The Arthur M. Sackler Collections have been called “the world’s most comprehensive collection of Chinese ritual bronze vessels” (John M. Rosenfield, 1983), “some of the richest collections of treasures in the world” (Thomas Lawton, 1987), and “the most important Asian collection in the United States since the days of Charles Freer.” (W. Cohen, East Asian Art and American Culture, NY, 1992).
But Dr. Sackler’s collections comprised not only Chinese ceramics, paintings and sculpture, as well as South Asian sculpture, but included American and European paintings and graphics, Pre-Columbian ceramics, Italian majolica, and Iranian ceramics. In their breadth and variety they were the distinctive expression of a unique individual’s sensitivity to art, to the arts of cultures not his own, and to the creativity that “can speak to everyone across the void of time and the vastness of distance” (AMS, AfR, 1983).
Arthur M. Sackler was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1913, the eldest of four sons of Isaac and Sophie Greenberg Sackler, immigrants who came from Eastern Europe to the US in the late 19th century. Art and education were an early theme in his life.
I often went to the Brooklyn Museum as a youngster. (Med Trib. June 10, 1981)
He also studied sculpture with Chaim Gross at the Educational Alliance in Manhattan, a non-profit organization founded in 1889 to help Jewish immigrants get settled in the U.S., while attending Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn.
He attended New York University when it was still in the Heights taking drawing classes at the Cooper Union and later art history NYU at Washington Square. He put himself through medical school at NYU/Bellevue by working at a variety of jobs in advertising and editing (Drake Business Schools, Medical Bulletin of Bellevue Hospital, Journal of the Medical Students Association), graduating in 1937. Through his art classes he was exposed to the varied currents of the contemporary scene. His taste encompassed Gustav Courbet, Manet and Monet, Milton Avery and Raphael Soyer, Pisarro and Picasso. He was especially enamored of Marc Chagall, whom he considered the “simple, honest, most humane of painters,” (Med Trib. April 26, 1978), and visited the refugee artist several times in his cold New York studio on the West Side. When he could afford to acquire art in the 1940s, he and his wife, Else Jorgensen Sackler, collected contemporary works. Then, “One wonderful day in 1950, I came upon some Chinese ceramics and Ming furniture. My life has not been the same since.” (NY Times, 6/5/83)
This occurrence probably took place in the show rooms of Transorient, (later Dynasty Furniture), an import shop run by William Drummond at 15 East 52nd Street, NYC, whose brother had been an art dealer and entrepreneur in China before the war. East Asia, and specifically ancient China, became the focus of Dr. Sackler’s collecting. His strong grounding in contemporary art trained his eye to value form and design over décor or mere technical bravado, and he responded to objects as simple as Neolithic pottery in a thoroughly modern way.
They [Neolithic painted pots] are exquisite expressions of the potter’s art and a fabulous demonstration of abstract and geometric design. (Med Trib Jan. 16, 1974)
It is also indicative of his taste that he was drawn to Ming furniture with its simple elegant lines, rather than to the more ornate Ching productions. He collected as one who enjoyed art, not as one who collected curios. Even when the art was the relatively exotic Shang and Zhou ritual bronzes, Arthur M. Sackler responded with a modern eye. “…one is struck with the specificity of function of many of the vessels…in all the form is magnificently unified with function.” (Med Trib. Jan 16, 1974)
Arthur M. Sackler began collecting Chinese art at a pivotal time. The Communist take-over of mainland China in 1949 dampened the demand for Chinese art in the US. “When I can to the field of Chinese art in the 1950’s, many of the earlier opportunities to develop collections of ceramics and bronzes were gone. However, there was comparatively little interest in Chinese painting, and this, ironically, at the very point in time when, through the vicissitudes of history, many privately owned treasures were becoming available. We undertook to maintain as complete entities a number of outstanding collections of Chinese art throughout the work that were threatened with dispersal, and we also supported and encouraged conservation studies, research, archaeological endeavors, and university symposia…” (SiC 1973) At this time major dealers like C.F. Yau (Tonying & Co.) and C. T. Loo (1879-1957) who had dominated the pre-War years were aging and retiring; they were happy to encourage Dr. Sackler’s new interests. Through Tonying & Co. he acquired works from the collection of Mrs. Christian R. Holmes, a great pre-World War II patron of the arts of Asia. In the 1950s and into the 60s he also patronized such stalwarts as Howard Hollis (1899 – 1985) & Co. (later Hollis & Mayuyama, Inc., and Hollis Galleries, Inc., NYC); and Alice Boney (1901-1988).
In the 1960s Ralph M. Chait, (1892 – 1975) and Warren E. Cox, (1895- 19??) author of The Book of Pottery and Porcelain (2 vols.) NY, 1945, and Chinese Ivory Sculpture, NY, 1946, also became advisors as well as sources. He made additional purchases of Ancient Near Eastern material and South Asian works from the New York dealers Mathias Komor (1907 – 1984) and William H. Wolff (1906-1991). The two greatest influences on his collecting were Frank Caro (1904-1980), and J.T. Tai (1911-1992) who supplied a great portion of his collections. Both men carried works that had been acquired by the renowned C. T. Loo (1879-1957) and Frank Caro was Loo’s successor when Loo retired from his NY establishment in 1951. The result was that many works in the Sackler Collections had an established provenance in North America even before he purchased them.
Dr. Sackler’s business interests in medical advertising and pharmaceutical development required travel to Europe where he frequented Robert Rousset (1901-1981) (Compagnie de la Chine et des Indes) and C.T. Loo et Co. in Paris. He also acquired some works from Bluett & Sons in London and in the early 70s some works from Barling of Mount Street and Eskenazi. Only a few Chinese ceramics were acquired from the venerable firms of Mayuyama and Kochyuko in Japan, and these late in his collecting. The bulk of the collections were acquired in the US.
Although Dr. Sackler reveled in qualities of an exceptional piece, a masterwork, he had a wider and perhaps more scientific view of art collecting. “I collect as a biologist. To really understand a civilization, a society, you must have a large enough corpus of data. You can’t know 20th century art by looking only at Picassos and Henry Moores.” (NY Times, 6/5/83) In 1959 he acquired the Dietrick Abbes Collection of archaic jades, and in 1963 another, the A.W. Bahr Collection acquired from Bahr’s daughter Edna. During that decade Dr. Sackler also obtained many jades once in the collection of N. C. Chang from Frank Caro and J. T. Tai. They in turn had acquired the jades when the Chang collection was disbursed in the US in the early 1940s, probably through the offices of C. T. Loo. Dr. Sackler’s first wife Else was an artist and dedicated potter and together they assembled a wide spectrum of Asian ceramics. The focus however was on Chinese works from Neolithic to Song, as neither of them had much interest in the later porcelains. The acquisition of the C. Edward Wells Collection in 1963 and the Desmond Gure and Ruth Dreyfus Collections in 1968 added works with a substantial European provenance to their ceramics and sculpture collections.
Early in the 1960s Dr. Sackler was introduced to the collector Paul Singer (1904-1997), also an MD, by Frank Caro who had sold Dr. Sackler some Chinese paintings from the Singer collection. The two collectors hit it off famously and Dr. Sackler supported Singer’s collecting as the two did not have the same focus or aesthetic preferences. (See T. Lawton, “Paul Singer – A Sage Among Collectors” Orientations 31, May 2000, pp. 35-42.) After Singer’s death the collection passed to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
Dr. Sackler was keenly aware that his collection of collections was unusual. He wrote “In collecting, as in the sciences, when a large enough corpus of material has been gathered, a representative as well as a true reconstruction of the past can be attempted. In such a total historical reconstruction, it is vital that study materials as well as masterpieces be preserved, and the life work of other collectors is, of course, vital in this regard.” (SiC 1973)
He once explained “I’m a lazy, impatient man and I don’t have enough lifetimes to be able to make the points that I want my collections to make. In each case I want to establish a significant corpus of material to enable scholars to define the esthetic of a school, or to definite a cultural horizon. A collection must be more than a simple accumulation of objects; it has to have a point of view, and I think it’s wise for us to preserve the lifework of highly sensitive, truly dedicated collectors. In that sense, I regard myself more as a curator than a collector.” (NY Times 6/5/83)
Early in his collecting Dr. Sackler began reaching out to encourage museums and university galleries to display Chinese art. His first gifts were a Chinese bronze ritual vessel (a yu), a stone head of Buddha, and Chinese ceramics (along with four modern works by Milton Avery and Earl Kirkam) to the Phoenix Art Museum. During the 1960s he was actively involved with Columbia University guided by his old friend from New York University, William Samolin, who was teaching Uralic and Altaic languages at Columbia. Throughout the ‘60s he sponsored exhibitions of the Sackler Collections at Columbia University featuring metal work of China and the Eurasian steppes. A major undertaking was “Asian Art and the Pacific Rim”, a five-day symposium at Columbia triggered by his acquisition of the Chu Silk Manuscript. The resulting papers, which spanned topics from the Chu Silk Manuscript itself to the Aboriginal Art of Taiwan to American Metallurgy and the Old World, and were later, printed in a three-volume set, Early Chinese Art and Its Possible Influence in the Pacific Basin: A Symposium Arranged by the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, New York City, August 21-25, 1967, Volume 1. Ch’u and the Silk Manuscript, Edited by Noel Barnard in collaboration with Douglas Fraser, reflected the wide variety of American, European and Asian scholars in this endeavor. Korean ceramics and Iranian metalwork of the Iron Age were the focus of additional exhibits at Columbia. In the case of Iran he enlisted the help and advice of Prof. Edith Porada. a renowned expert on ancient Iranian art who taught at Columbia. He also underwrote a laboratory at Columbia in the early 1960s to explore the metallurgy of the little understood steppe bronzes. Early in the 1970s he gave Avery Architectural Library a collection of etchings and drawing by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. As he put it,
I give to the place where scholarship is. (NY Times 6/5/83)
With the help of Wen C. Fong, professor of Asian art at Princeton University, he became an active participant in an intellectual rejuvenation of the study of Chinese painting.
A new generation of scholars was cross- fertilizing the historic connoisseurship of China in the art-historical studies of the West. There could be no mistaking the infectious enthusiasm and pride that pervaded Wen Fong’s department. We decided to participate in this exciting adventure… (SiC 1973)
In support of Professor Fong’s projects, Dr. Sackler acquired and donated a large collection of Chinese paintings, the C. D. Carter Collection of Chinese ritual bronzes, and a collection of Iranian and Islamic ceramics. The Arthur M. Sackler Galleries at Princeton Art Museum displayed selections from the many works given by Arthur M. Sackler, Else Sackler and the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation. His son Arthur’s interest in archaeology led to a friendship with the archaeologist Robert Dyson in the late1960s, and monetary support for the excavations of Hasanlu in Iran and Choga Mami in Iraq. In 1971 he gave a collection of Iron Age Iranian ceramics to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was another recipient of Dr. Sackler’s generosity in the 1960s and 70s. He endowed the Arthur M. Sackler Sculpture Gallery (gallery 206) which also contains the Buddha of Medicine Bhaishajyaguru mural dedicated to the memory of his parents, Isaac and Sophie Sackler, and donated additional paintings, ceramics and bronzes. With his brothers he funded the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur. Dr. Sackler and his brother Mortimer also donated Isamu Noguchi’s (1904–1988) sculpture Great Rock of Inner Seeking (1974) to the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Despite these connections, his final gift was to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. In the 1980s he offered 1000 works from his collections and funding for the construction of a gallery devoted to Asian art. The result was a companion to the Freer Gallery, another jewel on the Washington Mall, which opened in September of 1987, less than four months after Dr. Sackler died. He also supported the construction of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University, and underwrote the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at Peking University, Beijing, to provide a center for archaeological research and museological studies in China, the homeland of the art that he so loved. He did not live to see the museum completed.