How and why objects find their way into museum and private collections can be an interesting and sometimes fascinating story. Sometimes the story has nothing to do with the quality or merit of the object itself. Exhibited below is a selection of objects acquired by the Rubin Museum of Art. Their stories about how or why they were acquired will be slowly added.
Jeff Watt 12-2018
An Auspicious Day & A Missed Opportunity
Happenstance, auspicious coincidence, fortuitous occurrence, all of these are terms that could be used to describe a sunny New York July day in the year 2000.
An out of town art dealer, visiting the city, had arranged an appointment for the late morning. There was no advance notice of the type of object or multiple objects that were about to be shown, so there were no expectations.
The meeting time arrived and the vendor was ushered in by a receptionist and shown to a small conference room to unpack and make presentable whatever it was to be viewed. After friendly greetings and compulsory pleasantries a single wooden sculpture was shown, large, depicting a fearsome male rider atop a red horse with three smaller attendant figures, all red in colour.
The subject of the sculpture was recognizable but not common. It was a depiction of an obscure Tibetan worldly protector god introduced into Buddhist culture in the 16th century by a famous Western Tibetan scholar that went by the title of Ngari Panchen. Within certain circles the subject of the sculpture was known as the special uncommon protector of the family of the current Sakya Tridzin, the throne holder of Sakya, leader of the Sakya Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism (b.1945).
The piece was attractive and had a museum presence but unfortunately did not resonate with all of the decision making voices in the room. The object was not acquired.
Now for the coincidence, shortly after lunch, unannounced to some, another visitor arrived at the offices to have a private viewing of the Rubin collection. The guest was the Sakya Tridzin, a prestigious visitor, on a rare trip to North America. Within the Buddhist tradition this kind of occurrence would be considered very auspicious and fortuitous. It was however not auspicious enough to reconsider the sculpture for inclusion in the Rubin collection. Was this a missed opportunity? Maybe not.
In 2005, with less fanfare, the sculpture was re-offered to the Rubin collection at which time the object was accessioned and became part of the permanent collection.
(Tsiu Marpo. Mongolia, 18/19th century. Read more at #65686).
Jeff Watt 12-2018Story #2 Why?
Not Just a Painting
In the past it was common place to have art dealers and vendors of antiquities make appointments for private viewings of one or more objects at the convenience of the potential buyer or collector. For in town vendors the viewing would generally be at their gallery or place of business. For out of town vendors the meeting location would typically be at the premises of the buyer, the home, the office, whichever was convenient.
Multiple offerings were the norm, from several paintings or sculpture to as many as twenty objects or more. Often the quality and value was varied with a mixture of inexpensive to very expensive, low quality to a higher quality.
If it was obvious and apparent to both the seller and potential buyer that an object was of good quality then the price would be set high by the seller and the challenge for the buyer was to lower the final selling price as much as possible.
If there were objects of mixed quality or vague identity, with the buyer more knowledgeable than the seller, then the strategy was to downplay the desirable objects and play up or distract with real or feigned interest in other objects offered. Such was the situation with the offering of a small diagrammatic painting.
Within a large group of mixed objects was this painting (above). The central figure of the composition was effaced beyond recognition. The subject style was diagrammatic but not overly interesting or engaging by symbolic elements, drawing or colour. The object at face value was not of great interest. However, there was a redeeming feature which was located on the reverse of the painting in the form of a short inscription which read:
“This painted mandala of the great Aparajita drawn by the unmistaken hand of the Lord of Tibet Tsangyang Gyatso, a wish-fulfilling jewel; may it purify the obscurations and quickly perfect the two accumulations.”
The text is directly stating that the painting is by the hand of the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706/46). Needless to say, for any collection of Himalayan art, objects signed by or attributed to historical figures are desirable as historic documents and important for framing and contextualizing any collection.
This painting, along with two other objects, was negotiated and acquired for the Rubin collection at very reasonable terms without making known, at the time, the potential import and historical importance of the Tibetan inscription written on the back.
(Aparajita Mandala. Tibet, 17th century. Read more at #65553).
Jeff Watt 12-2018Story #1 How?
Purchased Three Times, Returned Twice
Sometimes, for museum collection history, it is important to know why an object was acquired. Sometimes it is more interesting to know how and under what circumstances an object was obtained. This small but beautiful diagrammatic painting was purchased in New York City for the Rubin collection a total of three times beginning in the late 1990s and through 2001. It was subsequently returned twice during that same time period.
After the conclusion of the first purchase, based on the advice of an outside expert in the field, it was suggested that the painting was not correct, possibly a forgery, a new creation, meant to deceive for the sake of profit. It was deemed to be too clean, too perfect to be real. The painting was subsequently returned to the seller on the basis of the expert advice.
However, this analysis of condition is not unusual, nor rare, nor nefarious for small format paintings to be in better condition than larger compositions. Small paintings are generally not rolled, don’t experience as much cracking or paint loss, and are not typically displayed in large butter-smoke filled temples.
The colourful painting was again re-offered for purchase and inclusion in the Rubin collection. Hence, the painting was acquired for the second time.
Shortly after the second acquisition of the painting another outside expert, different from the first, knowledgeable in the field and familiar with Tibetan language suggested that the inscriptions of benediction and sanctification written on the back of the composition contained misspellings and therefore the painting was suspect and possibly a forgery. Once again, based on accepted expert opinion, the painting was returned to the original seller.
It is very common, if not the norm, for Tibetan paintings to have spelling errors. With the example of this diagrammatic composition there are two words omitted from a long verse written on the reverse of the painting. This kind of omission of one or several syllables or whole words is very normal and to be expected.
The painting was re-offered again by the original seller in 2001 for Rubin acquisition and based on the successful removal of all questions and doubts, raised by past experts, along with a thorough analysis of the merits of the object, the painting was purchased for the final time. The object is now one of the prized possessions of the Rubin Museum of Art and an outstanding example of fine Tibetan painting of the late 15th century.
(Hevajra Mandala, Sakya/Dzongpa Tradition. Tsang, Tibet, circa 1500. Read more at #65115).