39. Alan Priest And C. T. Loo

This one is prompted by an email from Hong Zaixin mentioning a student who is writing a dissertation on C. T. Loo, a great subject. I never really knew Loo, but I was a fellowship student in Alan Priest's office (literally—he gave me a desk at the far end of his office, so that I met everybody who came in) when Loo was dying, and Priest became alarmed that three huge and important Chinese stone sculptures owned by Loo would upon his death become the property of his daughter in Paris, who was also a dealer in Chinese art, and be sent to her. Priest worked desperately to raise the money to purchase these for the Met, and somehow succeeded—I think some of the money was a kind of loan, to be repaid when more solid funding could be found? I'm not entirely clear how this happened, but it was something like that.


Anyway, the three pieces were transported to the Met and kept for a while in the ground-level, concrete-floored reception area just inside the delivery doors, while the floors of the Asian art galleries were being tested to be sure they were strong enough to hold these sculptures. What they learned is that the floors not only were not strong enough for the sculptures, but hadn't been really strong enough to support safely all the crowds of visitors who had used the galleries over the years. So those galleries—central to the Asiatic Art Dept's exhibition space—were shut down, and didn't really open until many years later, when the whole area of galleries was redone. The sculptures were eventually set up, with other Buddhist sculptures, the large wall painting that had undergone restoration (and proven to be earlier, but less well preserved, than they had thought), and the relief from the Binyang Cave, in a gallery right off the big central space above the Met's entrance area, with the verandah around it (which also served for years as part of the Asiatic Dept.'s exhibition space.) These were not good years for seeing Asian art at the Met, and they lasted through Alan Priest's retirement and beyond. At last Arthur Sackler, whose paramount concern in Asian art appears to have been getting his name attached to collections and galleries and museums of it, gave the money they needed, and the gallery with the sculptures became the Sackler Gallery. I assume that some of the money paid for the sculptures went back to the donors? or to funds from which it had been taken? I don't know the insides of this, as I say.


(For more on Priest's acquisitions of Chinese sculptures, and especially his unscrupulous promotion of the removal of sculpture from cave sites, see Warren I. Cohen, East Asian Art and American Culture, pp. 116-120.)


About Alan Priest's retirement: He always told people that during his long stay in Beijing he had arranged a burial place for himself in a Buddhist cemetery; but now that we couldn't go to China, he was deprived of it, and didn't know where he would end up, for retirement and burial. His salvation was through Shôji Yamanaka, who turned up while I was there at the Met (1953) as a student come to enroll at Princeton was it? I think so. Anyway, he had been sent by his father to study in the U.S. before taking over the family business—much reduced from what it had been before the war (loss of Chinese branch, closing of New York store by Alien Property people) but still famous and with a large and distinguished store across the road from the Chion'in, Shôji arrived telling everybody his name and adding "I am not a sliding door"; he learned, in addition to whatever academic subjects he studied, how to behave and talk like an American young man of good family. He arranged to rent an abandoned and run-down Japanese-style villa down the hill to the north, on the corner (just down the street from the Miyako Hotel.) It was there Alan Priest lived in retirement during his last years, with a servant to look after him.


Visiting him was like entering a scene from a Japanese ghost movie. Even if it was morning, he would be sitting out on the verandah of this villa, dressed only in a thin white yukata (robe worn after bathing), gazing at the ruins of the garden, smoking endless cigarettes and drinking his first scotch-and-soda of the day, the first of many. He loved to have visitors, and was full of stories, some of them malicious and probably much reworked in memory. And he loved to hear news about what was happening in the Chinese art world. His servant may have been chosen by Shôji as a congenial companion for a gay man—I don't know that for sure, but suspect it. The building, all one-storey and with rooms separated only by sliding doors in the traditional Japanese way, was empty except for his bedroom, where I never went, and presumably the kitchen and a few other spaces of practical use. I don't think he got out much, but Shôji and others may have taken him places by car. His stories about China were of a kind that were called to mind later when I read Hugh Trevor-Roper's book The Hermit of Peking, about Sir Edmond Backhouse—they had something of that flavor.


After Priest's death, a plan was launched for a consortium of universities with Japanese and Chinese art history programs to take over the villa, restore it to usable shape, and use it to house scholars staying in Kyoto for study. Alas, the plan was never realized. I have no idea what is on that corner now.

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