32.What Became Of The Contag Collection

(From letter to Hong Zaixin, who asked about this.)

(I will copy a paragraph from my account of travels in the winter of 1956, after I had worked for Siren in Stockholm, about a visit to Victoria Contag. This gives some information on her.)

Victoria Contag had assembled an impressive collection of Ming-Qing paintings during her years in Shanghai (I will have to look up and fill in her dates, also the number of paintings involved. Maybe 200?) She and C. C. Wang were compiling their well-known book on Chinese artists' and collectors' seals, and she was probably advised by Wang in her collecting. The collection was kept, in the 1950s-60s, at the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City—Laurence Sickman had been her friend in Beijing, and was storing it for her.

Just as I was preparing to move out to California to become a U. C. Berkeley professor, I heard from Larry Sickman that she was proposing to sell most of the collection to Avery Brundage. This may have been Sickman's idea—it was well known that Brundage didn't understand or like Chinese painting, but recognized the need for it in his collection, and was interested in purchasing a group of them, instead of having to choose them one by one. This seemed an ideal opportunity. Contag was willing to sell the bulk of the collection—about 150 paintings, as I remember? (but my memory could be wrong.) There was a smaller number that she wanted to keep, because of personal attachment to them, and poems on them that she liked. (I don't think these were all later and recent paintings. as someone has written.) Sickman and I were to meet in K.C. to go through the collection and decide on fair values for them; C. C. Wang was there as her agent, or representative. We spent a weekend going through them, and came up with a figure—was it around $450,000? maybe averaging around $3,000 a painting? (But this is memory, maybe wrong.) Brundage was meanwhile spending big sums for such pieces as Khmer sculptures, and the amount wouldn't have troubled him.

However, we hadn't calculated on the response of his curator in San Francisco, Yvon d'Argencé. He was my predecessor at U. C. Berkeley in teaching Chinese art history, chosen by Otto Maenchen (who taught it when I was studying there in the late 1950s) because he hated art historians and didn't want one of them to succeed him. Yvon, who was doing a doctorate with Jacques Gernet in Paris on mapping the city of Hangzhou in the Southern Song period, had no experience teaching Chinese art, and was not popular, either with students or with the History of Art faculty. He left U.C.B. ca. 1964; but meanwhile he had established a relationship with Avery Brundage, who was greatly impressed with him and took him on as curator of his collection. They became so close that Brundage referred to him, later, as "the son I never had." (This was ironic, because Brundage had a real son by an unacknowledged mistress living in Marin County, as came out after his death.)

Yvon d'Argencé was understandably jealous of his relationship with Brundage, on which his future depended; he resented any intrusion into it, more than I had suspected. He was already promoting a purchase of Chinese paintings by Brundage, paintings owned by Chiang Er-shih, a wily and tricky painter-collector once described to me as "the only person who could outwit Chang Ta-ch'ien—he was notoriously dishonest, and had sold the two Chang Ta-ch'ien fakes to the British Museum. The paintings he was offering (through the New York dealer Frank Caro) were not all bad, but included doubtful pieces and were overpriced. Chiang Er-shih had established himself in Paris with Vadim Elisséeff (who had given him an exhibition of his collection at the Musée Cernuschi, which he directed) and others, and so was Yvon's choice of dealer. He resented and opposed the Contag offering, and Larry Sickman's and my promoting of it, as a rival operation that was not his.

The Contag paintings, although pretty much all genuine (I think), included some minor works and some that were in less than ideal condition. On the other hand, it included some fine and important works: Shitao's "Album for Daoist Yu" (everybody's favorite Shitao album), a fine Bada Shanren landscape, and excellent works by many Ming-Qing masters. Yvon d'Argencé managed to collect opinions (or make them up? I'm not sure they were all real) calling into question the authenticity of some of these, including the Shitao album, and advised Brundage against acquiring the collection. It was a terrible mistake for Brundage, depriving him (and San Francisco) of a major body of genuine, mostly fine paintings.

In the end, under d"Argencé's influence, Brundage wrote Victoria Contag offering to buy a small number of the paintings (a dozen or so?). She was very angry and withdrew the offer of them. C. C. Wang, seeing his chance, raised money somehow and purchased the whole lot from Contag. He pulled out the best things, and then, under my urging, agreed to offer the remainder to institutions and individuals around the Bay Area. My purpose was to try to save as many of them as possible from disappearing. They were offered at a price 15% higher than what they had been evaluated for in the proposed Contag-Brundage sale. I gave talks on them in San Francisco, showing slides or in front of the actual paintings (in the de Young Museum storerooms) and persuaded a number of people to buy some of them, either for themselves or to present to the Brundage collection (Asian Art Museum), Stanford University's museum and our new University Art Museum in Berkeley. Much of the best of the collection, apart from what C. C. Wang took, thus remained in the Bay Area.

I have somewhere lists (I think in the Cahill Archive at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., probably in a folder marked "Contag") of the paintings that were offered, prices, and where they went. This was a sad dispersal of the collection, but better than letting it all go to C. C. Wang.

Yvon d'Argencé held on as Curator at the Asian Art Museum until the coming of a very strong woman who was also an established scholar of Asian art (northern nomadic art, in large part) Emmy Bunker. She had taken her doctorate with Soper at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, and moved to San Francisco with her husband in the mid-1980s? (memory again). She was appointed to a position on the board of the Asian Art Museum, and, understanding quickly what needed to be done, and with the help of Patricia Berger who was working there on the curatorial staff and had already begun an anti-d'Argencé movement among the staff, eventually persuaded the Board that he was more vulnerable than they had thought: all they needed to do was refuse to renew his contract. (As a non-U.S. citizen he was hired on a yearly contract by the city of S.F.) They did that, and d'Argencé was out. He stayed around S.F. for a few years after that, keeping a low profile, and died of an illness, I can't remember what.

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