The Smithsonian Institution is reported in line to receive what is considered one of the largest private collections of Far Eastern art in existence for its proposed new oriental art museum near the Mall.
Smithsonian Assistant Secretary Charles Blitzer yesterday said he could not "confirm or deny anything" concerning acquisition of the collection, which belongs to Arthur M. Sackler, a wealthy New York psychiatrist and medical publisher.
Sackler, whose secretary said he was in Washington yesterday, could not be reached for comment.
A catalogue of the entire Sackler collection of oriental art has not been published, but it is known to include more than 5,000 ancient objects.
The donated collection would be housed in the new center for oriental art, one of two museums Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley has proposed be built, mainly underground, in the open space between the Smithsonian Castle and Independence Avenue. (The other museum would house the National Museum of African Art.)
Sources say that one of the delicate points of discussion between the institution and the collector is his desire to give the center his own name. Another question is whether Congress will appropriate $36.5 million for the two museums, which are to be funded jointly by the federal government and private donations at an estimated cost of $75 million. Last month Congress authorized the $36.5 million for the project; actual appropriations will be considered by both houses in August or early September. Sackler reportedly also has offered a substantial donation to support construction of the oriental art museum.
Many of the objects in Sackler's vast collection have been stored for years in the so-called "Sackler enclave" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The collector and his two brothers donated funds for that museum's Arthur Sackler Wing, which houses the Egyptian Temple of Dendur and temporary exhibition galleries. Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan, declined to comment yesterday.
Scholars contacted yesterday would not discuss the Sackler collection in detail, but all agreed, as one said, that it is a collection "of importance." It is known to be especially strong in early Chinese bronzes dating back some 3,000 years, and in jade objects of later periods.
Acquiring these works would provide the new Smithsonian museum with an immediate and sizable permanent collection complementing the distinguished oriental holdings of the Freer Museum, which opened in 1922 with objects donated by Charles Lang Freer, a Detroit industrialist and this country's first serious collector of Far Eastern art on a large scale.
Certain idiosyncrasies of Freer's bequest--his stipulation that no objects in the museum's collection be exhibited elsewhere, for instance, or his insistence that no artworks be accepted for temporary display in the Freer--have been used by Ripley and others to explain the need for the new museum. The two new buildings, joined underground, would share research and office space. According to an informal arrangement, Dr. Thomas Lawton, director of the Freer, would also become director of the new oriental art museum.
Sackler, 68, is publisher of the International Medical Tribune Newspapers. His arrangements to store parts of his collections in museums have caused controversy over the proper relationship between private collectors and public museums.
In the art world, Sackler is best known for his oriental collection, although he has many other interests. A selection of European terra cotta sculptures from his collection was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art three years ago; on Sept. 5 an exhibition of Renaissance maiolica (a tin-glazed earthenware) from his collection, augmented by the gallery's own holdings, will open there. He has made sizable financial donations to the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and Princeton and Harvard Universities.