He opens at random one drawer in a whole wallful of drawers and picks up a charming carved Chinese duck the size of a billiard ball, sleek and gleaming as a Brancusi. he puts it in your hand, and your hand sinks halfway to the floor.
The duck is heavy. It is gold.
For every eight objects the public sees at the Freer Gallery of Art, there are 92 stored away for scholars. Charles Lang Freer wanted it that way. He saw it as a research museum to which students could come from all over the world to view Oriental and Near Eastern art.
Today you can find a young man sitting barefoot and crosslegged on the carpeted floor of a study room. He is Japanese. He came here from Japan on a grant to study . . . Japanese screens.
In the three years since Thomas Lawton became director, the Freer has become distinctly more popular with visitors to the Mall. Attendance is up 24 percent. Rugs now cover some of the severe stone floors, and there are pleasant benches.
Lawton is so determined to heighten public interest, in fact, that he is insisting on keeping the museum open early next year when part of the exhibit space will be closed (beginning in January) for a major overhaul of ventilation, heating, air conditioning, humidity control and electrical systems. It will make the Freer -- whose Florentine Renaissance rooms and corridors are always crowded with the choicest art of a continent -- seem even more compact, even more of a gem.
Up front, the Freer Gallery is a kind of Treasure Island on the Mall. Backstage, it is the Swiss Family Robinson.
Robert Evans, a business administration graduate who turned to cabinetmaking, directs 13 of the Freer's 46 staffers. His people can do just about anything, from reproducing the massive walnut exhibit cases designed by Charles Platt to repairing a stall in the men's room.
Right now Cornell Evans, one of his three cabinetmakers, is designing a new door for the museum to replace Platt's rather dumpy entrance. The men will build it themselves.
The display cases, whose heavy glass covers are cranked up to open them and whose joinery is so perfect they're airtight, can themselves be moved easily on a dolly. The entire body of exhibits is extremely mobile.
"We get problem jobs that give us a chance to express ourselves a little," said Bob Evans. "We design supports for the exhibits, make special stands." s
Quite a lot of Oriental art has to be seen from both sides, and this calls for some ingenious props. One device is a lovely curving scimitar of Plexiglas, a work of art in itself yet so unassuming it does not intrude on the object it holds.
Evans' people also created the oblong planter boxes whose curves relieve the museum's straight lines, and the big posters for individual shows, and the picture frames of Honduras mahogany, lacquered and rubbed, and the bookcases and desks and benches and 15-foot cabinets casually turned out in approriate style.
Even the Freer's technical lab, prized by Orientalists the world over for its detective work and expert restoration, is not above welding a broken book cart or making some lead weights for the screen room or building a clamp to hold paintings under the giant X-ray machine.
Evans also operates a plant hospital in the attic, where ailing ferns are given a rest from the rigidly moderated humidity of the main gallery.
The screen room: This entire space is devoted to repair and restoration of Japanese screens, made with an ancient and mystical craft that awes Evans and his crew ("If an apprentice even stepped over his master's saw, he could be whipped"). Each wood-and-paper rectangular screen is cunningly proportioned, with joinery that could only have been perfected in a land that had long ago used up its tall timber.
"They use Japanese cedar, but that's way too expensive to get here, and for a long time people were using sugar pine in restoring. But the pine leaked sap on the screens, so we searched around and came up with poplar, just the right lightness and softness. Now all those screens are being remounted and cleaned. Oh yes, our people do it right here . . ."
One suspects that even if half the city were blown away, the Freer could take care of itself. At that, the museum maintained its distance from the rest of the Smithsonian Institution in the years after its 1923 opening, coming gingerly closer as budgets went up and technical equipment became more expensive. A $50 million plan that would include an annex for the Freer, underground storage space and other features has been proposed by the Smithsonian.
Space has always been a headache at the Freer. The original 1906 bequest contained 2,250 objects, summarized in an early document:
"By James McNeill Whistler, 119 paintings in oil, watercolor and pastel; 100 drawings and sketches, 3 wood engravings, 600 etchings and drypoints, 165 lithographs, and all the decorations of the famous Peacock Room. By the American artists Dwight W. Tryon, Thomas W. Dewing and Abbot H. Thayer, 60 paintings in oil, watercolor and pastel.Of Oriental paintings, 298 kakemono and makemono, 121 screens and 53 panels, by various masters of Japanese and Chinese schools, from the 10th to the 19th century, including Ririomin, Sesshu, Sesson, Motonobu, Tanyu, Koyetsu, Sotatsu, Korin, Kenzan, Hoitsu, Okio and yhokusa; besides 4 albums of Japanese art and 13 Tibetan paintings. Of Oriental pottery, 953 pieces from Japan, China, Korea, Central Asia, Persia and Arabia. There is also a small collection of ancient Chinese and Japanese bronzes and some lacquer work by Koyetsu, Korin and Ritsuwo."
By the time Freer died in 1919, the collection had mushroomed to 10,000 objects. Subsequent purchases added 2,000 more.
And Freer himself? He was a poor boy, born in 1856 at Kingston, N.Y., one of those clay-rich brickmaking towns along the Hudson. He went to work at 14 in a cement factory, then clerked in a general store. When he was 16, his enterprise and dash caught the eye of the manager of an adjoining office, a branch of the New York, Kingston and Syracuse Railroad, and he went to work there.
Railroads were his fortune. He stuck with them until he retired in 1900 a rich man. The money came from building railroad cars in Detroit. Until his death, Freer traveled through Asia and Africa -- he visited China four times between 1895 and 1910 -- picking up treasures along the way with an increasingly sure and sensitive eye.
He almost didn't get to Japan.Reaching Yokohama shortly after it was opened to foreigners, Freer immediately got into a fight with customs officers, who spoke hardly any English. He stormed back toward his ship, vowing that he would never return, when a local businessman, Yozo Nomura, stepped up and invited him to come call on his neighbor, a silk exporter named Hara.
Charmed, Freer followed Nomura to the superb Hara villa, floor-to-ceiling with rare Japanese art. It made a believer out of him.
Everyone at he Freer seems to carry a lot of keys. Tom Lawton has 30 at least, picks out the right one unerringly.
"The CIA says we're better guarded than they are," he muttered, striding through one office after another, locking and unlocking doors as he went. Opening a large case, he brought out a lacquer bowl probably 2,500 years old, a foot in diameter but as light as a tape cassette.
"Our earliest things are some neolithic pots, maybe 3000 B.C. Sometimes we don't know quite what we've got." Lawton, a widely known specialist in Chinese art, picked up a curiously decorated hook. "We thought this was a kind of belt hook when we bought it in 1944, but when I was in this was a kind of belt hook when we bought it in 1944, but when I was in Peking later I saw them in pairs. They were used to pick up hot pots. We spend about a quarter million a year on new stuff, sometimes five objects, sometimes one."
He showed a jade box whose lid fit with the exquisite precision of fine machinery. He showed the elegant custom-made boxes for the Indian miniatures, in polished walnut, opened by pushbutton. He showed the small jade piece that was the last thing Freer bought, held in his hand as he lay dying. He showed a 1,500-year-old bodhisattva figure of wood, lacquer and gold.
"We're getting lots of archeological work from China since relations opened up in '73," he said. "Their publications are available now. This is all very nice for me, because I don't like traveling much. I don't have to: The scholars all come here."
In the paintings room, scholars set their work on a long, narrow, high table specially designed for this. The table happens to be Ming.
The ceramics room has a heavily padded floor, since students are encouraged to handle the pottery -- so far, no tragedies -- and here the work tables have cork surfacing, sleek with much use. There are big boxes full of potsherds, broken bits of vases so useful to archeologists. Freer made a point of collecting these.
"After all, he saw this as a research museum," Lawton said. "He would buy fakes because they are very useful as teaching tools. They might be 'school of . . . ' or copies. Some of them have since been found to be genuine."
The fakes are one reason why Freer forbade the usual museum exchanges and traveling shows. His treasurers never leave the building. But the first-rate Freer darkroom procedures color transparencies on request, especially handy for the Whistler collection, the biggest in the world, rack after rack, 9 feet by 12, packed frame-to-frame on both sides with watercolors and oils. (You can pull out a rack, turn it on its axis to bring the other side into the sunlight.)
Freer admired the work of Whistler, started collecting it in 1887. Sixteen years later he bought a major portrait, "The Princess from the Land of Porcelain," and then he bought the room it came from: the Peacock Room. A story goes with it.
The Peacock Room drove a man mad once.
Designed in 1876 by Henry Jeckyll, an English decorator and longtime friend of Whistler, it was to feature the Princess portrait, donated by the painter, and was to be the dining room in the London mansion of Frederick Leyland, a rich shipbuilding patron of Whistler's.
But when Whistler saw his painting in the finished room with its leather decor he flipped. He got permission to touch it up a bit. For the next six months, in a rising frenzy of creative energy, he worked at furious speed, covering the whole thing with gold peacock feathers and irridescent blue-greens, painting the ceiling while lying in a hammock with his brush tied to the end of a fishing rod. Then he charged the owner double, 2,000 guineas.
Leyland took one look at the great golden mural showing two peacocks, one haughty and clawing at gold pieces, the other bedraggled and indignant . . . and he flipped too. He refused to pay the extra 1,000 guineas, instead paid the bill in pounds, an insult to a gentleman. Then Jeckyll dropped in one day to see how his leather room -- the job that he thought would surely make him famous -- was coming along. According to Whistler's biographer, the decorator "hurried home, guided his floor, and forgot his grief in a mad house."
Having destroyed Jeckyll's work, Whistler later published letters giving him credit for the room's design, whether in contempt or contrition is not known.
In any case, the room is now in the Freer. Lawton hopes to restore its original appearance by filling its shelves with the blue-and-white porcelain meant for them.
In the lab, founded in the '50s, head conserver Thomas Chase, an expert in Chinese bronzes, studies a small figure. The question: Is it rhino or water buffalo horn?
"It's like forensic work," he says. "We do some work on possible fakes, but it's mostly dating genuine stuff. We also do preservation work, examine items routinely for changes."
Adds his assistant Lynda Zycherman. "Temperature and humidity control are the major defenses.Dry for bronzes, moderate humidity for organic stuff like paper or leather."
In the lab are drawers of materials for microscopic comparison -- including some bits of horn. Mainly, they are paint pigments: five from Japanese sources alone, some 18th-century Stuttgart colors, ancient powders from Rome, samples from J.M.W. Turner's palette. (It was partly through analysis of his synthetic ultramarine blue, after all, that the celebrated Dutch forger Van Meegeren was detected. There's a slide of that blue, too, in the Freer lab.)
Poring over a tiny section of An Yang bronze -- a beautiful starry sky-scape at 100 powers in the giant microscope -- Chase wonders aloud why it is so much less corroded than companion pieces. He knows that the Yellow River, near the excavation site, flooded regularly, causing layers of corrosion almost as readable as tree rings. But this doesn't seem to fit. Yet it is known to be authentic . . .
One thinks of Sherlock Holmes and his monograph on cigar ashes. How he would have loved the Freer.