by Carter B. Horsley
The May 22, 1997 reopening of the Chinese Paintings
galleries at the Metropolitan Museum was preceded by a festive
party in the galleries May 19 for major donors and the upper echelon
of the museum's patrons and leading figures of the Asian art community.
Among the honored guests were C. Douglas Dillon,
a former president of the museum's board of trustees and a major
patron of the Chinese Paintings department for whom the galleries
are named, Mrs. Vincent Astor, Oscar L. Tang, a New York financier
who provided the museum with the funds to purchase 11 paintings
from C. C. Wang, a New York collector who had sold the museum
25 paintings from his collection in 1973, Mr. Wang, and Robert
H. Ellsworth, a well-known dealer and collector of Chinese Art
who has given hundreds of works of art to the Metropolitan.
Mr. Wang's name had not appeared on the invitation
because he had not signed all the pertinent transfer papers by
the time the invitations had to be printed.
The evening was deemed a success by many who
attended, but not all.
Mr. Ellsworth stormed out of the elegant dinner
in the galleries shortly after arriving in them. (Ed. note,
6/4/97, the dinner was actually held in the museum's Temple of
Dendur gallery on the first floor, preceded by cocktails in the
Great Hall, also on the first floor, during which time the painting
galleries on the second floor were open for viewing.)
In an interview last week, Mr. Ellsworth said
that he left the party because he was surprised and shocked to
discover that one of the galleries that was supposed to house
30 paintings from a major donation of his to the museum contained
other works from other collectors.
Mr. Ellsworth said that he had a legal contract
with the museum that the 840-sq. ft. gallery was to display 19th
and 20th Century Chinese paintings from his donated collection
on a rotating basis.
He said that unless the museum, which has a
small bronze plaque in the gallery honoring him, lived up to the
contract immediately he would talk to his lawyers about removing
his collection from the museum.
"I've waited 10 years to get them hung.
If the museum doesn't, just return them," Mr. Ellsworth said.
He suggested that the museum's Chinese Painting department "probably
has a lack of interest" in more recent Chinese paintings.
"I think I probably made an error in judgment in thinking
it would expand" its interest to cover the full history of
Chinese painting, he continued.
Less than half the wall space in the gallery
that has a small bronze plaque honoring Mr. Ellsworth is used
for works from his collection. One of the most striking
works given by him on view is a large and striking picture of
a lotus by Zhang Daqian, an artist also known as Chang Ta-Ch'ien
who was a famous collector and self-professed "forger."
Mr. Ellsworth is the author of a three-volume
study on late Chinese painting, published by Random House in 1987.
When asked if his displeasure at the opening
was related to controversies over attributions of some paintings
in the C.C. Wang collection at the museum, Mr. Ellsworth said
(See small article that
appeared in The New York Times in 1976 on a controversy over the
museum's 1973 acquisition of 25 Chinese paintings from Mr. Wang;
see longer article that The Times did not
publish in full on that controversy; see article
on update of that controversy prior to the recent announcement
of the Tang gift; see article on the Tang
gift and The New York Times' front page article about the gift;
see article about the controversy disclosed
in The City Review that ran as the lead article on Page Six of
The New York Post, May 31, 1977.)
Mr. Ellsworth is familiar with the works in
part because he had appraised all the paintings in the renovated
galleries for the museum and for the indemnification program of
the National Endowment for the Arts. He said that that appraisal
amounted to "barely under one billion dollars."
The attributions of the Metropolitan's new
acquisition of 11 paintings from C.C. Wang are "fairly well
accepted; a few are not accepted by every expert, but that's par
for the course."
Of the earlier acquisition of 25 paintings
from C.C. Wang, Mr. Ellsworth observed that "all groups of
early paintings have some problems," adding that "there
are some very fine paintings and some paintings that don't appeal
When asked about the centerpiece of the recent
Tang gift of 11 paintings from C.C. Wang, a large, dark hanging
scroll, known as "The Riverbank," that was illustrated
on the front page of The New York Times last month, Mr.
Ellsworth said that its unqualified attribution to Dong Yuan was
"not entirely accepted," adding that it does not "come
anywhere near the quality, importance and beauty" of two
other paintings that The New York Times compared it with:
one by Fan Kuan and one by Gui Xi, both in the National Palace
Museum in Taiwan.
In The New York Times front page story
by Judith H. Dobryznski May 19, 1997, announcing the Tang gift,
"The Riverbank" was described as "the earliest
of three rarest and most important early monumental landscape
paintings in the world." According to The Times' story,
Mr. Wang held back the work from the museum at the time of the
1973 acquisition from him because he "once thought he could
barter it for his son, who had remained behind" in China
after he had left. His son, Shou Kun Wang, "managed to get
out on his own and came to the United States in 1979 after the
Cultural Revolution," The Times's story continued.
"This is the very best painting, like
the Mona Lisa," The Times quoted Mr. Wang as saying
about "The Riverbank," which allegedly dates to the
The story in The Times said that the
promised Tang gift of the C.C. Wang paintings "is just mind-boggling."
Mr. Ellsworth said that in his opinion C.C.
Wang, whom he has known since 1949, still owns his two best paintings.
When asked if he thought that Chang Ta-Ch'ien,
a famous Chinese collector and painter who boasted that he had
forged many paintings in major collections, had painted any of
the paintings in the C. C. Wang collections at the Metropolitan,
Mr. Ellsworth said that "personally, I don't think he was
Mr. Ellsworth said that his abrupt departure
at the dinner at which he was to be honored was spontaneous and