Chinagate logo

C. C. Wang Auction at Sotheby's

Auction House, noting that "current scholarship…does not permit unqualified statements as to authorship or date of execution," declines to guarantee authenticity of any lot in sale


One of two Sotheby's "specialists" in Chinese Paintings, Andrew Wang, was reported by Carl Nagin in The New Yorker Magazine to be a grandson of the seller

By Carter B. Horsley

On September 22, Sotheby's will auction 37 lots from the "C. C. Wang Family Collection of Important Chinese Paintings to Benefit a Charitable Trust" with a high pre-sale estimate of $2,987,000 and a low pre-sale estimate of $2,350,000.

Seven of the lots (Nos. 1-5 and 8 and 9) carry "anonymous" attributions.

The catalogue is a bit confusing about attributions.

It prominently states near the front that this catalogue has an "Absence of Guarantee of Authenticity for Paintings" and explains:

"The artists' names recorded in this catalogue are not to be taken as unqualified attributions to the artists named. No attributions to any artist or date are made or intended. The current scholarship in the field of Chinese paintings does not permit unqualified statements as to authorship or date of execution. Therefore, none of the property in this catalogue is subject to any guarantee of authenticity and all of the property is sold 'AS IS' in accordance with paragraph 1 of the Conditions of Sale. Any reference to the Terms of Guarantee does not apply to this sale.

"Notwithstanding the preceeding notice, if within twenty-one days of the sale of any lot, the buyer gives notice in writing to Sotheby's that the lot sold is a forgery and if within fourteen days after giving such notice, the buyer returns the lot in the same condition it was at the time of sale to the premises of Sotheby's and shows that, considered in the light of the Glossary set forth in the catalogue, the lot sold is a forgery, Sotheby's is authorized to and will rescind the sale and refund the purchase price received by it. A forgery is defined as a work created with intent to deceive."

This very unusual statement (see The City Review story on "Attributions") is immediately followed by a "Glossary of Terms" that seems to contradict the rationale of the "absence of guarantee."  A person in the department said that this phrasing was not new with this catalogue.

The glossary reads as follows:

"The following are examples of the terminology used in this catalogue. Please note that care is taken to insure that any statement as to authorship, attribution, origin, date, age, provenance and condition is reliable and accurate. Although all such statements are based on the most recent scholarship in this field and are statements of opinions, no such statement is intended to constitute a guarantee as noted below. We reserve the right in forming opinions to consult and rely upon any expert or authority reasonably considered by us to be reliable.

Glossary For Chinese Paintings

With respect to our attribution of authorship as set forth in paragraph 2 of the Terms of Guarantee, the following terms apply:

A. Huang Gongwang

The work is ascribed to the named artist and such ascription is considered reliable by us. While this is our highest category of authenticity in the present catalogue, and is assigned only upon assigned only upon exercise of our best judgment as to authorship is made or intended. [Editor's note: this sentence is precisely as printed in the catalogue.]

B. Attributed to Huang Gongwang

In our best judgment, the work can be ascribed to the artist on the basis of style, but less certainty as to authorship is expressed than in the preceeding category.

C. Style of Huang Gongwang

In our best judgment, a work in the style of the artist, but not by him and probably of a later period.

D. Anonymous

In our best judgment, a work of no definite attribution."

The Sotheby's catalogue contains an essay on C. C. Wang by Richard M. Barnhardt, the John M. Schiff Professor of Art History at Yale University, who served as one of three "outside" consultants brought in by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to appraise the value of a purchase of 25 early Chinese paintings from C. C. Wang by the museum in 1973 and the subject of an extensive series of articles, entitled "Chinagate," related to their controversial attributions in The City Review. See Chinagate, original, edited story that was written for but did not appear in The New York Times, truncated story that appeared in The Times, Chinagate Revisited, which relates to a gift earlier this year of more paintings from the C. C. Wang collection, New York Post's Page Six reporting of the story, major donor threatens to withdraw Chinese paintings and casts doubts on centerpiece of recent gift of C. C. Wang paintings, second Page Six reference to the series, and article on recent article by Carl Nagin in The New Yorker magazine report further doubts about centerpiece of recent gift and revealing that a Sotheby's specialist in this sale is a grandson of C. C. Wang.

Professor Barnhardt is a disciple of Wen Fong, a consultant to the Metropolitan Museum who is a professor of art at Princeton University and has orchestrated virtually all of the museum's controversial acquisitions of Chinese paintings for the past quarter century and whose attributions of alleged masterpieces have often run counter to the opinion of many other experts.

In his essay, Professor Barnhardt praises C. C. Wang as "distinguished as one of the most accomplished Chinese landscape painters of the twentieth century," adding that "less well known to the public, perhaps, is the role that C. C. Wang has played throughout his long and active lifetime as a collector and connoisseur of Chinese painting."

"In this confluence of activities as painter, collector, and connoisseur," the essay continued, "he will inevitably remind students of Chinese art history of his most distinguished predecessors: Mi Fu (1052-1107/8), Dong Qichang (1555-1636), and Chang Dai-chien (1899-1983)….It is certainly appropriate to link the names of C. C. Wang and Chang Dai-chien as the two greatest Chinese collector-connoisseurs of the twentieth century. Chang, from the culturally bold and innovative western province of Sichuan, and Wang, born and raised in the bastion of traditional literati painting, Suzhou, but educated in the great international cities of Shanghai and New York, between them have done more than anyone in our time to collect, study, authenticate, preserve, and evaluate the art of classical Chinese painting for the world….C.C. Wang became my teacher when I first saw parts of his collection as a graduate student at Princeton, and Chang Dai-chien is still remembered vividly by all of us who were there for his occasional visits to see the cherry blossoms and to delight us with his eccentric personality and provocative views - and with his dazzling demonstrations of Chinese painting techniques. Chang Dai-chien's great collection is now scattered among the distinguished museums of the world, as is much of that of C. C. Wang. But the C. C. Wang family Collection still remains a significant entity, even as great treasures bearing the collector's seals of Mr. Wang hang in exhibition in the galleries of museums from New York to Cleveland, Kansas City, and San Francisco."

Noting that Chinese painting remains "undervalued" in the art market, Professor Barnhardt remarked that while "the works that have been, or are now in his collection stand for the highest standard that can be attained in this difficult and challenging realm of activity" "this does not mean that every object is a masterpiece, or that the exact historical character of every work is beyond all possibility of question."

"What it does mean." Professor Barnhardt continued, "is that there is nothing in the collection of C. C. Wang that is not truly interesting for students of Chinese art, nothing that does not warrant careful attention and genuine appreciation. There are, in other words, no better criteria for identifying the value and quality of a Chinese painting today than the seals of C. C. Wang," who was himself the author of an important study of early collectors' seals.

Professor Barnhardt also notes that the Sept. 22 auction, and acquisitions by the Metropolitan Museum of works from his collection, have not exhausted his supply of "truly interesting" subjects for students of Chinese art:

"Still in the C. C. Wang Family Collection are outstanding works of art ascribed to painters as diverse as Wu Zongyuan (died, ca. 1050), Ma Yuan (active 1190-1220), Yan Hui (active late 13th c.), Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Bada Shanren (1626-1705), Shitao (1642-1707), and many others. In other words, in spite of dramatic and highly publicized acquisitions of major groups of important paintings from his collection by museums over the years, and the dedication of the new C. C. Wang family gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art commemorating the sixty or more works of art that have entered the museum from C. C. Wang, the C. C. Wang family collection still remains the most important private collection of Chinese painting in the world."

Professor Barnhardt cites two New York Times articles on C. C. Wang's paintings and the Metropolitan Museum, each announcing the acquisitions, but neglected to cite my article in The Times about the controversy over many of the attributions of the first acquisition of 25 paintings, nor my "Chinagate" articles in The City Review. He also does not discuss Chang Dai-chien's talents as a forger, perhaps the greatest in history, nor the fact that his seal appears on Lot 34 in the auction, "Landscape," attributed in the catalogue to Shitao. The catalogue uses the more current spelling of Chang Dai-chien's name, Zhang Daqian, in its description of the seals on the hanging scroll, which carries one of the most highest estimates, $200,000 to $250,000, in the sale.  (9/10)

The propriety of  the auction house having a "specialist" related to a major consignor to the department has drawn some criticism.  


One leading expert in the field, who spoke only on condition of remaining anonymous, said that "people are extremely uncomfortable and both collectors and dealers think it is improper for a myriad of reasons."

The same expert noted that while "C. C. Wang is very respected, there is always a little whiz of controversy," adding that some of the lots in the Sotheby sale of paintings from his collection were "questionable and bear very optimistic attributions and estimates."  The expert said that a Chinese language newspaper, World Journal, has carried several stories recently about C.C. Wang's Chinese paintings and quoted his son as maintaining that they are "genuine" and as being "outraged" at suggestions that some of the attributions may be inaccurate.

Another prominent person in the dealer community, who also spoke "not for attribution," said that while the auction house may not be breaking any law as it functons as a seller's agent, "ethically it poses lots of interesting questions."  "If Al Taubman were to sell some art, you would not expect him to offer it at Christie's," he said, referring to the chairman of Sotheby's.  He did say, however, that perhaps such connections should be clearly noted in catalogues to avoid the appearance of impropriety.  Andrew Wang's familial relationship with C. C. Wang is not disclosed in the catalogue and he was present at the auction's exhibition to answer questions about lots for prospective buyers as is the custom with department specialists.

One Chinese Art dealer observed that such "coincidences" happen "in the natural course of business," adding that many department heads or "specialists" at auction houses are expected to bring in business.  (9/19)

The Sotheby auction was not a success as 19 of the 37 lots offered failed to sell.   The October issue of Art News magazine carried a display ad, on page 28, for a painting by C. C. Wang, "Inspiration," at the L. J. Wender  Fine Chinese Art gallery at 3 East 80th Street in New York.  It also carried a four-page article by Barbara Pollack on C. C. Wang, "Buying to Learn Collector-Scholar-Painter C. C. Wang, 90, Bridges East and West, Past and Present.

She quotes C. C. Wang (Wang Chi-ch'ien) as saying that "I bought some things for study purposes," adding that "In China, there were no good museums to study, so you had to buy to learn."


"Born into an aristocratic family in Suzhou, the grandson of an advisor to the Manchurian emperor, Wang began painting when he was 15.  He went on to study law and continued painting, under the tutelage of Gu Linshi and Wu Hufan, a leader of the literati school in Shanghai.  By the time he was 28, he was already acting as a link between East and West, selecting works from the Imperial Palace collection for the 1935 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the first time they were shown outside China," Pollack wrote.

When Wang first visited the United States in 1947, she continued, he was "hired briefly by Alan Priest, a curator of Asian art at the Met."  "Priest had purchased a large collection of Chinese paintings in 1942 for several hundred thousand dollars, much to the museum board's consternation.  He hired Wang to validate the purchase.  Wang recalls, 'The paintings were not bad, but I did not like them.'"

Wang, the article continued, found himself "stranded" in the United States after the Communist take-over in China and as "Asian scholars in the West were being barred from doing research in China" Wang "became an invaluable resource."  

"At the time," Pollack wrote, "Zhang Daqian, the other preeminent collector of Chinese paintings, who had bought works directly fromthe Imperial family in the 1920's, arrived and stayed with Wang.  The two men began buying and trading together, in a market where few others appreciated the material they were assembling.  (Wang acquired The Riverbank [the alleged centerpiece of the Metropolitan Museum's recent acquisition of a second group of Chinese Paintings from C. C. Wang] through a trade with Zhang Daqian in the early 1950's.)"

This fact was not disclosed in the front page article of The New York Times on the museum's acquisition in which the painting, allegedly by Dong Yuan, was described as the "Mona Lisa" of Chinese painting.

"It took more than 20 years for experts in the United States to catch up with Wang's understanding of Chinese art.  In the early 1970's, the then director Thomas Hoving and president Douglas Dillon decided to make a concerted effort to upgrade the Met's Asian art department and hired Wen C. Fong as its consultative chairman.  Fong made it clear that an acquisition of the core of Wang's collection would immediately make the museum a first-class institution in terms of Chinese painting.  In 1973, the Met purchased over 30 works from Wang.  Concurrently, another trustee there, John Crawford, Jr., acquired Zhang Daqian's collection.  And this year, eleven additional works were purchased by Wang by financier Oscar Tang as a gift to the museum."

Ms. Pollack makes no mention of the controversy that developed in 1976 over the 1973 acquisition.  A story written by me in The Times revealed that the museum had not only been misleading in its representation of the material but also that many experts were not in agreement on some of the attributions.  Ms. Pollack also makes no mention of the controversy as it evolved further in 1997 with further disclosures in The City Review that were reported twice on Page Six of the New York Post.  Nor does she indicate that John Crawford Jr. was himself highly critical of several of the works in the 1973 acquisition from Wang by the Met.

Ms. Pollack does report in her Art News article that Carl Nagin noted in The New Yorker magazine that James Cahill, professor emeritus of art history at the University of California, Berkeley, doubted the authenticity of The Riverbank painting, "thereby, as Nagin sees it, questioning Wang's integrity."

Cahill is quoted by Pollack as stating: "I am one of the most fervent admirers of C. C. Wang, and we are old friends.  I have doubts about the painting, but I don't think it has to be tied to doubts about Wang."  Cahill told Pollack that he has "never quite swallowed his idea that brushwork is what you see in a picture."  

Pollack goes on to quote Wen Fong as maintaining that the Met would not have bought The Riverbank "if we didn't think it was right, and we are preparing a definitive study to prove it."

Fong told Pollack that "the academic world is free and everyone can have an opinion."  This comment is the first hint that Fong and the museum admit to dissenting opinions.  It is not clear from the context of Pollack's article whether Fong was conceding a major point, or doubt, or being gracious, or condescending.

Pollack wrote that Wang "had wanted many of the works he acquired to return to China, including The Riverbank," adding that he "often contacted the Chinese Government to see if the National Palace Museum would be interested."  "But I never heard from them.  I suppose they had more important things to take care of," he told Pollack.

Pollack reported that 40 works remaining in Wang's collections were to be auctioned at Sotheby's ("with the estimate at $3 million"), and quoted his grandson, Andrew Wang, "a specialist in the Asian department" at the auction house, as maintaining that "works of this quality, such as the 15th Century painting Snowy Mountain Landscape by Ming Dynasty master Shen Zhou, rarely come to auction and are not fully appreciated by Western collectors.

It was "passed" and did not find a buyer at the auction.(10/10)

Chinagate, an update on controversy over Chinese Paintings bought from C.C. Wang by Metropolitan Museum of Art

Original edited, but unpublished New York Times story on Chinese painting controversy

Truncated story on controversy as it appeared in The New York Times

Chinagate Revisited, Museum acquires more Chinese paintings from C.C. Wang

Page Six of The New York Post reports on The City Review stories

Major Donor of Chinese paintings at Metropolitan threatens to withdraw them

The City Review makes Page Six of The New York Post for the second time in four days. 

The imperfect, but impressive Metropolitan

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 runs two long commentaries on controversial acquisition of The Riverbank by the Metropolitan Museum

Orientations Magazine does not run letter from The City Review on Chinagate

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

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


Home Page of The City Review