Originally published March 2015 in ArtAsiaPacific
“Objects are your best teachers,” Robert Hatfield Ellsworth liked to say. But now that America’s greatest Asian art dealer is gone, many of us recall Bobby as our best teacher. Collector, connoisseur, world traveller, scholar, author, generous donor and cultural diplomat, Ellsworth was the preeminent force behind the growth of the market for Asian art in America from the mid-1960s until his recent death, on August 3, 2014, in New York City. And while he is best known for his pioneering passion for Chinese archaic jades, early Buddhist sculpture, calligraphic rubbings, Ming hardwood furniture, Qing monochrome porcelain, and modern Chinese painting and calligraphy, he was equally influential in stimulating the fields of Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian art. He also loved Japan: Among the first works of art that greeted us upon entry into his twenty-two room apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue was a superb Kamakura-period standing wood figure of the Jizō Bosatsu (Sanskrit: Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva). It was a likely mascot for a man remembered as a loyal friend and protector; a magnanimous being of grace.
Ellsworth’s death spells the end of an era. Over the last few years, we have lost the last intrepid few who built up the Asian art world in postwar America. Sherman Lee (1918–2008) of the Cleveland Art Museum, John Rosenfield (1924–2013) of Harvard, and James Cahill (1926–2014) of Berkeley each contributed to expanding museum collections, scholarship, and public appreciation of “Oriental art” at a time when the European tradition still dominated the known world of art history. They forged a tight community of curators, scholars, collectors, and dealers who shared a love for Asian art, history, and culture. To be one among them was to feel initiated into a large extended family, complete with ghosts, eccentrics, and legend. Highly cosmopolitan, this generation of scholar-curators was expert in Asian art but never narrowly doctrinaire. They saw the achievements they championed as part of a grand world heritage and envisioned their studies as a contribution towards a better state of the humanities. At Cleveland, Lee amassed a superb Asian collection spanning 5000 years of civilization. But he was equally erudite about his prize of major paintings by old masters like Goya, El Greco, and Velázquez. Ellsworth, a high-school drop-out, dressed like an Edwardian and drank his bourbon from a Queen Anne silver tumbler. In the introduction to his three-volume, thirty-eight pound book, Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 1800–1950 (1986), he compares his subject to the music of Richard Straus: “His operas as well as Chinese painting begin with faint themes whose beauty can be readily grasped after hearing the full-blown melodies of the last act.”
I first heard about Ellsworth when I was a teenager living in Ashiya, Japan. My parents were great friends with David Kidd, an American Orientalist of the old school who lived in a daimyo mansion furnished with Chinese art and antiques. He would occasionally sell a treasure or two. Kidd had lived in “Old Peking” from 1946 until 1950, when Mao Zedong’s anti-foreigner policies forced him to leave. He settled in Japan and became famous for his salons, where Tibetan rinpoches, Daitokuji abbots, members of Yukio Mishima’s militia, and visiting luminaries like Buckminster Fuller would all come for tea and then stay until three in the morning, enjoying extraordinary conversation. Kidd’s house was also a destination for visiting Asian art dealers: Charlotte Horstmann from Hong Kong, an old friend from when she had her shop in the Peking Hotel, was a frequent guest. Although I don’t remember ever meeting Ellsworth there, his name was intoned with a reverence Kidd paid almost no one. In 1971, David sent an eager student of art in our midst named Keita Itoh to meet Ellsworth in New York. “I came to study American art but Bobby turned me back to my roots,” Itoh told me recently. “He always had the pioneer eyes.” Keita became an associate of Bobby’s and has worked at R. H. Ellsworth, Ltd. for most of the last forty years.
In 1982, I moved from Japan to take up my first job as curatorial assistant to Rand Castile, the founding director of Japan Society Gallery in New York. I think Rand took me to meet Ellsworth the very first week. “If there were an emperor of the Asian art world, he would be it,” Rand said. “Your education begins here.” I would join Rand on his regular visits to the resplendent rooms of 960 Fifth Avenue, often trying with embarrassing results to keep up with their impressive smoking and drinking habits. We would gather in the paneled English library where Ellsworth held evening court. Museum directors from Europe, curators on courier trips from Japan, young Chinese scholars, and glamorous friends, neighbors, and clients like Charlotte Weber and Douglas Dillon would wander in and out, exchanging gossip one minute and examining a superb new acquisition the next. Sometimes, we would get tours to the kitchen to inspect a Chola bronze or a Sui stone sculpture that Ellsworth and Keita were in the process of restoring. Such “education” became an easy habit.
When, years later, I succeeded Rand as director of Japan Society Gallery, Ellsworth took me on as his charge. It was rather like being promoted from a courtier to a minister at court. He counseled me on institutional strategy, exhibitions, loans, and funding. He threw me together with people who might help my mission and dictated the outcome, to everyone’s delight. In 2003, several top Buddhist art curators from the national museums of Nara, Gyeongju, and Seoul visited New York for the exhibition I organized, Early Buddhist Art from Korea and Japan. To their astonishment, Ellsworth entertained them with the Count Otani Kozui collection of early Buddhist sutras and historic texts from Dunhuang and Turfan. (This collection was later sold to the Shanghai Museum.) And while Ellsworth’s praise was as thrilling as his critiques were harsh, the high standards to which he held museums and their custodians lent gravity and nobility to our purpose. Beyond teaching me a lot about beauty, he instilled a deep sense of loyalty toward our shared, marvelous enterprise of Asian art in America.
Over the years, Ellsworth has been hailed in the press as an “American Mandarin” and the “King of Ming.” He was born in Manhattan in 1929 to LaFerne Hatfield Ellsworth (1900–1976), an opera singer, and Presley Elmer Ellsworth (1853–1957), a dental surgeon. He was a direct descendent of Oliver Ellsworth, the third Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. This made Ellsworth that alluring paradox: an American aristocrat of the Depression era. He began collecting and trading antiques when he was in high school, and fell in love with Chinese things through volunteering for the China War Relief, in the early 1940s. He left high school and got his first job at an antiques store run by a family friend. “You’re fortunate if you know what you want in life,” he later remarked. “You can eliminate wasting a lot of time.” One day, he bought a Chinese pot for eight dollars in a thrift shop and announced it was Ming. His boss sent him to meet Alice Boney, the formidable doyenne of New York’s Oriental art dealers, to see what he could learn. She later recalled: “This young man came to see me with a jar — it was not an important piece but it was Ming. I was very impressed. And from then on, of course, I couldn’t lose him.”
Ellsworth’s ensuing forty-year friendship with Alice Boney (1901–1989) is one of the great love stories of the twentieth century. “She was his mother, mentor, teacher,” Masa told me. “She was very straightforward and didn’t like any nonsense.” She took Ellsworth along on her travels to Japan, Cambodia, Thailand and India. (She braved the Bamiyan caves in Afghanistan on her own one winter, shivering in a Dior coat while trying to spirit away Gandharan objects of art — successfully, we’re told.) They visited temple sites, ancient ruins, local museums, and every dealer in the network. “An eye can be nurtured, but it cannot be learned,” Boney once said. “It is a gift from the gods.” She saw that gift in Ellsworth, and trained him as her protégé and ultimately, as her own peerless peer.
Right away, Boney introduced Bobby to Alan Priest, curator of Far Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1928 to 1960. He, too, saw Ellsworth’s talent and conspired to get him to enter the museum field, to no avail. He and Alice maneuvered to get him into Yale, in 1949, to study Mandarin language with the eminent Professor Wang Fangyu. But Ellsworth didn’t pass the exams. Instead, he charmed the Shanghai literatus into conducting research on his own arcane pursuits. Wang and Ellsworth became life-long friends; his son, Shaofang, is one of Ellsworth’s seventeen godchildren. Too, it was Wang Fangyu who gave Ellsworth his Chinese name, An Siyuan. It means “he whose mind is far away.”
Many areas of collecting and dealing that distinguish Ellsworth’s record were first pioneered by Boney. This includes Chinese tomb sculpture, Ming furniture, and modern Chinese painting. A handsome, self-taught heiress, Boney came to prominence as a dealer of Asian art in the 1930s and 1940s. This interwar period saw scholar-curators like Alan Priest at the Met, John A. Pope at the Freer Gallery, Laurence Sickman at Nelson-Atkins Museum, and Langdon Warner and Max Loehr of Harvard work miracles to advance Chinese art in America. “It was very difficult at that point because there was a complete ignorance of Chinese art,” Boney reflects on the times. Ellsworth took up the cause, and in a typical gesture of tribute, dedicated his first book to her. Illustrated with several works from his own collection, some with Boney provenance, Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch’ing Dynasties (1971) has remained the standard reference text on this subject.
Ellsworth’s connection with Boney was also personal. On one of Bobby’s trips to Tokyo, where Alice lived for sixteen years, he met a young member of her entourage. Masahiro Hashiguchi, known as Masa, moved to New York at the age of nineteen and stayed with Bobby until the end. “He taught me about life,” he told me recently. In 1980, Ellsworth and Hashiguchi opened a plush restaurant that would become a legend of that New York society era. It was called the Gibbon after a screen painting by the Rinpa artist Sakai Hōitsu that hung in the downstairs bar. As if the beautiful Fifth Avenue apartment were not backdrop enough for Ellsworth’s dashing manner, the Gibbon played to his love of classic Hollywood glamour. His great friend Claudette Colbert was a regular. Sinatra came and sang songs. The “dapper don” of mobsters John Gotti liked to drop in, before he was sentenced to life in prison in 1992. Masa remembers patrons Mick and Bianca Jagger, Paul Newman, Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford and, of course, all the usual art-world suspects. I remember Ellsworth hosting opening dinners for Japan Society Gallery exhibitions there; some went on for so long the guests never got to the museum.
As a dealer, Ellsworth valued building collections over selling stuff. He cultivated a few clients over decades, often advising, culling, and steering their holdings towards an ultimate museum coup. John D. Rockefeller 3rd bought his first object from Ellsworth in 1961. After his death in 1978, his collection numbering some 300 masterpieces was donated to Asia Society, an institution Mr. Rockefeller and his wife Blanchette had founded to help promote American understanding of Asian cultures and peoples. Scholars agree that the collection’s strengths in Song and Ming ceramics and in Buddhist and Hindu sculptures of Indian, Tibetan, Khmer, and Javanese origin are due in some measure to Ellsworth’s prescient and discerning guidance. He also helped to build Sir Joseph Hotung’s collection, which resides in the Chinese art wing at the British Museum, and Charlotte C. Weber’s collection of archaic jades, ceramics, and metalwork that is a centerpiece of the Arts of China galleries at the Met.
In his remembrance, “The Last of the Mohicans,” Pratapaditya Pal recounts Ellsworth’s relationship with the famous Pan-Asian Collection. Built over a quarter-century by the financier Christian Humann, a member of the Lazard Freres banking family, the Pan-Asian Collection comprised some 1600 objects and paintings focused on Hindu and Buddhist themes. Pal, the long-time curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, organized an exhibition featuring highlights from Humann’s collection in 1977. It was titled Sensuous Immortals. Pal is not exaggerating when he touts the show as “probably the most important exhibition of Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian art ever organized to date in the world.” After Humann’s untimely death in 1981, Ellsworth bought the entire collection including objects he had originally sold for about $12 million.
Bobby followed a careful plan: First, he sold many of the finest works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among other leading collections. Then he produced a landmark auction at Sotheby’s. When asked why he was selling, Ellsworth replied: “I have to pay the rent, and I decided that the investment had been held to the right point — I think that I could take 188 pieces and sell them and have it better invested in eight.” And finally, he kept some of the very best objects for himself. Some of these will appear in Christie’s New York sale of Ellsworth’s collection in March 2015, which the auction house is promoting as “the largest private collection of Asian art ever to appear at auction.” The press release tells us: “Ellsworth placed one of his most beloved pieces [of the Pan-Asian Collection], a Tibetan Mahasiddha, in his bedroom, and each morning enthusiastically greeted the bronze as if it were a friend.”
Of all the collections Ellsworth developed, he was most passionate about modern Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. His work in this field was his greatest scholarly contribution, leading to the reevaluation of an entire period of artistic endeavor. Once again, Alice Boney was his inspiration. “I was introduced to modern Chinese painting by Alice Boney in 1949,” he wrote with affection. “As both dealer and collector, she pioneered this field in the West; many of the finest paintings I own came from her.” Boney bought her first Qi Baishi (1864–1957) ink painting in the mid-1940s, and eventually amassed over 100 works of this one artist. Her collection became the foundation for Ellsworth’s commitment to establish modern Chinese painting and calligraphy as a legitimate field of study, connoisseurship, and collection in the West. This was a tall order. Keita recalls Sherman Lee coming by in the 1980s and asking, “Are you still collecting that toilet paper, Bobby?” In his Preface to the massive and impeccably researched catalogue of his own collection of several hundred works, Ellsworth challenged those scholars and collectors who had long dismissed the last two hundred years of Chinese painting and calligraphy, to think again:
Books of this kind are seldom if ever read; but these volumes I trust will be a contribution to the reference library as well as the coffee table. If after seeing these paintings and calligraphies you are not convinced of their significance and beauty, then I will have failed a potential covert. Conviction, however, forces me to believe that the converted will be legion.
Besides Qi Baishi, Ellsworth amassed works by such towering modern masters of brush-and-ink expression as Fu Baoshi, Li Keran, Lin Fengmian, Liu Haisu, Pan Tianshou, Xu Beihong, and Zhang Daqian. As soon as Americans could travel to the PRC, Ellsworth and Keita Itoh travelled to China in search of treasure, in 1981. They rummaged through the state-run art and craft emporia in Beijing, Shanghai, Tientsin and other cities. Among their companions was Ellsworth’s old friend, the Hong Kong dealer Hei Honglu, and his son whom they nicknamed “Bing” because he carried ice for Ellsworth’s stash of bourbon. Over the following years, they travelled frequently to China together. In particular, Ellsworth was in search of Shilu, a reclusive painter, poet, and calligrapher whose refusal to revise a landscape painting depicting a diminutive figure of Mao led to his persecution at the hands of Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The artist was thrown in prison and denied access to his tools for three years. He went mad. Ellsworth sought out Shilu’s dark landscapes and “brutal” calligraphy but few turned up. Just when they were ready to give up on one of their many trips to Xian, Hei Honglu came running back to the hotel. He had found Shilu’s mistress … and Ellsworth would find his trove of Shilu. Ellsworth’s keen appreciation reveals insights that more conventional art historians would never dare to expose. He writes of Shilu’s landscape, Stately Pines on Mount Hwa (1972): “To whatever extremes he pushed, pulled, or shoved the brush and ink, in painting or calligraphy, his message is explicit. Mount Hwa with its stately pines must have appealed to this renegade and fortified his belief that one can survive even on such a precipice.”
For Ellsworth, it took some doing to persuade his good friends at the Met to accept his donation of 451 paintings and calligraphies spanning the 19th to mid-20th centuries. At the time, there was virtually no international bibliography, discourse, or market on the subject. Guardians of the advanced discipline of Chinese art history found its experimental styles jarring, confusing, or simply outside departmental bounds. Painted in ink and mineral pigment on paper or silk, all in traditional formats, the works in Ellsworth’s collection reflected “hybrid” influences ranging from Impressionism to social realism, and from traditional wood-block printing to modernist abstraction. It was thanks to director Philippe de Montebello and to the irrepressible intellectual curiosity of Wen Fong, the longtime Chairman of the Met’s Department of Asian Art, that the historic gift was ratified in 1986 with the promise of a named gallery. By the time the Met mounted its exhibition in 2001, Between Two Cultures: Late-Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Chinese Paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the field had taken off. The show was organized by Maxwell K. Hearn, the Met’s long-time Chinese painting curator who had worked with Wen Fong to expand the Asian art galleries to their position of preeminence within the museum, and the world. “The history of this art has just begun to be written,” the art critic Holland Cotter wrote in his New York Times review. “Meanwhile the Met’s survey offers a quiet sort of revolution.” In April that year, a Shi Lu painting sold at Sotheby’s for a record price of nearly $75,000.
Ellsworth’s largesse was not limited to U.S. museums. His main charitable cause was the China Heritage Arts Foundation. He founded this organization in Hong Kong and raised funds from friends around the world to restore an intact Ming-period village in Huizhou, in Anhui Province. He had heard about this architectural gem for some thirty-seven years before he first visited there, in 1991. Although these exquisite buildings had been spared the destruction that befell so much of China’s built heritage over the tumultuous modern period, it was an arduous task to restore them properly. In appreciation, the residents of Huizhou made Ellsworth, or An Siyuan as he was known, an honorary citizen. “I feel Chinese,” Bobby used to say. “I admire and feel sympathetic to the Oriental attitude that life is not easy and that one should make the best of it.”
Bobby’s death is a profound loss. He was a friend, a mentor, and the life of our enchanted field. Perhaps we can take solace from one of Shilu’s poems inscribed on one of Bobby’s favorite paintings.
I love the pines on Mount Hwa,
Tall, noble, solemn, and dignified.
Their rising trunks vie with the sun and the moon,
Resisting cold winds through the years.
They shake their arms at the sky-scraping ridge,
And hold their heads like striding blue dragons,
Supporting the clouds forever,
Without taking flight to the heavens.
The author offers her thanks to these friends and colleagues for their contributions to this remembrance: Masahiro Hashiguchi, Keita Itoh, Robert Mowry, and Amy and Robert Poster. And as always, to Rand and Sondra Castile.