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Metropolitan Museum Haul of More Chinese Art Makes The Front Page of The New York Times But Some Details Are Missing

by Carter B. Horsley

On Monday, May 19, 1997, a three-column headline on the front page of The New York Times announced that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had been "promised" 11 "major Chinese paintings."

The story by Judith H. Dobrzynski said that the museum's director, Philippe de Montebello maintained that the gift is one of the most important ever made to the museum and "comes on the eve of the unveiling of the museum's renovated permanent galleries for Chinese art on Thursday" [May 22].

The story mentioned that the paintings come from "the renowned C. C. Wang Family Collection," adding that the museum had bought 25 paintings from C. C. Wang, a painter in New York who is now 90 years old, in 1973 and has subsequently acquired even more. The new paintings will bring the total to about 60 and the story said the museum plans to publish a catalogue on the newly promised works and have an exhibition of most of them.

The Times story noted that the gift was made by Oscar L. Tang, "an investment manager who is a trustee of the Metropolitan and put up the money for the paintings." The story did not disclose how much money, but did recall that the National Palace Museum in Taiwan had insured for $160 million two historical scrolls, which The Times implied were comparable to the major work in the new gift, that were planned to be included in the "Splendors of Imperial China" exhibition that was shown at the Metropolitan in 1996.

It also said that the 1973 purchase from C.C. Wang "formed the cornerstone of the museum's Chinese painting department," a statement that ignores several decades of collecting at the museum, adding that the 1973 purchase had been "engineered by C. Douglas Dillon, then president of the Metropolitan's board of trustees."

"Mr. Wang could not donate the paintings, since they represent virtually all of his assets," The Times continued, not noting that he had successfully auctioned an impressive part of his collection of Chinese sculpture and porcelains at Sotheby's in New York Nov. 27, 1990.

"Enter Mr. Tang, following a script devised by Mr. [Maxwell] Hearn [the Met's curator of Chinese paintings] and Mr. [Wen C.] Fong, a professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University who is the consultative chairman of the Asian art department for the Metropolitan," The Times story maintained.

The Times story left out a few details.

Mr. Tang made his fortune at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, the investment concern, and then at his own investment management firm since 1970, according to The Times.

The Times did not report that Mr. Tang is closely related to Mr. Fong through marriage.

Perhaps more importantly, The Times's lengthy story neglected to mention anything about a controversy about the 1973 acquisition that appeared in The Times, albeit less prominently played. I wrote that story. It had been scheduled to be the off-lead of The Times and jump to a full inside page, a more prominent and longer story than the May 19, 1997 Times story. The story was drastically rewritten and cut, over my protests, but it at least indicated that there were serious misgivings about the purchase by some well-known experts.

The copy of my story that was printed in The Times is available at the website of The City Review as well as the original, full, edited story from which the printed version was cut. In addition, I have written an update story that details the museum's continued support of Wen Fong and my efforts while at The Times to get The Times to publish the story that documents the analysis of the paintings in question by many of the world's leading experts at the time.

It is suggested that the stories be read in the following order:

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

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 carries two long commentaries on controversial attribution of The Riverbank


Although Wen Fong and the museum boasted that they had gotten the cream of C. C. Wang's crop of Chinese paintings at the time of the 1973 acquisition, the May 19, 1997 story in The Times states that the star painting of the new gift, purportedly a rare 10th Century silk scroll "that predates all the famous hanging scrolls in China" and "the earliest of three rarest and most important early monumental landscape paintings in the world," had been held back by C. C. Wang from the Metropolitan in 1973. Mr. Wang, The Times story continued, "who escaped from Communist China in the early 1950's, once thought he could barter it for his son, who had remained behind." His son, Shou Kun Wang, got out on his own and came to the United States in 1979, The Times wrote.

The museum maintains that the painting is by Dong Yuan and is known as "The Riverbank" and is comparable to works by Fan Kuan and Gui Xi that are in Taiwan at the National Palace Museum and were excluded from the "Splendors of Imperial China" exhibition in after controversy in Taiwan over the merits of transporting such fragile and valuable works. (See transcript of PBS report on the Lehrer Report on the show with interview and pictures of Wen Fong.)

The hardbound 1990 Sotheby's catalogue said that "Wang Chi-chien is an artist, a teacher and a collector of masterpieces of Chinese art."  "It is rare to find such a combination of talents and interests in one person," it continued, "and C.C., as he is known, is particularly remarkable in being a collector of both paintings and objects....Born in 1907 in Suchou, C.C. was raised in a scholar-official family and started to paint at the age of fourteen.  In the 1930's, he studied in Shanghai with the painter Wu Hu-fan, who was an important figure in the literati group of collectors, scholars and painters....In 1949, C.C. came to New York where he continued to develop his distinctive painting style."  The Sotheby's catalogue maintained that "In the 1960's, C.C. bought his first object" and the majority of the lots in that sale apparently were acquired at Sotheby's after 1973.

The newly installed Chinese Paintings galleries at the Metropolitan are lavish and handsome and now show about two-thirds of the museum's 1973 acquisition from C.C. Wang and also devotes one room to the C.C. Wang Family Collection although several of the works from his collection are in the other rooms. The Tang family also has a plaque in one of the larger rooms.

The labels in the renovated galleries uses the Pinyin spelling of Chinese names that is used by China today but that differs from that in the museum's 1973 catalogue of the C. C. Wang acquisition, which has not been for sale for many years at the Metropolitan, and from one of Wen Fong's big books published as recently as 1992.  The cover illustration, a work by Ch'ien Hsuan, is among those not included in the new show and the most celebrated work of the 1973 acquisition, "Summer Mountains," by Ch'ü Ting is now "attributed to Qu Ding."

There is no catalogue or brochure available on the works in the new installation.

Metropolitan Museum Shows C. C. Wang Collection in 1999 and concedes there are scholarly disputes over "Along the Riverbank"

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