45. My Day With Ross Perotw

The account that follows is based largely on memory; I could write it with more detail and accuracy if I had access to my folders of correspondence and papers, now in the Archive under my name at the Freer Gallery of Art, on Ross Perot and Richard Pritzlaff. Anyone doing serious research is advised to consult those.


It was some time in the late 1980s when I suddenly received a phone call from Harry Parker, then the director of the Dallas Art Museum. (He was later to become director of the San Francisco art museums.) I didn't know him personally, but his wife Ellen McCance had been briefly my secretary (on an intern basis—she didn't need the money, being herself from a well-off family) while I was at the Freer Gallery, in the early 1960s? He wanted to invite me—no, summon me—to a weekend in Dallas, to look at a group of Chinese paintings for a mysterious owner whom he would not identify. I protested that I was much occupied in other projects, but he stressed the importance of the collector and the fee I could command if I accepted. He asked how much I usually expected for a day's consultancy; I named an arbitrary figure (I had scarcely ever done it for pay) which seemed to me high, and he pronounced it far too little, and doubled it. Finally, on a later phone call, he uttered in a hushed tone the name of the person who needed my expertise: Ross Perot. It was a name I scarcely knew, but inquiring around among the more knowledgeable filled me in. I agreed, and we settled on a date. I welcomed another trip to the Dallas-Fort Worth area anyway, because of the museums there, notably the Kimbell in Fort Worth.


On the fateful day I was driven to the town-size fenced-in compound where Perot's empire was located. Through gates with armed guards, along a winding road past groves and lakes, to arrive at two tall buildings, into one of which I was taken, and up the elevator to Ross Perot's office. I admired the art—a Remington bronze, a Norman Rockwell original, a Gilbert Stuart George Washington, the original of a well-known "Spirit of '76" picture, along with a framed $100 check, a loan from his aunt? that was his starting capital. I met his daughter, a good-looking and likeable blonde young woman who was to be my companion through my day-long examination of the paintings. At last we went to the room where they would be displayed. A gang of workers brought in the heavy boxes, unpacked the paintings, and hung them on the wall, then took them down and repacked them when I was finished with them.


I quickly recognized what they were, although I had never seen them in the originals. During my years at Berkeley I had corresponded with a Richard Pritzlaff (1902-1997), who wanted me to come to his Rancho San Ignacio in New Mexico to look at a collection of paintings he had partly purchased, partly was holding in trust, for a Beijing dealer named Wu Lai-hsi. Pritzlaff, whose real expertise and great passion were for Arabian horses, which he raised on his ranch, had visited Beijing in 1937, and while there had been shown by Wu Lai-hsi a collection of large, impressive Chinese paintings, mostly portraits of members of the Manchu imperial family, which he claimed to have received from survivors of the family. He impressed on Pritzlaff that these were great imperial treasures that needed to be rescued while it was still possible (the Communist takeover was already foreseen) and Pritzlaff agreed to receive and store them for Wu. How much he paid for them is unclear. Wu shipped them over the following years to Pritzlaff, who stored them in odd places at his ranch—in closets, under beds, he wrote. Wu Lai-hsi died in the late 1940s, and the paintings became, in effect, the property of Pritzlaff. He sent me photos of many of them, and copies of his correspondence with Wu Lai-hsi (which is still in my "Pritzlaff" file at the Freer, where it was discovered and used by Jan Stuart, see below.) I never made the trip to New Mexico; the paintings were not of a kind that especially interested me, and there were always more urgent things to do.


Now I learned that Pritzlaff had sold the whole collection to Ross Perot, who thought of building a museum around them. But he wanted first to get from an acknowledged authority some confirmation of their quality, importance, and value. Unhappily for Pritzlaff, they had chosen the wrong authority. I spent the day looking at them carefully, dictating my opinions into a hand-held tape recorder. Mostly my responses were lukewarm: the portraits were not, in my view, so early and important as their labels and Wu's information suggested; I had seen the really fine imperial portraits in the Palace Museum in Taipei and elsewhere, and these did not measure up. A scroll supposed to be by Castiglione obviously wasn't; and so forth. There were, in my view, no real stand-outs that could be the stars of a new museum.


I was invited to lunch by Perot and had high expectations, but was taken to the building's basement cafeteria for a very proletarian meal—we both stood in line with the workers and ate the quite ordinary cafeteria food. I gave him some provisional opinions, not very enthusiastic, and went back to spend the afternoon with his daughter to complete the viewing. At the end of the day I met with Perot again, and again delivered my opinion. Later his daughter and I had a correspondence that went on for some months, in the course of which I learned that Perot had returned the whole lot to Pritzlaff. I was sorry to have done this to Pritzlaff (whom I had never met) but felt I could not falsify my appraisal of the paintings (an appraisal only of their quality and importance--no prices or monetary values were ever mentioned.) I never doubted Pritzlaff's integrity; he had acted with complete honesty and generosity, only being too trusting of Wu Lai-hsi's lofty claims for the paintings.


That was the end of the matter, for me. But I learned later that Jan Stuart and Fu Shen of the Freer Gallery staff had traveled to Rancho San Ignacio in 1990 to see the collection, and arranged to have it shipped to the Freer/Sackler, where it was acquired (part sale, part gift from Pritzlaff) in 1991. This was a good ending for what was in truth a high-class study collection. Some of the paintings went through restoration at the Freer, and a selection from them, featuring the best of the portraits, was published by Jan Stuart, together with the historian Evelyn Rawski, in Worshipping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits (2001).


How did this "collection" originate? I don't recall the story that Wu Lai-hsi gave to Pritzlaff—it is probably in their correspondence. But my guess would be that it had no really coherent origin at all—it was simply brought together by Wu from paintings and objects he was able to acquire on the market, works that had some real or spurious connection to the Qing imperial court. He was counting on the fascination that foreigners—and Chinese, for that matter (witness the "Imperial Sales" that auction houses organize today)—feel for the Manchu court, the "Forbidden City," and its culture. He counted on finding a foreign buyer for the whole, someone with no real knowledge of the subject—a true connoisseur such as Laurence Sickman would never have touched it. And, with the Communist takeover in sight? or, in any event, sensing a perilous situation, he welcomed the chance to get it out of China, and to receive for it whatever Pritzlaff paid him, with perhaps promises of more, which he did not survive to receive.

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