Arthur M. Sackler, the medical publisher, psychiatrist and art collector who donated 1,000 masterpieces of oriental art to a planned Smithsonian addition to the Freer Gallery of Art, was the honored guest last night at a reception celebrating the exhibition "16th-Century Italian Maiolica" at the National Gallery of Art.
While the Folger Consort performed 16th-century music on Renaissance mandoras, lutes and recorders, guests wandered about the vast softly lit lobby of the East Building, sipping Italian wines and feasting on shrimp, salmon, curried meatballs and tiny quail eggs in the moving shadow of the Calder mobile.
Sackler chatted with Sarah Epstein, a Washington collector, about her prints by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. "You know something about collecting, too," Epstein said.
"Yes, I've contracted the disease, and I've never been able to develop an immunity to works of art," Sackler joked.
Sackler, 68, in black tie, effusively greeted old friends from the Washington and international art communities. Sackler, who is known for his penchant for privacy, was cordial and loquacious, but emphasized several times that he did not wish to be interviewed. "Don't quote me, quote everybody else," Sackler said. "I don't give interviews. I don't mind speaking about my scientific work. But if my work in the arts doesn't speak for itself, then I'm a failure."
Cyril Humphris, a London art dealer and Renaissance art expert who sold Sackler many of the pieces in the Maiolica exhibit, explained Sackler's reticence. "He's spoken to me about his philosophy of collecting. He feels if you start talking about money when you talk about art, you obscure the message. He wants to avoid equating the two, and people inevitably ask him, 'But how much does it cost?' "
The Sackler collection coming to the Freer is estimated to be worth more than $50 million. Sackler has also pledged $4 million toward construction of the new underground facility directly behind the Smithsonian castle on Independence Avenue.
Sackler greeted old friend Seymour Slive with a hug and introduced him as "Mr. Art History, U.S.A." Slive, founding director of Harvard University's planned Fogg art museum expansion, said Sackler is financially supporting the construction of the museum, which will also house a large collection of oriental art.
"I'm not ambitious to exceed my beloved New York museums for a moment," said Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, "but Washington is going to be the center of not just the political world, but the cultural world."
Thomas Lawton, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and specialist in Chinese art history, dropped by before attending the opening of the Freer's five new exhibitions. Lawton said Sackler gave him carte blanche to personally choose the oriental art from his collection for the Smithsonian. Lawton said, "I just went up to New York and presented him with my list, which worked out to 1,000 objects, and he said, 'That's fine, Tom.' I think this means we'll be the center for Asian art history and culture, outside of the Far East."