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Letter Sent to Victoria Knight,

editor of Orientations Magazine,

But Unpublished

September 7, 1998

Letters to The Editor

Orientations Magazine Ltd.

200 Lockhart Road 17th floor

Hong Kong

Dear Editor,

The controversy over the attributions of Chinese paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York - as mentioned in an article by Valerie Doran, "Art in Context: The New Galleries for Later Chinese Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art," in your December, 1997 issue, a lengthy letter from Richard Barnhart in the same issue, a "Commentary" in your June, 1998 issue by Carl Nagin, and another letter from Richard Barnhart in your September, 1998 issue - is both fascinating and disturbing.

As the journalist who first wrote about the Chinese painting attribution controversy at the Metropolitan Museum as a reporter for The New York Times in 1976 and then in The City Review, a Internet magazine ( on the World Wide Web of which I am the editor and publisher, in a series of articles entitled "Chinagate" in 1997 and 1998, 1 am very familar with the story.

At issue in this controversy is the fragility of art attributions and the responsibility of museums, art "experts" and the press to accurately reflect informed opinion on objects in the public domain involving public monies. Not surprisingly, there can be a great deal at stake: egos, reputations, insurance values, tax considerations, and acquisition funds.

Under the leadership of C. Douglas Dillon, Thomas P. F. Hoving and Wen Fong, all graduates of Princeton University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired many paintings attributed to important early Chinese artists from C. C. Wang, a collector in New York. The first batch consisted of 25 paintings that the museum claimed to be important Sung and Yuan dynasty paintings that it bought in 1973 from C. C. Wang and the second batch consisted of 11 paintings from the C. C. Wang collection given as a gift to the museum in 1997 by Oscar L. Tang, a trustee of the museum and a brother-in-law of Wen Fong.

In 1976, I interviewed at length 18 "experts" in the field of Chinese paintings including Sherman Lee and Laurence Sickman, museum directors who had been asked to "vet" the acquisition, James Cahill, John Crawford, a major collector, Shujiro Shimada, Max Loehr and others on the merits of the attributions. Lee and Sickman had been joined by Richard Barnhart, a former student of Wen Fong, in "vetting" the acquisition, and Lee and Sickman indicated that the museum had been misleading in stating that these three experts had been asked to judge each of the 25 paintings from "A" to "D" and stating that the lowest grade they had was "B." Lee and Sickman maintained that they had scored the paintings based on Oswald Siren's rating of "A," which meant probably by the artist and of the dynasty, and "B," which meant not of the same dynasty. The only paintings that the experts I interviewed agreed upon were three that had been given "anonymous" attributions by the museum. While not all the experts agreed with each other, most were highly critical of much of the group and many suggested that some might have been painting by Zhang Daqian.

The story that I wrote was scheduled to run five full columns of text with several illustrations as the off-lead of The New York Times on a Monday, but did not appear and the editor working on the story suddenly was "on vacation" that Monday. Several months later, a rewritten and much shorter story appeared on the inside pages of The Times that left out many of the details. I have reprinted the entire story as well as the truncated one in The City Review, an Internet magazine of which I am the editor and publisher. When The Times ran a front-page story announcing the Tang gift in 1997 I ran other stories, including one in which a major donor to the Chinese painting department at the museum, Robert Ellsworth, cast doubt on the authenticity of the "star" painting in the Tang gift, "The Riverbank," attributed by the Museum to Dong Yuan. Subsequently, Carl Nagin, who has studied Zhang Daqian and followed the activities of C. C. Wang for many years, wrote a brief article in The New Yorker magazine nothing that James Cahill, one of the world' most respected scholars in the field, had doubts about the attribution to Dong Yuan of "The Riverbank." There are now 11 stories on this controversy in The City Review ( that provide a fairly complete history of the controversy including one that reprints the Barnhart and Nagin exchange in Orientations (Orientations Magazine carries two long commentaries on controversial attribution of The Riverbank).

What is clear from any reading of the articles in Orientations and The City Review is that the Chinese painting "world" is divided between Wen Fong and his former students, on the one hand, and most of the rest of the field's established "experts." While some might dismiss this controversy as a not unusual scholarly dispute, it is not. Wen Fong is arguing that he and C. C. Wang are right and that everyone else is wrong. This is not impossible, but highly improbable. Moreover, it is particularly difficult because of Zhang Daqian's unusual position as painter, collector, and self-professed and proud forger and the fact that C. C. Wang obtained "The Riverbank" from him.

It is rather remarkable that Barnhart, a co-author with Cahill, of a recent major book on the history of Chinese painting, would maintain that Cahill's comments on "The Riverbank" were not well received at the Sackler 1991 conference and then not rebut Nagin's challenge that Barnhart had distorted the facts about the speech. Even more astounding was Barnhart's suggestion that Nagin's "informants," such as Sherman Lee, should be casually dismissed because they may have used a telephone. Finally, Barnhart's statement that "every painting attributed to Dong Yuan is itself a later copy of still-uncertain date and provenance" would seem to imply that he does not accept "The Riverbank" as an authentic work by Dong Yuan.

For most Chinese, painting is the highest expression of their culture, but their notion of of this pinnacle of their culture includes not only the "painting," but also the calligraphy and poems/comments that are placed on the painting by people other than the artist and the seals of collectors that are also placed on the painting. To fully appreciate these three elements, then, requires a knowledge of Chinese, to say nothing of connoisseurship about the styles of a particular period, or artist.

I, unfortunately, do not read Chinese, so I cannot pretend to be an expert, but I have collected art for several decades and debated attributions with many "experts" in American 19th Century painting and Old Masters. An "expert" should be able to convince a reasonably intelligent person of his opinion with specific references to other works as well as indisputable evidence, if any, such as photographs and provenance. Occasionally, "scientific" analysis can be helpful, but very often proof is difficult because some artists changed styles and techniques and policies on signatures and even produced non-masterpieces. Inconsistency is not definitive, and attributions are very often very difficult. Fortunately, however, language provides many ways to describe, with varying degrees of precision, opinions.

The problem with Wen Fong's attributions is that they have been unqualified, and ambitious. Had he merely said "attributed to," rather than "by," he, and the museum, could have avoided most controversy.

The museum, however, has chosen not to reflect scholarly opinion on the works on the question as is customary in most serious catalogues.

Barnhart's flippant comments are shocking. Carl Nagin and others have merely tried to reflect the concerns of well-known, and quite respected, authorities that art history is being casually "rewritten" under very unprofessional circumstances.


Carter B. Horsley

Editor, The City Review


Original Times Story

Unpublished Times Story

Update Story

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 Metropolitan says museum violated contract and threatens to take back paintings and also disputes some of the extravagant claims by the museum about the 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

Metropolitan Museum of Art's Acquisition of more Chinese Art from C. C. Wang makes the front page of The New York Times but some details are missing

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."


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