69. An Event Suspended Between Two Stories

69. An Event Suspended Between Two Stories

I read with great interest the essay by Yang Renkai, former director of the Liaoning Museum, titled “The Story Behind the Last Emperor’s Dispersal of the Imperial Painting and Calligraphy Collection” in the exhibition catalog The Last Emperor’s Collection (New York, China Institute, 2008, 1-11, Chinese version 12-16). There have been a number of attempts to put together a historical narrative of this crucial episode in the history of Chinese painting collecting, how Puyi and his relatives smuggled a large number of paintings and works of calligraphy (mostly handscrolls and albums) from the palace as he was being deposed and took them to Tianjin and later Changchun; it is crucial because so many major works now in foreign museums left the Manchu imperial collection at that time, and were lost to China, gained by us. (My own very informal and far-less-informed attempt is in my "Two Palace Museums: An Informal Account of Their Formation and History," published in Kaikodo Journal XIX, 2001.) Yang has had access to documentary sources and personal reports that have not been available to others, and has pursued this subject for some forty years, as he notes at the end of his essay, and written a book about it. He remembers with bitterness, for instance, how three of the greatest surviving Chinese paintings were taken from his museum when the Palace Museum in Beijing, powerful enough politically (with the support of the “cultural commissar” Zheng Zhenduo) to have its way on most everything, borrowed them “for exhibition” and never returned them.

In a section of his essay titled “Sale of National Treasures in Tianjin as a Means of Sustenance” he quotes (pp. 3-4) from “a manuscript now in the Liaoning Provincial Library,” Hu Siyuan’s Zhilu riji (Diary of Zhilu). It tells how, on a day in the third month of 1931, His Majesty Puyi issued a hand-written Order permitting a former English tutor to the empress, Isabel Ingram, to bring “an American claiming to be a museum staff member in his country” to view the paintings held in Tianjin with the aim of buying a group of them. “Twelve items were selected for purchase, among which three were instructed to be pulled from the sale due to drastic differences in reaching an agreement in price. The English tutor was on the verge of crying, her hands shaking during repeated bargaining.” Nine items were eventually taken away by the foreigner, but the negotiations continued; Hu’s account is too complex and unclear to summarize, but it appears that in the end, only four paintings were sold. “Items returned included two pieces by Li Cheng, one by Yan Wengui, and two scrolls by anonymous Song artists.”

This account aroused a memory in me, and a much shorter and simpler story of the same event. It was told to me by Larry (Laurence) Sickman, who was in fact the “American claiming to be a museum staff member” in the Chinese account. He and I were sitting in the library of the Freer Gallery of Art—it must have been in 1962 or 1963, and he was there on some visit—and were looking together through a newly-arrived publication from China, Liaoning sheng bowuguan canghua ji, “Collection of Paintings in the Liaoning Provincial Museum” (Beijing, 1962, 2 vols.) with reproductions of many of the finest paintings in their collection, and notes on them by Yang Renkai (whom I would not meet for another decade.) When we came to the “Small Wintry Grove” handscroll attributed to Li Cheng, Larry made a face and groaned. This was a painting, he explained, that he had almost bought for his museum, the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City. I quote now from the “Dictionary of Art Historians” on the web: “In 1930, as a recent graduate of Harvard University, Sickman traveled extensively in China on a Harvard-Yenching Fellowship. In China he met [Langdon] Warner in 1931, a trustee of the newly established Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City who had been given charge of acquiring art for it.  Warner was in charge of part of an $11 million bequest by William Rockhill Nelson, founder of the Kansas City Star, to establish a museum. Warner took him to the sophisticated antiquaries of Peking where Warner was buying art. When Warner left China, he recommended to the Nelson Board that Sickman take over.” Sickman did, and after his return to the U.S. served for many years as director of the Nelson Gallery.

Returning to the story Larry told me: the time came for making a large payment—a bribe, in effect—to the go-between who had arranged the meeting—presumably, although he did not name her, the former English tutor Isabel Ingram? Or perhaps it was some Chinese intermediary. And Langdon Warner, stiff and proper New Englander that he was, refused to pay the bribe, for reasons of moral principle. He could not be budged, and the Li Cheng scroll and other masterworks were lost to American viewers.

We would be far better off, of course, if Sickman had set down a detailed account of his years in China and his great successes as purchaser of Chinese art for the Nelson Gallery. (See Reminiscence #67 above, on the advisability of getting old people’s stories out of them while it is still possible.) As it is, I can offer only this incomplete and anecdotal account, which puts together the two stories without reconciling them or clarifying “what really happened.”

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