Edith Wharton’s first publication (1902) was The Decoration of Houses. Co-authored with the architect, William Ogden Codman, Jr., the book was a polemic against “lambrequins, jardinières. artificial plants, wobbly velvet-covered tables littered with gewgaws, and festoons of lace on mantelpieces and dressing tables.” But Wharton missed what would have made great fodder for her tales of America’s upper class women. The pioneering role that such women played in the acquisition of these splendid objects — especially those from China — is a tale worth telling. As avid and discerning China collectors, women of the Gilded Age established some of the first and finest collections of Chinese art in America.
Whereas Wharton missed a great story, the husband-wife team, Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, have now written The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures. Like a Wharton story, the book is rich with female protagonists in vivid settings. The settings for Meyer and Brysac range from New York’s bustling Fifth Avenue townhouses to China, where the chaos of the end of the Ching (Qing) dynasty (1644-1911) had led to the collapse of that country’s elite. And like a Wharton story, the tale of Chinese art in American collections is rife with moral overtones.
While China’s centuries-old Imperial rule was collapsing, America’s was expanding into international business and foreign affairs. Beginning with the first Opium War of 1840 collections of Chinese art were up for grabs by foreign collectors. This period of collecting, so poignant for Chinese, is considered the Golden Age of Chinese art collecting by westernes. In the United States, robber baron wealth of the Gilded Age stretched out its arms to embrace collections made available by both desperate Chinese owners and unscrupulous tomb robbers. Enter American collectors.
Meyer and Brysac, provide a colorful narrative of “foreign devils” braving sandstorms and warlords in China and museum directors stateside, snuggly ensconced in boardrooms with capital to spend. Behind the scenes, moving much of the action, the cast of female characters play their roles. In China, Dowager Empress Cixi controlled the Chinese government in the late Ching dynasty for 47 years from 1861 until her death in 1908. Enter New York women.
Among the most avid China collectors were Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, (daughter of Senator Nelson Aldrich and married to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., sole heir to his father’s petroleum fortune). Abby was an adventuress in New York’s art scene whereas John preferred to dwell on art of the past. But on things Asia, Abby and John are best aligned with Buddhism (her) and Confucianism (him). Whereas Abby acquired a Tang bodhisattva from the Ling Yen Temple, for example, John’s tastes ran to Chinese porcelain. Like Jack Sprat and his wife, they licked the platter clean with their broad collection of Chinese art.
In their collecting spree of Chinese art, Abby and John were aided by the approval of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act in 1909. Crafted by Abby’s father, Nelson, (chair of the Senate Finance Committee), the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act eliminated all tariffs on artworks more than a century old. The Revenue Act of 1917 permitted a special exemption from taxes for donations to nonprofits institutions “operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, literary or educational purposes.” On display in the city’s largest townhouse at 10 West 54 Street (now the outdoor gardens of the Museum of Modern Art) Abby and John displayed the treasures that are now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.
Other women in the story of Chinese collecting include Lucy Calhoun, diplomatic wife and collector of textiles and artworks; in China, the Yu sisters, Der Ling and Rong Ling; and in Boston (but originally from New York), Isabella Stewart Gardner, collector of pretty much everything.
Meyer and Brysac do a masterful job of contextualizing the frenzied collecting of Chinese art into the political, historical and social stage of the times. It’s a tale of action, intrigue, manners and colorful personalities. It’s a story of New York women working quietly behind the scenes to move the plot forward. And like a story by Edith Wharton, the reader is left to ponder the morality of actions and their results — in this case, vitrine after vitrine of stolen and looted Chinese art now on display in American museums.