Two journalists explore the allure of Asian art for museum directors, collectors, archaeologists and others.
World Policy Journal editor Meyer and documentary producer Brysac have collaborated before (Kingmakers: The Invention of the Middle East, 2008, etc.). Here, they shift their focus to the Far East to pursue a story they stumbled across in the archives at Harvard University. Their discovery of some key letters propelled them into a scholar’s adventure—visits to libraries, museums, archives and relevant sites—and the result is a well-organized, if sometimes-dense, description of a passion shared by some fascinating figures throughout the past century. Some of the names are well-known (J. Pierpont Morgan, Joseph Alsop and Avery Brundage, for example), but others will be familiar only to art historians—e.g., Laurence Sickman, Denman Ross, Charles Lang Freer, George Crofts and Alan Priest. The authors float along on a fairly steady chronological stream, although they sometimes pause for some back story and context (we learn about the Manchus’ sumptuary laws, for example). They also consider the moral and ethical aspects of the removing-art-from-China enterprise. (Lord Elgin emerges as a touchstone.) It’s the old debate: Is it better to remove treasures from an unstable society and deny them to looters or leave them to face an uncertain, and probably dire, fate? Some of the authors’ collectors embraced the latter position, but most did not. The authors also explore various varieties of art—bronze works, sculpture, porcelain and paintings. We learn some personal tidbits about some of the principals, as well. Sickman (of Harvard’s Fogg Museum) collected first editions of Charles Dickens’ works; Lucy Calhoun, wife of William James Calhoun (envoy to China), was the sister of Poetry Magazine’s Harriet Monroe.
Assiduous research underlies a text that will appeal principally to art historians and devotees of Asian art.