Fortune Comes to a Prepared Mind
Moke Mokotoff
Director, Asian Arts Inc.
moke.mokotoff@gmail.com


     
+ enlarge
      My favorite silk in the catalogue was an embroidery depicting boys riding and leading saddled goats, and as I spent hours studying the reproductions of it, I came to love this textile more than any other work of art in the world.
     

The story of my discovery of the Yuan dynasty embroider 'Welcoming spring' from the imperial collection (the cover piece of the catalogue of the current exhibition 'When Silk Was Gold'; see James Watt's article in this issue. fig. 13) begins at a small sale at Christie's East in New York in 1980, where I came across a copy of the multi-volumed catalogue Tapestry and Embroidery in the Collection of the National Palace Museum (Tokyo, 1970), valued at US$100 to US$150. Upon noticing my interest, a fellow dealer exclaimed that for that much money I could buy a piece of art! From the two magnificent plates I was able to see, however, I knew that these books contained images of the most beautiful textiles I had ever imagined. I deiced to bid up to US$400 for the catalogue. At the time of the auction, I happened to be visiting an old friend, Beverly Coburn, and so bid on her telephone. The bidding went up to $200...$300...$400... Beverly looked at me, and in a very knowing way announced: 'You need that book!' I bought it for US$880.

My favorite silk in the catalogue was an embroidery depicting boys riding and leading saddled goats, and as I spent hours studying the reproductions of it, I came to love this textile more than any other work of art in the world. When visiting Sotheby's, which, in those days, was on Madison Avenue, I sometimes perused the catalogues of the London Belgravia 'whites' sales. On one occasion, in early 1981, besides hundreds of lots of Victorian ladies' underwear and the star attraction — JR's hat (or rather one of JR's hats) from the TV show Dallas, valued at 2,000 — was the mate to my favorite piece in the National Palace Museum. The silk embroidery was given an estimate of  500 to 1,000. In China, pairs are considered auspicious, and in this case, the two embroideries were virtually identical in size, theme and general aesthetic impact. Sotheby's, however, had described the work as a 'painted and embroidered silk scroll of the 18th century'. When I rang up, I was told that the piece had been shown to two experts at the Victory & Albert Museum, who had recognized the ink seal of a Qianlong period collection, and on that basis, had determined its date. I put together all my life-savings and all founds I could borrow on short notice against my house, and flew to London that night, arriving after the sale had started. Forty or so lots before the embroidery was to come up, a Sotheby's expert let me unroll about a quarter of the scroll and asked: 'You don't think it's early, do you?' I commented only that its condition was worse than I had expected. I ended up buying it for 550. I heard later in English dealer circles that the lot had been consigned by Spink & Son Ltd, having possibly been acquired in the late 19th century. The technique of the embellishing the motifs with flossy satin stitch while using extremely fine 'tent stitch' for the background landscape gave the experts at Sotheby's who catalogued the textile the impression that the composition was embroidered on a painted ground.


+ enlarge
     
The under bidder had been a prominent New York textile dealer advising and bidding for Jean Mailey, then textile curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The under bidder had been a prominent New York textile dealer advising and bidding for Jean Mailey, then textile curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oddly enough, a month before discovering the piece at Sotheby's, I had been visiting Jean a the Metropolitan and had spied the National Palace Museum catalogue on her self. When I commented how wonderful the ancient textiles depicted there were, she remarked that the common opinion among academics was that all the textiles in that collection were of Qing manufacture and that the pre-18th century dates were spurious. Arguing fot the validity of the earlier dates, I replied that one of kesi depicted a Buddhist tutelary deity — the summon bonum of the Tibetan Sakya lamas, the teachers of the Khans of the Yuan dynasty — who would not have been revered by the Qing court. She suggested we meet again to discuss this and other historical points in detail, but her busy schedule never allowed us to have that meeting.

I returned to New York with my treasure and hung it in my apartment. After a month, however, I noticed a tiny additional crack or two and realized I was incapable of preserving or restoring the silk properly. My first inclination was to offer the scroll to the Metropolitan: not only would the piece remain local, but it would benefit from the Met's world-class textile conservation laboratory and Chinese painting conservation department. Thus began the task of proving my htpothesis that the embroidery was from the Yuan period.

For me, the piece had a distinctly Mongol and ancient 'feeling'. I had been in some way sensitive to this 'feeling' since my first 'Taras Bulba' film in the mid '50s. my years of study with Sakya Trizin, the present-day heir of Chogyal Phagpa, the Buddhist Guru of Khubilai Khan, and other lamas of the Sakya lineage enabled me to understand and accept the Yuan attribution of plate 47 in the kesi commentary volume. Therefore, the general academic opinion that all the early dates for the collection were spurious, I knew to be spurious itself. There is in fact a Quin copy of the boys on goats, illustrated in the smaller volume of commentary on the embroideries (pl. 146). The distinctive aesthetic dynamic created by the thrust of vertical, horizontal and diagonal line in the early scroll as opposed to the stasis of the Quin scroll is further comparative stylistic proof of two distinct periods of production.

Schuyler Cammann was then Professor Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, and I knew from his writings on rank badges that he would understand my Yuan attribution. Textile dealer David Bernstein gave me encouragement, and the two of us drove down to Philadelphia to see Cammann. When Cammann saw the piece, he immediately agreed with a 13th/14th century dating, pointing out that the style of the clae of the dragon decorated the saddle of one of the the goats was of the Yuan type. He also pointed out the broad band of embroidery on the chests of the boys' coats were the precursors of the later, Ming dynasty rank badges. He related to us tales of seeing boys riding on such goats when he explored Mongolia  on foot in the '40s. encouraged by Cammann's response, I continued on to Princeton University that afternoon, showing up unannounced at the office of Wen C Fong. (Wen Fong is both a professor of Chinese art and Calligraphy at the Metropolitan.) He was just going into a faculty meeting when I showed up, but he hesitantly agreed to have a quick look at what he must have thought was another unimportant attic 'treasure'. His recognition was immediate, however. Seeing it unrolled, he responded powerfully to the embroidery's painterly aesthetic and demanded I wait there until the faculty meeting ended. Two hours later he returned, and there began the negotiations that were to go on for the next few months before the Douglas Dillion Trust  purchased the embroidery for the museum.

Though Fong was convinced of the early date of the embroidery on stylistic grounds, he explained to me the need to scientifically prove its early attribution. A few fibers from the scroll, as well as fibers to be used for comparison from a silk fragment in the Met's collection from the 14th century tomb of a European bishop, were sent to Junroe Nunome, retired professor of sericulture at Kyoto University of Fiber industries. Nunome's comparative analysis of the cross section of the silk strands under an electron microscope showed that cosmic ray bombardment, a constant in the universe, had affected the two groups of silk fibers nearly identically. Thus he determined they were contemporary. With scientific proof of the scroll's age, Wen Fong and I were able to reach a price that was amenable to both of us, and the piece was restored and mounted just in time for the opening of the Metropolitan's Astor Court in 1981.


Arts and Culture: Art and Exhibitions | Books & Publications | Cultural Studies


Newsletter Sign Up:
 



© The Tibetan Mongolian Museum Society • 4105 Duke Street • Suite 108, Alexandria, VA 22304