56. Dealers Who Don't Get Credit

Reminiscence #56

56. Dealers Who Don't Get Credit:

Recently I saw by chance (on a host's coffee table at a party) the catalog of an exhibition of Chinese Buddhist bronzes, published by National Palace Museum in Taipei and titled The Casting of Religion. The exhibition celebrated a very important gift to Palace Museum—especially important because very little material of this kind had been in its collection before--of some 358 bronze objects, mostly Buddhist gilt bronzes, from Six Dynasties and Tang China. According to the catalog dedication and preface, the gift came from a certain Mr. Peng Kai-dong, who at the age of 90, in 2003, had donated his entire collection to the great museum in his homeland, Taiwan. I looked through it with wonderment: how could some unknown person have put together such a collection of first-class early Buddhist bronzes in recent times? Where could such a collection have come from? Moreover, some of them looked familiar. Then, reading one of the prefaces more carefully, I found the clue: Mr. Peng Kai-dong had immigrated early from Taiwan to Japan and lived there most of his life; his other name was Nitta Mune'ichi.

Reading this made the whole situation clear, and brought back memories. Among the Japanese dealers with whom I spent a lot of time over the years, and who sometimes took me to see the collections of their special customers, was Yabumoto Sôshirô (whom I usually referred to as "Tokyo Yabumoto" to distinguish him from his younger brother Sôgorô who lived in Amagasaki.) Sôshirô had a shop in Kyoto in the 1950s when I was there as a Fulbright student, but later moved to Tokyo, where he opened a gallery on the upper floor of a building near the Imperial Hotel (kept open after his death by his son, but now closed.) I would also be taken sometimes to his underground art storage near Roppongi. And he was generous in introducing me to collectors of his circle.

On one of these outings, he took me to the large, showy Western-style home of a man named Nitta, whom I didn't meet, but from whose collection of Chinese Buddhist bronzes I was shown a selection. I had heard of Nitta: he was Taiwanese, and looked on by the Japanese as an outsider, and as a kind of almost underworld character. He had made a fortune by opening, early in the Occupation, three big, very successful cabarets in the Ginza area, the kind of places that had bright lights out front, shills on the street attracting men in, girls who sat with you or on your lap, open to physical intimacies there and happy to go off with you for more serious sex. Somehow—I don't recall the story—Yabumoto took on the responsibility of building for Nitta a collection of Chinese Buddhist bronzes, and with virtually unlimited funds, was able to buy up much of the best of what came on the market over some years. Now, in the Palace Museum catalog, here was Nitta being praised for his excellent eye and unerring judgment in buying Buddhist bronze sculptures. No mention anywhere, so far as I could see, of Yabumoto. (Later: Googling Nitta Mune'ichi on the web, I read of his auctioning some Buddhist bronzes and objects of other kinds, obviously pieces not given to the Palace Museum, and there again are references to his "unerring eye.")

Such a failure to give credit to the dealer is not uncommon, and an old practice. In my Painter's Practice book (p. 128 bottom) I relate an early Qing example:

"The seventeenth-century dealer Wu Ch'i-chen, who advised and supplied the merchant families of the Hui-chou or southern Anhui region as well as others, uses a similar formulation for antiques, claiming that 'the difference between refinement and vulgarity' in a family 'depended on whether or not they owned antiquities.' He tells us of a certain Mr. Wang, a rich official in Yangchou, who notices 'that it is a fashion to enjoy collecting curios and antiques.' Because Wang himself is ignorant of how to do it, he commissions Wu Ch'i-chen to collect for him, saying 'I intend to build up a great collection. Without you I cannot outrun other people" and agreeing to pay any prices Wu asks. 'His reputation in connoisseurship,' Wu concludes, apparently without irony, 'became known in both south and north.'"

Another case in which I was intimately involved was that of the New York collector John M. Crawford Jr. and the dealer Joseph Umeo Seo. Seo had been an employee of Yamanaka & Co. in China in the great days of that firm, and had developed an expert eye for calligraphy and at least a good eye for paintings. By the time I met him, on my return from my travels in 1956, he had become independent and had a small shop on Madison Ave. in New York. His assistant was a black man who had worked for auction galleries and knew the workings of the art trade without having expertise in any branch of art; his name, as I remember, was Raymond Zittrauer, or something close to that. It was through Seo that John Crawford, a rich bachelor with inherited money, not earned (his father had made oil-drilling equipment) who had formerly collected Western rare books and now had moved into Chinese calligraphy and paintings, was doing nearly all his buying. And the principal source was Chang Ta-ch'ien. Chang, in addition to his prolific output of paintings openly presented as by himself and his covert but well-recognized career as a great forger, was also a collector and (like most Chinese collectors) a dealer: whatever he owned was for sale. If one knew his way and selected knowledgeably, Chang could be a source for fine and important paintings, but anyone dealing with him ran the strong  danger of buying fakes. Crawford, wisely, put his entire trust in Seo, and by the time I saw the collection had amassed a very impressive group of fine works, both paintings and calligraphy, including quite a few of genuinely early date.

Laurence Sickman, Crawford's good and trusted friend, had been chosen to head a small group of specialists who would catalog Crawford's collection, with the catalog to be published in 1962 to coincide with a first showing of his paintings—at the Pierpont Morgan Library, where he already had some standing through his earlier rare book collecting. Sickman chose his team: Aschwin Lippe, Max Loehr, Shûjirô Shimada, Richard Edwards, and myself. Yang Lien-sheng contributed an introductory article on calligraphy.

We assembled in New York and spent several days going through the collection, giving our opinions on the paintings and deciding who would write about which ones. (Sickman was final judge.) At the end, our collective opinions on the paintings were communicated to Crawford. From the viewpoint of anyone really knowledgeable about Chinese painting, the results were very positive: early dates accepted for an impressive number of them, even though the attributions might be questioned; high quality for most. For Crawford, however, who as a naive beginner thought that a painting, to be "genuine," had to be accepted as really the work of the artist whose name was attached to it, the outcome was "a disaster"—he confronted Seo and demanded that all his money be returned, or most of it. Seo, understandably panicked, appealed to Sickman, who called us all to a meeting with Crawford, at which we tried to explain the realities of collecting old Chinese paintings, and the looseness and sometimes small importance of traditional attributions. Crawford was mollified, and the cataloguing work proceeded.

The catalog was finished and published, the exhibition held at the Morgan Library--this was the occasion when, with most of the Chinese painting specialists from around the world gathered in New York, I organized the "Post-mortem Symposium"—see CLP 2 on my website. All that is another story. Throughout all this, Joseph Seo was seldom seen; it was as though he had fulfilled his function and disappeared. Afterwards, I would still stop by his shop sometimes when in New York, and occasionally find him there, but most of the time it was only Raymond. Crawford was meanwhile establishing himself as the Great Collector, showing his paintings to groups, including classes (too generously, letting inexperienced students, for instance, roll an early handscroll such as the one ascribed to Guo Xi—it shows signs of wear now) and talking as if knowledgeably about the works. Crawford always impressed me as a man flabby in mind and body, who had never done an honest day's work or exerted his mind beyond the comfortable and effortless.

Fast-forward twenty-three years, to the Met symposium "Words and Images," held in 1985 to honor John Crawford, who by then was ailing and scarcely appearing in public—he turned up only briefly at the symposium, to receive everybody's plaudits. His collection, which he had intended to convey somehow to the Nelson Gallery because of his friendship with Sickman, had instead been acquired by the Met, a great triumph for Wen Fong and a great disappointment for Sickman, who asked for (and got) only a single scroll, the Ch'iao Chung-ch'ang "Red Cliff", which Crawford reportedly sold him for a million dollars! The collection was announced as a gift to the Met, but a lot of money was somehow involved, in a part-gift, part-purchase deal; John Crawford had reportedly been taken for a terrible loss by a con game, the kind that promises the mark a great killing if he will put up money of his own. . . and had been bilked of so much that he was forced to change his plan and make some kind of arrangement with the Met. This I have on hearsay, and I don't know exactly how the Met "gift" rescued him from his financial predicament; Wen Fong could presumably tell that story.

The "Words and Images" symposium was the one at which I gave my paper on "K'un-ts'an and His Inscriptions." Mine was the last paper, and well received. At a reception after the symposium ended (second day?) I found myself in a garden drinking a cocktail and arguing heatedly with Dick Barnhart, who was upset by the ending of my paper, in which I argued that K'un-ts'an's output of painting had declined sharply in quality and force in his last years, presumably because he was old and ill. Dick, as usual, was objecting to my making negative value judgments, claiming that these late paintings were as fine as the earlier ones, only different, and being quite angry about it. After that was dinner, which I remember only as being held in a large, low-ceilinged, loft-like room. And it was there that my discomfort over Seo not only being absent but having gone completely unmentioned, while Crawford had received all the praise for bringing together such an excellent collection, had me on the verge of leaping up, taking over the microphone, and delivering an unscheduled and impromptu speech, telling the truth about whose expertise and connoisseurship we were really celebrating. But Wen Fong was having enough trouble without that, and I never did it. Sitting at Wen's head table, across from each other, were Yang Boda, then Director of the Palace Museum in Beijing, and Chiang Chao-shen, Vice-Director of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. Yang was reportedly (I was at another table, and only heard about this afterwards) trying to make conversation with Chiang, and Wen was hoping he could facilitate a significant communication between them. But Chiang, who had been forbidden (as Chinese in Taiwan were at that time) to consort as if in friendship with someone from "Communist China," felt obliged to get up and leave. His departure upset the mood of the gathering, and it seemed a bad time to add another irritant.

During the long period between the Morgan Library and the Met exhibitions, I heard stories of how Crawford and Seo had had a falling-out of some kind, and another story that Seo had retired because of mental problems. I don't know the truth of either story. Seo never talked of having a family, and I assumed that he was a bachelor. But Googling Seo's name on the internet while I was writing this produced this NYTimes death notice, dated June 20, 1998:

SEO-Joseph U. Of Rumson, NJ. Formerly of New York and Japan. On July 18, 1998. Husband of Betty (nee Haines) Seo. Father of Joseph Seo, Karen Seo and Janice Seo. Grandfather of Alexis Seo. Arrangements private. The family requests that memorial donations be made to The American Cancer Society, NJ Division, Inc., Monmouth Unit, 1540 Rt. 138, Suite 303, Wall, NJ 07719.

Later: Howard Rogers, reading the above, added several notes of correction and addition, and also wrote:

"The one collector who did give full credit to dealers was Sherman Lee.  His retirement dinner that he threw in Tokyo had more dealers in attendance than scholars.  In the Eight Dynasties catalogue he insisted on giving the provenance of all pieces, mainly so the dealers would get a bit of credit for their work and knowledge."

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