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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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,
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
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?
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
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