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By Carter B. Horsley
Copyright ©The City Review, 1997

Detail of cover of museum catalogue of 1973 acquisition of Chinese paintings

Detail of cover of Metropolitan Museum of Art's catalogue

on controversial acquisition of Chinese Paintings

What is the responsibility of a major museum to reflect current scholarly opinion about the attributions of its celebrated treasures?

What is the responsibility of a major newspaper to publish critical news about a major public institution?

The museum is the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the newspaper is The New York Times.

The attributions in question were of a collection of 25 Chinese paintings acquired with great fanfare by the museum in 1973 from a New York dealer, an acquisition that led to a very major expansion of the museum's Asian art holdings.

The Times learned subsequently of the controversy over the acquisition and planned a major, front-page, lengthy "take-out" about it, but withdrew it at the last minute. Several months later, it carried a short story on the inside of the paper that was rewritten by editors to tone it down markedly and make it appear as a minor academic squabble.

I was the author of the original Times article that was not printed and my byline appeared atop The Times story that was rewritten over my protests and to my great surprise.  Links to copies of these stories are at the bottom of this article.

The full story has never come out and is not over as the recent publication of three books, two by the museum and one by its former director, Thomas P. F. Hoving, perpetuate what I believe to be, at best, a cover-up, and, at worst, one of the greatest scandals in art history and a severe tarnish on the credibility of The New York Times.

"Chinagate" goes to the core of connoisseurship and art attributions and is a tale of arrogance and avarice and power and prestige.  It challenges the ethical credibility of both the museum and the newspaper and also raises critical questions about art experts, museum policies and intellectual property.

The central figure in the controversy, Wen C. Fong, Consultative Chairman, Douglas Dillon Curator of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum, and Edward S. Sanford Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, remains very active at the museum, which has been renovating its Chinese Painting galleries that have been closed for a while.

I broke the exclusive story in The New York Times in 1976. but the version that appeared was greatly truncated and played down. This article represents the first full disclosure of what I had written for The Times and the subsequent fallout of my scoop.

The scandal involves the acquisition by the museum in 1973 of 25 Chinese paintings from a New York collector and dealer, C. C. Wang. It was the museum's first major purchase following the controversy over its policing of deaccessioning works of art. It was announced with considerable fanfare by the museum, which claimed it had been vetted with outside consultants.

It was soon followed by an even bigger purchase of Japanese art from a collector, Harry Packard, that used up all of the museum's acquisition funds for five years. Both acquisitions were coordinated by Wen Fong, a Princeton University professor and friend of Princeton University alumni Douglas Dillon and Thomas P. F. Hoving, the chairman and director, respectively, of the museum at the time.

Fong convinced Dillon and Hoving and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, then the publisher of The Times who was chairman of the museum's acquisitions committee, to spend millions of dollars to buy Asian Art to boost the museum's reputation in the field. The prices paid were considerably higher than the contemporary market.

Many experts were aghast at the Wang purchase because of questions of authenticity and widespread belief that some of the paintings were by Chang Ta-Ch'ien, the self-professed greatest forger in the history of art, a longtime friend of Wang's. In 1992, Ta-Ch'ien was given a retrospective exhibition that toured and was shown at the Asia Society in New York. The exhibition and its accompanying expensive catalogue made no mention of the Wang paintings and played down Ta-Ch'ien's career as a forger.

In his foreword to the catalogue, Milo Cleveland Beach, the director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, observed that Chang Dai-chien (a new spelling of his name) "learned from the past by copying works of Chinese master artists, eventually acquiring many of these works for his extraordinary Dafeng Tang collection."  "His ability to understand and re-create works by the greatest artists led to a subsidiary career as a forger - an activity looked upon differently in China than in Europe or the United States.  In China, Chang's success as a forger enhanced his career; there it was thought that only a great artist could successfully imitate the works of other great artists.  And, after all, such imitation was the goal of early artistic training.  Examining Chang's career therefore forces us to acknowledge that definitions of creativity and artistic originality vary in different cultures."

Perhaps, but a fake is a fake!

The Chang Dai-chien catalogue was written by Dr. Shen C. Y. Fu ("with major contributions and translated by Jan Stuart"), who was the Senior Curator of Chinese Art at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art and was also the co-author with Marilyn Fu of  "Studies in Connoisseurship, Chinese Paintings from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection in New York and Princeton," published in 1973 by Princeton University Press.

In his foreword to the 1973 catalogue, Mr. Sackler that "A new generation of scholars was cross-fertilizing the historic connoisseurship of China with the art-historical studies of the West."  "There could be no mistaking the infectious enthusiasm and pride that pervaded Wen Fong's department [at Princeton University].  We decided to participate in this exciting adventure, and most, if not all, of the paintings in our collection were acquired over the next two years under Professor Fong's guidance."  

The Fus were among Wen Fong's students.  

In the preface to the Chang Dai-chien catalogue, Shen C. Y. Fu wrote that "most people agree that Chang Dai-chien possessed the broadest range and command of styles and techniques of any Chinese artist in history.  Although not all art historians consider him the premier painter of his generation, in his best works, Chang interwove elements from disparate models, achieving a grand synthesis that even his most critical detractors admire.  Chang is also well known as a master forger.  Since his forgeries are part of numerous museum and private collections, learning to detect Chang's brilliant imitations is a continual challenge to all students, scholars, and connoisseurs of Chinese painting, whether their primary interest is ancient or modern art."

The museum has steadfastly stood by Wen Fong.  In 1992, it published his lavish, $85 book, "Beyond Representation, Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 8th to 14th Century," in which Fong only changed one attribution of the original 25, and that simply added to words "attributed to" for the painting, "Summer Mountains."

In 1993, Hoving published a book, "Making The Mummies Dance, Inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art," published by Simon & Schuster, in which he reaffirms the correctness of the purchases in question.

His next book, three years later for the same publisher, "False Impressions, The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes," makes no mention of Chinese Art, or Wen Fong, at all.

At the very least, Hoving and Fong have been extremely disingenuous, if not outright liars.

Their feeble defense is that there have always been disputes in the art world and that the Wang purchase was an extraordinary opportunity to acquire many rare early Chinese paintings.

Indeed, since the Wang and Packard collections the museum has continued to expand its Asian art collections and was given the John Crawford collection several years later, the best private collection in the country. Crawford, in fact, had been a severe critic, privately, of the Wang acquisition.

The museum can argue that it has managed to assemble a world-class collection of Chinese Art despite disputes over attributions, and that argument is not without some merit as it has, under Wen Fong's guidance and Dillon's financing, been very aggressive and its holdings are now considerably larger than before and its sculptures, including many from the collection of Charlotte C. and John C. Weber, quite spectacular.

Tainted goods, however, can make a mockery of scholarship and interestingly the Wang and Packard collections have been relegated so far by the museum mostly to its storerooms and Wen Fong has even, quietly, downgraded an attribution or two, including the most celebrated painting in the Wang acquisition, in recent years.

The museum subsequently became deeply involved with Arthur M. Sackler, a doctor who kept most of his enormous collection of Asian art at the museum, subsequently sparking another controversy and also eventually removing it to a new museum of his own on the Mall in Washington.

According to some sources familiar with Wang, he presumably did not want to sell all of his collection to the Metropolitan Museum because he was at the time negotiating with China for the release of his son.

Although debates over attributions were not uncommon, especially in the field of Chinese art, the museum clearly was misleading in its pronouncements about the purchase and subsequent publications relating to it.

More importantly, the purchase was the first major acquisition for the museum coordinated by Wen Fong, who subsequently convinced the museum to spend all of its acquisition funds for 5 years on another "bulk" purchase, more than 400 Japanese works of art from the collection of Harry Packard.

The museum has not only stood by the purchases, but continued to ballyhoo them in its publications.

Through my sources in the art world, I had heard rumors that many of the purchases were not only of questionable quality, but were possibly modern forgeries, many by one well-known artist, Chang Ta-Ch'ien, who was given a posthumous one-man show in 1992 at The Asia Society, "Challenging the Past," which discussed some of his self-proclaimed forgeries, but not those at the Metropolitan.

I admittedly was not originally very knowledgeable about Chinese Art, although I had written numerous prominent stories about the Metropolitan Museum and attributions of Old Master paintings for The Times and was an art collector of American paintings.

Over a six-month period, I was tutored by my primary source in Chinese art and then interviewed, separately, in person and length and on tape, 16 of the world's leading authorities in Sung and Yuan dynasty Chinese landscape paintings, the subject of the first acquisition. My source had originally only thought that about half a dozen of the 25 paintings were modern forgeries and that another half dozen or so were wrongly attributed.

My interviews with other experts, however, revealed serious questions about many more of the pictures. More than three-quarters of the paintings were strongly criticized by at least one prominent expert and the only paintings not attacked were three anonymous attributions and admitted minor works.  Almost more shocking was the museum's assertion that outside experts had wholeheartedly endorsed the acquisition.  Sherman Lee of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Laurence Sickman of the Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, two of the country's most widely respected museum directors and major experts in Asian art, revealed in interviews with me that the grading system they had used in evaluating the Wang acquisition was not a four-tier system as the museum proclaimed in its public announcements, but a two-tier system in which the lower tier meant not of the dynasty.  The museum publicly stated that the lowest mark received by any of the paintings was a B on a "A,B,C,D" system, indicated that the worst painting was still pretty good, whereas the system two-tier system A meant of the period and B meant not of the period.

The acquisition might not have been big news except for the fact that it was the first major purchase by the museum following the controversies over its deaccessioning policies. Furthermore, the acquisition was proclaimed by the museum as including masterpieces by many of the greatest names in the history of Chinese art. And, finally, the $2.5 million pricetag was not insignificant at the time: it established considerably higher prices in the field and was a breakthrough for Chinese art into the rarefied realms of very expensive art then reserved for Old Masters and Impressionist paintings. Only three years before, for example, the museum had paid $5.6 million for a Velasquez portrait, which for several years was the highest price ever paid for a work of art.

To a great extent, the acquisition represented an important new level of connoisseurship and museum trusteeship of great treasures in that it was formally "vetted" by prominent outside experts. Given the museum's stature and the recent furor over its selling of some of its treasures, the acquisition was supposed to have quieted fears that the museum was not acting in the best interests of the public and its benefactors and, by extension, that the art world was less than pristine.

In his 1993 book, Hoving recounts Fong's acquisition:

"One morning I was surprised to see Wen Fong sitting in my office charming my chief assistant, Cecilia Mescall.  'Wen has to see you,' she said.  I was preoccupied and had no desire to see him but ushered him into my office.  He coyly said, 'I may have the greatest acquisition in the history of the museum.'

"The story fell out of Wen Fong's mouth in a rush.  Basically, it involved snatching away from our strongest competitors the finest group of early Chinese paintings in private hands.  He had been patiently tracking the Sung and Yuan paintings in the collection of C.C. Wang (or Wang Chi-ch'ien) and had reached an agreement to buy the twenty-five for only two and a half million dollars.  The purchase, Fong explained, would rocket the Met to the level of Boston, Cleveland and Kansas City.  Overnight we would be on a par with them, at least when it came to these vital early periods.  Wen told me that Larry Sickman of Kansas and Sherman Lee of Cleveland had been pursuing C.C. for years and would be flattened by our coup.

"Wen gave me a spirited description of old C. C.  He was a frail man in his sixties, one of the great connoisseurs in the world, the last of the literati, a latter-day artist-scholar-expert- poet-philosopher type.  C.C.'s position as an 'eye' was singular, for he had spent half his life in China and half in the West and had come to terms with a highly traditional field using Western criteria - exactly what Wen Fong himself had attempted.

"C.C.'s life belonged in a novel.  Born in 1907, he had grown up in the intellectual hothouse of Souchou and studied the classics and calligraphy.  At fourteen he started learning how to paint landscapes in the studio of a man who owned an exceptional collection of ancient paintings.  He moved to Shanghai in 1932 to study law and painting.  He began to collect porcelains.  C.C. seized every opportunity to view a fine collection and around 1936 was appointed an advisor to a committee preparing a huge show of Chinese paintings to be sent to London's Royal Academy.  For that he gained entry to the Imperial Palace and grazed through scrolls that few private scholars had ever been permitted to see.

"C.C. then came up with one of the cleverest ploys in the history of connoisseurship - he would examine and photograph all the chops, or seals, customarily planted on Chinese paintings indicating their ownership.  Even collectors who did not want him to see their paintings all wanted to know about the earlier seals.  He travelled throughout China recording the seals in private collections and the Imperial Collection.  Thus Wang was able to scrutinize thousands of the best Chinese paintings in existence.  In time, Wang published a grand catalogue of some nine thousand seals.

"Wen Fong told me that Wang first came to America in 1947 and has since studied almost every Chinese painting in the states.  He had dismissed the Met's A. W. Bahr collection of paintings, which had been purchased in the thirties for the astounding sum of three hundred thousand dollars and which were proclaimed the finest group in the country by the curator Alan Priest.  Wang had pronounced that, of the Bahr Collection's 149 works, only 15 or so were of 'museum quality.'  He had been right.  The Bahr Collection was a blot on the Met's collecting history.

"Wen Fong described the group of twenty-five pictures in detail and picked out one for elaborate praise, a fragmentary landscape called Summer Mountains, which Wen believed was by the legendary North Sung painter Ch'u Ting, not as Wang thought, by Yen Wen-kuei.  The difference was massive.  The former (1023-56) was a more gifted follower of the latter (988-1010).  One seal on the painting was that of the connoisseur-emperor Hui-tsung and may well have been a work he cherished.  The point, Fong explained, was that most scholars perceived Summer Mountains to the South Sung, or some two hundred years later than North Sung.

"I questioned Wen Fong on how we could really be sure that the C. C. Wang material would not become another Bahr Collection.  Trust me, Wen Fong advised.  I did trust him, but trust was not enough.  Dillon pledged a considerable sum from his foundation, and in discussing the proposed acquisition, we came up with the idea of inviting a few top scholars to vet the works for us.  Wen Fong was galled that we would go to the competition for proof of his eye.

"'Come off it, Wen,' I told him.  'If we get Sherman Lee and Larry Sickman and someone of your choice  to pass judgment on these things, then they can't bad-mouth us later.'

"He calmed down, especially after I added that Dillon wouldn't put up any money unless the 'committee of experts' helped us out.  We decided on Sherman Lee and Larry Sickman of Kansas and Wen's choice, a younger man trained in his discipline at Yale, Richard Barnhart.  The three would come to New York  and independently study the paintings and grade them from A to D.  Fong or I explained the system to the three, and they were all eager to help, although Larry Sickman complained to me that 'it isn't like elementary school grades; these things are too subtle and mysterious.'  He suggested a grading system which would compare each painting to those in the holdings of Kansas City.  He'd write down AAA or A or whatever, plus a line or two on what he thought.

"Sickman told Wen Fong he was fortunate to have gotten C.C. at a weak  moment.  He thought he might be terminally ill.  He marked three paintings AAA.  He was reluctant to assign grades to many of the others, but told Fong what he thought of each, which was highly complimentary.  Barnhart wrote, 'Among the 24 works [one landscape said to be by Hsia Kuei was on the road and only a photo was available, so none of the experts cared to give an opinion]... are 13 that in my opinion are the finest and most important paintings of their kind and attribution in the United States and among the finest in the world; seven album leaves of excellent quality; two works of problematic date and attribution  but of major historical importance; one genuine but minor work by a minor master; and only one painting that I would regard as of relatively little interest.'

"Sherman Lee was cordial, remaining several hours and taking the time to go over each painting with me.  He gave me a copy of his handwritten notes and followed up with a letter which graded the objects and appended a few remarks on most of the works.  He also put a monetary valuation on each, explaining that he would be assigning lower figures than he supposed the market would bring.  I had briefed him on why we had decided to form the committee of experts, and he said he thought it was a good idea.  Several times he commented that he was surprised that C.C. had decided to sell.  As for the Summer Mountains, he commented, 'Grand masterpiece.  Probably not by Yen but a superb Northern Sung work,' adding "I'd like this one.'

"We also obtained  comments - all favorable - from the curator of Oriental art at Boston, Jan Fontein, and Thomas Lawton of the Freer.  The board voted unanimously to buy the hoard.  The blot had finally been removed from our copy book."

Despite's Hoving's charm, if a blot had been removed, it was, in fact, replaced by a far bigger one!

It is almost amusing to note that Fong's disdain for the Bahr Collection at the Metropolitan Museum did not prevent him from reproducing in color one of its treasures, Chou Tung-ch'ing's "The Pleasures of Fishes," as his frontispiece.

The New York Times had for a long time taken a great interest in the Metropolitan and its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, was the chairman of its acquisition committee at the time of the purchase.

While I had written a Page 1 story in The Times the previous year over the reattribution of about 300 Old Master paintings at the Metropolitan, about 15 percent of its holdings in the field, Chinese art was admittedly then, and still, an esoteric field of interest for most Americans with an interest in art news. The Old Master reattribution story involved many of the museum's most popular and famous paintings, but was essentially a positive story for the museum. Although it clearly implied a substantial downgrading of the market value of its holdings, it was seen widely as being honest from a scholarly point of view.

The Wang acquisition, on the other hand, was smaller and interest in non-European cultures was then much lower than now.

But the story about the Wang acquisition was, in fact, much more important than the reattribution story, which had appeared in the lower right corner of the front page. It was more important because two of the three outside experts brought in by the Metropolitan to vet the acquisition revealed in interviews that they had scored the paintings on a two-tier system rather than the four-tier museum that the museum had announced. Inasmuch as these two experts, Sherman Lee and Laurence Sickman, were the directors of two famous museums with very important Asian Art collections, the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery in Kansas City and the Cleveland Museum, respectively, the story was not only about scholarly disputes over attributions, but also over whether the Metropolitan Museum had lied or, at the very least, misled the public at a very sensitive time in the tenure of its chairman, Douglas Dillon, its president, Thomas P. F. Hoving, and its Far Eastern Art special consultant, Wen Fong, all alumni of Princeton University.

Furthermore, my sources had indicated that Chang Ta-Ch'ien, who died in 1983, was probably the greatest forger in history and that the huge Packard collection was very questionable.

Knowing full well the many ramifications of the story, I knew I could leave virtually no stone unturned in presenting the story as too much was at stake for the museum and the story would have to withstand severe scrutiny. I also understood that it would be difficult to keep the story exclusive and that it was important to get as much information from various sources as possible before the museum found out and attempted damage control.

I was able to finish the story without it leaking and it was scheduled to run at the top left corner of page 1 and jump to a full inside page with five photos. When I left on a Friday, the culture editor, Bill Luce, told me it had been scheduled for Monday's paper and showed me the final edited version which ran approximately 5-columns. At this point, conferences had been had at The Times with Hilton Kramer, the art critic and editor and Grace Glueck, an art news reporter, both of whom were flabbergasted by the story. Kramer's only comment was that he knew relatively little about the subject and that only Shujiro Shimada could definitively rule on the paintings and he "only talked to God." I explained to Kramer then that I had a two-hour taped interview with Shimada on the acquisition and that he was definitely highly critical of many of the paintings.

To my amazement, the story was not in Monday's paper and Luce had suddenly gone on vacation for three weeks and no copy could be found of my story. After putting me off a while, Gelb told me that the story had been held because it needed independent outside scholarly confirmation. I argued that my research on the story was exactly that since I had interviewed the vast majority of recognized experts in the field. A few weeks passed and I resubmitted the story because a critical opinion of one of the paintings had been published in an scholarly journal and the exhibition had also received a critical notice in London where it had traveled. When I asked if Sulzberger had been consulted or knew about the story, Gelb yelled "How dare you raise such a question?" to which I replied that I had no choice.  He said, "Of course not!"

I then said I had an obligation to my sources not to suppress the story and would have to offer the story outside The Times. He advised me not to do so.

I then realized that The Times had no plans of publishing my story and planned to offer it outside The Times and requested a meeting with representatives of the Newspaper Guild, of which I was a member. They arranged a meeting with the union's lawyers who advised me that I would most likely be fired and that the union could only support me in a limited way with legal costs and that a legal challenge over the intellectual property of my research would be very expensive and was virgin legal territory. Although I was in debt, I felt a moral obligation to pursue the story and met with Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's Magazine who indicated a willingness to publish the story right away.

I still held out some dim hope that I could convince The Times when I received a phone call from the Village Voice asking me why my story had not yet appeared. I replied that "Questions about editing should be addressed to the editors." I then received a phone call from The Times Promotion Department informing me that the Voice had requested photographs of the publisher, Gelb and myself and that the publisher and Gelb had refused. I also declined and instantly went out and stood by Gelb's desk and insisted on talking to him. He said he would look into the situation.

A few days later, I got a call from Luce about 7:15 PM, 15 minutes before the final deadline for the first edition. The story was going to run the next day, he said, and asked if I wanted to see the galleys. I asked why, was there any change? He said yes, it had been cut. I ran out and was shocked to discover that the 5-column story had not only been cut to less than one column ,but also drastically rewritten and toned down. I turned to Luce said "What is this? It's a gross distortion. He said "You must decide immediately whether you want your byline on it." I hesitated briefly, but said O.K., because it at least indicated that there was a dispute and that the museum may have issued some misleading statements about the evaluation process. I had insisted that my byline be removed from some real estate stories that I felt had been badly edited. It's a fairly rare, but definite protest. I just had worked too hard on the Chinagate story not to get some credit, I suppose I thought in those brief, agonizing seconds.

The Voice came out two days later with a story about The Times almost cover-up of the story. Although I had had absolutely nothing to do with the Voice story, it was clear to me that my original source had, most likely, leaked parts of the story to the Voice in frustration. Interestingly, the story quoted Gelb as saying that he relied on Kramer's judgment and that Kramer had maintained that it was not an important story!

I had been willing to sacrifice my career at The Times to get the story out. Instead, my story was radically altered, underplayed and toned down and instead of being acclaimed for having given The Times a major scoop I was now on the not most favored list at The Times.

I argued to follow up the story, but was told to forget about it. Meanwhile, Art News came out with a story by Malcolm Carter about the affair which essentially backed up the museum by praising Fong as a revolutionary art historian.

I had written the story for the Culture News department during a scheduled vacation from my own real estate news department. I had worked 14 to 18 hours a day during this time to get the story done and I suggested that I was due the time as vacation time. The Times finally gave in and I did not pursue the story further at that point because my moral scruples had been compromised and vitiated by the fact that the story had come out, albeit in abbreviated and minimal form, and that it was no longer worth totally sacrificing my career, especially since I was broke and no was offering me jobs, or a book contract.

I left The Times after 26 years in 1987 to become the architecture critic and real estate editor of The New York Post and am now a computer artist, electronic musician and the editor of The City Review, a 'zine for New Yorkers concerned about their city and the arts.

When I left The Times, I was so busy I did not have any time to think about the affair.  In addition, my mother became very ill and after I was laid off by The Post because of a decline in advertising due to severe real estate depression of the early 1990's in the city, I at first concentrated on getting another job, to no avail.

I then started two different book projects, Plots & Plans and Great Entrances, only to encounter difficulties getting a publisher. While looking through sacks of old papers I came across my Chinagate notes in February 1993 and decided immediately to tell the full story as best I knew it.

I approached a couple of publishers with a book proposal about the Chinagate affair, but they all turned it down quickly, seemingly shocked that I would think anyone would publish something that might be construed as critical of the publisher of The New York Times Sunday Book Review.

The major source for the Chinagate story had known my mother casually, but had approached me because of my previous front page story about painting attributions at the museum. I have never revealed that person's identity and will not unless that person authorizes me to do so. That person is the hero of the story for blowing the whistle on the museum. Those who spoke openly to me in interviews are also heroes.

The villains are fairly obvious. C.C. Wang comes off with a tarnished reputation somewhat, but not as badly as Wen Fong, whose ambition and arrogance is incredible and unaccountable for unless supported at the highest levels by Hoving and Dillon. Hoving is a dilettante of the first order and fortunately his arrogance and blatantly cavalier disrespect of truth and honor has not passed unnoticed in the public's eye. Dillon presumably is only a dupe of Fong's and Hoving's ambitions, but yet is guilty of not having launched a thorough review and investigation of the acquisitions. It is clear by his continued actions in making major Asian art acquisitions that he has viewed the department as a major part of his legacy to the museum. It is tarnished.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the entire episode is that Crawford, a major critic of Fong and his acquisition, would leave his great collection to the Metropolitan. He was wooed by other institutions and his decision was apparently that he felt more people would see the collection at the Metropolitan than in Cleveland or Kansas City and that in time the quality of his pieces would outshine and survive the dubious works in the Wang collection. He might also have been influenced by the fact that the full controversy over the Wang collection never really blossomed into the scandal that it should have become during his lifetime.  In the Chang Dai-chien catalogue, Shen F. Y. Fu noted that "Crawford forged the basis of his important collection, which he bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with works Chang had collected."  "Crawford," the catalogue continued, "also unwittingly bought some of Chang's forgeries, such as Through Ancient Eyes, Signed as Shitao and Wenshu Plateau in the Yellow Mountains, Signed as Mei Qing."

I have been outraged, shocked, disillusioned and miserable about how the Chinagate story evolved. Given the traditions of The Times and the fact that The Times had printed Canaday's marvelous attack on the Metropolitan Museum's deaccessioning policies, I really did not imagine I would encounter serious problems with my story as long as I was meticulous, thorough and accurate, which I felt I was.

I personally do not feel that the publisher then, who is chairman of The Times now, and was then chairman of the acquisitions committee at the museum, had much knowledge of my story or specifically requested that it be killed one way or another. It is possible, of course, indeed, not improbable, but I suspect that loyal and ambitious underlings, such as Gelb, might have taken the initiative on their own. I would be highly surprised if Sulzberger or Gelb thought themselves the least bit knowledgeable about Chinese art. It is hard to imagine that Gelb would not have conferred with Rosenthal about the story, but Rosenthal's name never came up in my discussions with editors about the story at the time and he never mentioned it to me subsequently.

If anyone thinks that I may have benefited from not pursuing the story further at the time, I point out that I was reassigned a few years later to Society News, the section of the paper I held and hold in the greatest contempt, shortly after I had been told by Peter Millones, then metropolitan editor, that "you know where the front door is" when I protested the cover-up of a major real estate scandal and the interference in my coverage of it by Joyce Purnick .  She had told Millones she had gotten a press release about an aspect of it when Howard Rubenstein, the public relations executive, told me there had been none and her small article was misleading and inaccurate and almost derailed my major takeout that I had discussed with her one day at lunch.

If I had been well-off financially I suppose I should have quit The Times in protest. I was not and am not, and I needed the job. I had been willing to sacrifice it both for the principle of intellectual freedom and for the great traditions of The Times that I adored and felt were absent, but that become somewhat of a moot point after the truncated, rewritten article appeared. At least part of the story had gotten out and some questions raised, I told myself then, hoping that it would be picked up, pursued and enlarged, which it was not.

Instead of winning awards, which I felt the story had a good chance of receiving, my career and my reputation was tarnished. Over the years, such resentment and outrage has increased as Wen Fong, Hoving and Dillon acted as if nothing happened and Rosenthal and Gelb continued to unwittingly but nonetheless unforgivably undermine the essence of The Times. Rosenthal is now a columnist on the Op-Ed page and Gelb is head of The New York Times Foundation.

What, then, does all this mean?

Did Chang Ta-Ch'ien and C. C. Wang perpetrate a great hoax on Wen Fong and make a lot of money?  Most likely.

Did Hoving knowingly cover-up the controversy and repeatedly lie about it? Absolutely.

Did Dillon know anything about the controversy? Probably, but it was most likely filtered for him by Fong and Hoving, great pooh-poohers.

Did Sulzberger know about the controversy at the time his acquisition committee approved the funding? Highly unlikely.

Was Sulzberger involved in killing my story about the controversy? Probably, but, like Dillon, it was most likely filtered for him by Gelb, and maybe Rosenthal, great buddies.

Should the museum have made the acquisition? Perhaps, but not at such a high price and not with such a cavalier disregard for the niceties of honest scholarship and connoisseurship.

Are all the Wang pictures forgeries by Chang Ta-Ch'ien?  Probably not, though probably a good number.

Was C. C. Wang guilty of fraud? Most likely not, as he apparently invited Wen Fong to make his own selections.

Were those art experts who were critical of the Wang paintings guilty of silence, or wrong, or co-conspirators? This is the hardest and perhaps most important question.

First, one must remember that Eastern art history has a long tradition and legacy of copying the masters.

Second, one must remember that attributions are not cut-and-dried issues, but are most often subjective opinions by "experts" based more often than not on style. Scientific analyses are sometimes of little value, as is provenance, exhibition history, and literature. The easiest attributions are where an artist is filmed creating the object and then later verifies that the object in question is the same one, but this very rarely the case and in fact some artists have taken credit for some forgeries of their own work.

Third, one must remember that the art world is relatively small, rather close-knit and that reputations are very important and influential.

Four, one must remember that for the vast majority of paintings there is no absolute guarantee or proof. Artists vary their style, experiment, make mistakes, rework, forget, neglect.

Five, one must remember that not every one is a hero willing to put their entire careers on the line and offend some of the most powerful and prestigious movers and shakers in their field.

Six, one must remember that Sung and Yuan dynasty Chinese paintings are widely regarded as the high point of Chinese civilization and as such the most important artistic treasures of the East with an incalculable influence even beyond their great rarity. Imagine Western art without both antique Greek and Italian Renaissance art as a mild comparison.

Given these caveats, it is clear that the art world in this case was guilty of cowardice, at worst, and ignorance, at best. To their great credit, the vast majority of the experts interviewed were reluctant and measured in their comments, but their comments were devastating as can be observed in the accompanying untruncated article. Perhaps more conclusive is the fact that no one except Fong and his proteges have published many of the Wang pictures, nor have they been widely exhibited subsequently. Indeed, the museum's catalogue has not been on sale at the museum for many years.

Is Wen Fong right and all of his critics wrong? Highly unlikely.

I am not qualified, by my own standards, to offer opinions about the Wang pictures. To fully appreciate early Chinese painting, one must not only know the painterly techniques of the masters, but also know a great deal about the designs of seals and calligraphy as all three are considered almost equal by the Chinese. It appears to me that many, not all, of the works in question are not masterpieces whether they are by the specific artist or of the right dynasty. Some, however, are quite handsome even to a Western layman. The Metropolitan Museum deserves praise for broadening its scope and the public's appreciation of different cultures. Had the Wang acquisition not been so bold in its attributions, it might not have been so important. Time has caught up with economic values and what seemed outrageously high then seems almost reasonable and a bargain today. Nothing, however, excuses the Metropolitan, Hoving and Wen Fong for their deliberate deceptions particularly in the wake of the great deaccessioning scandal. This was contempt of the highest order and on the highest level and of a sort that borders on the unforgivable.

After I was convinced by my interviews that my source had been on target, I proposed to The Times that I do a three-part series. The first part was to focus only on the Wang acquisition. The second was to focus on Chang Ta-Ch'ien and the third on the Packard collection of Japanese Art. The culture editor, Bill Luce, a wonderful ,able, bright and humorous man who passed away a few years ago, conferred with Gelb and told me just to go ahead with the first part initially as it was sure to have many follow-up stories and was already an enormous undertaking and that we could get around to the other two parts afterwards. I did not protest strenuously at all as I was pretty overwhelmed just with the first part and I was also concerned about not delaying publishing it, which might run the slight risk that I might be scooped somehow, while doing the enormous research that would be necessary for the other two parts.

Those stories still need to be done, and then, of course, there's the new Tang exhibition that Wen Fong is coordinating and whatever else he might be conjuring for the May 22, 1997, reopening of the Chinese paintings galleries at the Metropolitan.

Following the reopening of the Chinese galleries, the museum announced a major gift of more C. C. Wang paintings from Oscar Tang including one painting, "Along the Riverbank," that created even more controversy as some of the stories below relate.

Original untruncated Chinagate Story

Drastically cut and rewritten article as it appeared in The Times

Chinagate Revisited: The Tang Gift

New York Post, in lead article of its Page Six column, reports on the controversy disclosed in The City Review

Major donor of Chinese paintings at the Metropolitan says museum violated contract and threatens to take back paintings and also disputes some of the extravagant claims by the museum about centerpiece of recent Tang gift of paintings from C. C. Wang collection.

The City Review's Chinagate coverage makes Page Six of The New York Post the second time in four days


The New Yorker magazine quotes expert with serious doubts about centerpiece of recent Tang gift, doubts that were first raised in The City Review, and discloses that C. C. Wang plans to auction 40 works at Sotheby's where his grandson is the "resident Chinese-painting expert."

Orientations Magazine carries two long commentaries on controversy over The Riverbank acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum as part of the Tang gift

The Institute of Art and Law in England has an excellent website worth visiting

Letter sent from The City Review to Orientations Magazine but unpublished

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


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