renovated galleries for the museum and for the indemnification program of the National Endowment for the Arts. He said that that appraisal amounted to "barely under one billion dollars."

The attributions of the Metropolitan's new acquisition of 11 paintings from C.C. Wang are "fairly well accepted; a few are not accepted by every expert, but that's par for the course."

Of the earlier acquisition of 25 paintings from C.C. Wang, Mr. Ellsworth observed that "all groups of early paintings have some problems," adding that "there are some very fine paintings and some paintings that don't appeal very much."

When asked about the centerpiece of the recent Tang gift of 11 paintings from C.C. Wang, a large, dark hanging scroll, known as "The Riverbank," that was illustrated on the front page of The New York Times last month, Mr. Ellsworth said that its unqualified attribution to Dong Yuan was "not entirely accepted," adding that it does not "come anywhere near the quality, importance and beauty" of two other paintings that The New York Times compared it with: one by Fan Kuan and one by Gui Xi, both in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.

In The New York Times front page story by Judith H. Dobryznski May 19, 1997, announcing the Tang gift, "The Riverbank" was described as "the earliest of three rarest and most important early monumental landscape paintings in the world." According to The Times' story, Mr. Wang held back the work from the museum at the time of the 1973 acquisition from him because he "once thought he could barter it for his son, who had remained behind" in China after he had left. His son, Shou Kun Wang, "managed to get out on his own and came to the United States in 1979 after the Cultural Revolution," The Times's story continued.

"This is the very best painting, like the Mona Lisa," The Times quoted Mr. Wang as saying about "The Riverbank," which allegedly dates to the 10th Century.

The story in The Times said that the promised Tang gift of the C.C. Wang paintings "is just mind-boggling."

Mr. Ellsworth said that in his opinion C.C. Wang, whom he has known since 1949, still owns his two best paintings.

When asked if he thought that Chang Ta-Ch'ien, a famous Chinese collector and painter who boasted that he had forged many paintings in major collections, had painted any of the paintings in the C. C. Wang collections at the Metropolitan, Mr. Ellsworth said that "personally, I don't think he was good enough."

Mr. Ellsworth said that his abrupt departure at the dinner at which he was to be honored was spontaneous and not planned.

New York Post Page Six article June 3, 1997 cites this article and includes comment by a spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art that it believes it has "honored" its commitment to Mr. Ellsworth. (updated 6/4)

See also The New Yorker magazine quotes expert, James Cahill, with serious doubts about centerpiece of recent Tang gift, doubts that were first raised in The City Review, and discloses that C. C. Wang plans to auction 40 works at Sotheby's where his grandson is the "resident Chinese-painting expert."

Orientations Magazine carries two long commentaries on controversial attribution of The Riverdance with Sherman Lee joining the critics

Metropolitan Museum Shows C. C. Wang Collection in 1999 and concedes there are scholarly disputes over "Along the Riverbank"

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