77. Remembering The Shih-t'ao Fund

77. Remembering the Shih-t’ao Fund

This morning’s mail (10/30/09) brought the catalog of a forthcoming (11/29) auction of “Fine Chinese Classical Paintings and Calligraphy” from Christie’s Hong Kong, and browsing through it brought memories—of two fine and important handscroll paintings (nos. 815 and 816) that were formerly hidden treasures of the late Walter Hochstadter, works by Jen Jen-fa and Ch’en Hung-shou; but also of four landscape leaves by Shih-t’ao (no. 831) that recalled a story I used to tell when I would lecture on how I acquired my collection of Chinese paintings and how I used it in teaching. The story is worth telling again.

Some time in the early 1960s, while I was still working at the Freer Gallery, I received a phone call from a dealer in Asian antiques, Simon Kriger, whose shop was located in downtown D.C. This was when the U.S. Customs Service was still confiscating objects of Chinese origin if the owners tried to bring them into the country without documentation proving that they had been outside mainland China by 1950—it was a dumb attempt to keep U.S. funds from going to “Communist China.” Major collectors and dealers lost important pieces this way, and fine objects of art were lost to U.S. museums and collections that might have come here but were sold instead in Japan or Europe. I don’t know in detail how the confiscated objects were disposed of; I only know that some of them, at least, were simply delivered to the Asian Ethnology Section (name from memory, not accurate) in the Smithsonian, headed by Eugene Knez, who was free to dispose of them as he thought best. Some pieces he would keep for the Smithsonian collection; for some that appeared to be important works of art he would phone me and I would go across the Mall to look at them, and, if they seemed worth owning by the Freer, carry them back to add to our holdings. Still others, pieces that seemed of small value, he would simply give (in return for things he wanted? or just for goodwill?) to local dealers. Simon Kriger was one of them.

I visited his shop at lunchtime and was shown the paintings in question: four landscape album leaves bearing inscriptions, signatures and seals of Shih-t’ao. Are these genuine? Kriger asked. I looked at them only briefly before telling him: No, obviously not. Shih-t’ao couldn’t possibly have painted pictures so flat and clumsy as these. Kriger asked whether I would like to keep them as study pieces, and I accepted them as that, convinced that they were of no value otherwise.

After I moved back to California in 1965 to teach at U.C. Berkeley, they lay for years forgotten, along with piles of old prints and pictures, in one drawer of a flat-drawered cabinet in my office. I remembered them only some time in the 1980s when I gave my second graduate seminar on Shih-t’ao, and brought them out to show the students as examples of Shih-t’ao forgeries, and not even very good ones. But by then my students and I had come to recognize how badly much of Shih-t’ao’s work falls off in quality during his last years, and comparing seals and calligraphy, we came to the astonishing conclusion that they were in fact genuine, if late and poor.

I was obviously confronted with a dilemma: what to do with them? Simon Kriger was no longer in business; and I myself clearly couldn’t dispose of them in any way profitable to myself, or keep them as genuine works by Shih-t’ao (as I didn’t want to do anyway.) We hit upon a solution that seemed honest: we would sell them at auction, and deposit the proceeds from the sale in a bank account to be used for various needs of my specialist grad students, who didn’t receive the kind of rich support that grad students in other programs such as Stanford and Princeton enjoyed. The four leaves brought about $15,000 at Sotheby’s New York, and the money was duly deposited; one of the students was designated to oversee the fund, which we called the Shih-t’ao Fund. During the years after that it paid for dental work that one of the students needed and couldn’t afford; for shortfalls in the funding of several students; for the lodging of a visitor from China who wanted to stay longer in Berkeley, and so forth. We would ritually thank Shih-t’ao for his benevolence. The money was eventually used up.

I watched the four leaves appear again in a later New York auction, to sell for a higher price. They must have passed through the collection of the Taipei painter-collector Huang Chûn-pi, whose seals have been added to them, along with others. Now, in the latest Christie’s Hong Kong catalog, here are the four leaves again, matching perfectly the slides I kept of them (and have used often in telling the story in lectures.) This time they are estimated to bring something over U.S. $200,000.

Am I suggesting that they aren’t worth that much? Not at all—they are genuine works of a major master, and the monetary value of art objects is whatever someone is willing to pay for them. I am only wishing that they had brought that much when we first sold them—I could have financed a generous, Princeton-style graduate program from the Shih-t’ao fund!

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