By Carter B. Horsley
The Talk of The Town column
in the August 11, 1997 issue of The New Yorker magazine
disclosed further developments in the controversy over Chinese
painting acquisitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that were
first reported in The City Review.
(See the following related
stories in The City Review: Chinagate, original
story as it appeared
in The New York Times in 1976, Chinagate
Revisited, New York Post reports on controversy
in lead Page Six article,
Major donor says museum
violated contract and disputes extravagant claims about centerpiece
of recent Tang gift of paintings from C. C. Wang collection, New
York Post reports on controversy again on Page Six, The
Imperfect, But Impressive Metropolitan, and Attributions.)
While the article in the magazine,
which appeared on the newsstands August 4, 1997, lead with a headline
suggesting that the so-called "Mona Lisa" of China,
a painting illustrated on the front page of The New York Times
when it reported the museum's second major acquisition of a group
of Chinese paintings from C. C. Wang, a New York collector and
painter, might be "a fake."
The article quoted James Cahill,
one of the world's most respected experts on Chinese painting
who has published many books on the subject and is an art historian
affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley, as stating
that he could not "accept" the work "as a tenth-century
painting," adding that "It's simply not plausible in
terms of the fuzzy brushwork, the structural incoherence, and
Mr. Cahill, who was one of
the leading experts interviewed by me in 1976 when I first reported
problems with many of the attributions of a group of 25 Sung and
Yuan dynasty paintings that the museum bought from C. C. Wang
in 1973, told The New Yorker that "there are all kinds
of inconsistencies" with "The Riverbank" that were
"telltale signs" of a forgery by Chang Ta-chien. These
inconsistencies were "a winding river that turns into a road,
obscured peaks, and spongy landforms," according to the author
of the magazine's article, Carl Nagin.
Chang Ta-chien, who died in
1983, was a legendary artist, connoisseur, collector and self-professed
forger, who has been the subject of an exhibition in 1992 at The
Asia Society in New York and a film by Mr. Nagin.
He left mainland China in 1949,
the same time as did C. C. Wang and according to Mr. Nagin's article
took with him "a trove of early scrolls (the Met's prized
"Riverbank" among them), a mixture of fake and genuine
works which still confounds experts."
The City Review reported last May that Robert H. Ellsworth,
a major donor of Chinese paintings to the Metropolitan Museum
as well as a leading collector and author of an important book
on late Chinese paintings said that the museum's unqualified attribution
of "The Riverbank," a very large and dark hanging scroll,
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. The front page article in The
Times by Judith H. Dobryznski May 19, 1997, described "The
Riverbank" as "the earliest of three rarest and most
important early monumental landscape paintings in the world."
The story in The Times quoted C. C. Wang as saying that
"The Riverbank" is "the very best painting, like
the Mona Lisa."
C. Wang, who is 90, "became
one of the main Chinese authorities on whom Western scholars relied
to untangle Chang's forgeries," Nagin wrote, "But because
C. C. Wang also bought scrolls from Chang Ta-Chien for his own
collection, his financial interest in the Chinese-art market made
the task of separating pearls from fish eyes even murkier."
Mr. Nagin noted that C. C.
Wang "has long been a controversial figure in the art world"
who has served as a dealer and an authenticator "
has raised questions about conflicts of interest." Mr. Nagin
wrote C. C. Wang "has been a paid adviser to Sotheby's and
a consultant to Christie's" and in a lengthy article published
almost a decade ago in Art & Antiques magazine Mr.
Nagin documented an aborted sale of a painting on which C. C.
Wang had consulted at Christie's, and a subsequent investigation
by the city's Department of Consumer Affairs into auction practices
in which the seller actually bid on his own property, a practice
that violates auction ethics. The painting had been sold at the
auction to a European museum, which subsequently decided that
it was not as attributed and declined to take the painting. As
a result of the investigation, the auction house was ordered to
make announcements at the start of auctions that such practice
was not allowed.
The most fascinating aspect
of The New Yorker article, which was not mentioned in its
table of contents and given much shorter space than two other
articles on art in the same issue despite its far greater interest
and importance, was the disclosure by Mr. Nagin that "In
September, forty more ancient masterworks from his collection
will be auctioned at Sotheby's, where the resident Chinese-painting
expert is Wang's grandson."
There are, in fact, two Chinese
Painting specialists mentioned in the catalogue, Noah Kupferman
and Andrew Wang. Mr. Wang is a grandson of C. C. Wang.
Whether the works planned to
be included at the auction are masterworks remains to be seen,
of course. Whether the works will be auctioned, furthermore, remains
to be seen, in light of Mr. Nagin's disclosure about the familial
connections of the expert at Sotheby's, which, of course, in the
best of all possible worlds, might just be coincidental.
In the original, lengthy and
detailed press announcements accompanying the 1973 acquisition
of 25 paintings from C. C. Wang, the museum had boasted that it
had not only acquired the best pieces of his collection, but also
that they were almost all masterpieces by the greatest masters
of the Sung and Yuan dynasties, which are widely regarded as the
highpoint of Chinese art, dating from the latter part of the Tenth
Century through the middle of the 14th Century.
According to Mr. Ellsworth,
C. C. Wang still has important paintings that have so far eluded
The lead news item in the ArtDaily (http://www.artdaily.com)
August 8, reported Mr. Cahill's doubts about the "Riverbank"
painting that were disclosed in The New Yorker magazine.
It also said that the Metropolitan Museum did not doubt
its authenticity and would publish a defence of it. The
City Review contacted the communications office of the museum
for comment, as it has previously offering to publish any statement
about the Chinese paintings controversy, but no one was available
for comment or details about when the "defence" might
be published and what paintings it might discuss. (8/8)