35.The Great Buson Caper

The American dealer Jim Freeman, who lived and was based in Japan, approached me several times about parting with my smaller Wu Bin, the 1617 "Thousand Peaks and Myriad Ravines" (Fantastics & Eccentrics #6)—he had a customer who desperately coveted it. This painting, largely because of its Song-like graudenr of conception, was a knockout among foreign collectors and enthusiasts; the customer who wanted it was Henry Harrison in Boston. Freeman offered me several things for it, including a Dong Qichang landscape on paper (which, however, existed in another, better version in China)—this was in 1978 while I was at Harvard.

During my Hyakusen year in Japan (1972-3) I had worked also on what and how Buson learned from Chinese painting, a study that underlies my 1982 "Yosa Buson and Chinese Painting" as well as Chapt. 3 of The Lyric Journey. A key painting, and a masterwork of the time just before Buson's great late period, was his "Mt. Zôzu" (Lyric Journey 3.16), a large (131 x 134 cm.) landscape on silk. I learned that it was owned by a private collector in Kobe, and arranged to be taken there to see it by Monta Hayakawa and others from Yamato Bunkakan. We spent the day at this man's villa, mostly looking at this picture and making many photographs of it.

Some years later, in the early 1980s? I heard from Jim Freeman the startling news that he had acquired this painting, which I had never expected would move from its home in Kobe. But Freeman also told me that individuals and museum people to whom he had shown photos of the painting had expressed no interest in it, presumably because it lacked the subtly poetic qualities of late Buson, being rather a stolid, well-put-together landscape in the manner Buson had learned from Ming masters of China. Moreover, although it was not registered (in spite of its having been shown in a great Tokyo Nat'l Museum exhibition of Nanga masters and elsewhere), Freeman thought he would have trouble in getting an export permit for it, and was at a loss for how to dispose of the painting. Without having any clear idea of what the ultimate outcome would be, but knowing I would come out all right at the end, I offered to trade the Wu Bin for it, and Jim accepted the trade. So here I was, owner of a great and famous Buson that probably could not leave Japan.

Jim had it delivered to Mayuyama's, and I asked them to apply in my behalf for an export permit. The response from the Bunkachô people, and scholars outside, when they learned that this crucial work was owned by me was a high state of alarm, close to panic. High up among the Bunkachô officials dealing with Japanese paintings was a young scholar named (Takahashi? memory fails again) whom I had got to know when he accompanied a Japanese ink painting exhibition to the Los Angeles County Museum. My application was immediately rejected; I wrote Takahashi proposing that the painting would be kept more or less permanently at our University Art Museum, and that it could be borrowed back from time to time for exhibitions in Japan, and shown to Japanese scholars coming there. None of this had any effect; the answer was a definite no.

Now the Bunkachô was in a sense trapped: once having rejected the export permit, they were obliged to purchase the painting for one or another national museum. They determined the price by assembling a group of dealers to submit appraisals, then lopping off the highest and lowest (to avoid freaky situations) and average the others. The amount came to U.S. $110,000. This for a Wu Bin painting I had bought years earlier for Y30,000, about $75 at that time.

Now it was the dealer Yabumoto Sôshiro who was acting for me, as my agent. He eventually received the money, which I didn't want; by good fortune, the prices of two paintings owned by Yabumoto which I badly wanted but never expected to own came to exactly that amount: a smaller but very lovely Buson (detail, Lyric Journey Colorplt. 5), which had been known only from an old auction catalog and had recently reappeared, to be acquired by Yabumoto; and the wonderful horizontal painting of grapes by Wen Riguan (Sôgenga 42 etc.) I was told later that the Riguan might have been registered and stopped, but the Bunkachô, having stopped the large Buson, was powerless to do this.

This complicated "caper" made my already-problematic position in Japan even more shaky; there was evidently a lot of resentment in the Bunkachô. This was probably in some part responsible for their rejection of the Buson exhibition that Maribeth Graybill and I planned some years later. But around this time my engagement with Japan was lessening, as I spent more time in China, as Chinese paintings became harder and harder to find in Japan, and as old friends retired or died.

I have a folder of correspondence etc. titled like this essay, which will eventually be part of the Cahill Archive at the Freer; any future researcher can find it there and get more detailed and accurate information. The same is true of lots of other matters recounted from memory in these Reminiscences: anybody serious about tracing the history of our field and otherwise using my resources should use the Archive materials, not this. Or read this to get the story, use the Archive for the particulars.

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