The quirky and enormous trove of Chinese antiquities collected by a Vienna-born psychiatrist who lived in a tiny apartment in Summit, N.J. -- a 5,000-object hoard with a value in the neighborhood of $60 million -- has been given to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
The gift, which makes Washington the nation's premier center for the study of ancient Chinese art, comes from Paul Singer, who died in 1997, and also from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, which supported Singer's buying in the last years of his life, as well as from Sackler's children and the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities.
Singer, born in 1904, collected art obsessively. Most of what he purchased was more than 1,000 years old; he was a teenager in Vienna when he bought his first Far Eastern bronze in 1921.
A similarly shared enthusiasm for the antiquities of China connected him to Arthur Sackler, who three years before his own death in 1987 opened a museum on the Mall adjacent to the Freer Gallery of Art.
Singer is the latest of a line of individualist collectors whose passions gave rise to the city's art museums.
His gift, which is especially strong in small, provincial objects, makes ancient Chinese art the richest of the fields covered jointly by the holdings of the Sackler and the Freer, which was founded in 1923 by Charles Lang Freer, an idiosyncratic Detroit industrialist in love with Oriental art. Those two institutions, joined underground by a series of tunnels and separated only by a glass wall, share a staff and function very much as a single entity within the Smithsonian Institution.
Interest in the oldest artifacts of China has grown markedly in recent years thanks in large part to the progress of scientific excavation. One sign of that increased interest is the exhibit "The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries From the People's Republic of China," which will open at the National Gallery of Art on Sept. 19.
Singer was 13 when be bought his first antique, a bone-handled scimitar that he hung above his bed. Four years later he acquired his first Far Eastern bronze, a South Asian bodhisattva, which he kept on his desk for the remainder of his life. At 19 he decided to limit his collecting to old Chinese art.
Singer, a Jew, fled Austria -- and Hitler -- in 1938.
"Anyone who knew about Chinese art knew about Dr. Singer and his collection," Thomas Lawton, the Freer's director emeritus said yesterday. "He was very open with it. He invited all sorts of people to his house -- I say house, but he lived very modestly in a two-room apartment in Summit, New Jersey. He had his 5,000 objects stashed in every corner of the place. His rooms were lined with tiered shelves on which the antiquities were arranged, according to type and material, in rows four or five deep.
"Once Jill and Arthur Sackler came to visit, and Jill noticed one chest whose top was bare. `How can you bear such emptiness,' she asked, joking. Singer bristled. He said, `That's where I unroll my Chinese hand scrolls.'
"He would spend every weekend in Manhattan," Lawton continued. "He'd attend every auction, and he'd scour the galleries. He was a small, debonair gentleman with a cosmopolitan air. He spoke accentless English. Paul had certain areas he liked very much. One was South China, particularly the state of Chu, which flourished between the eighth and third centuries B.C., and whose objects had a certain notable flamboyance. Though his finances were limited, that's what he bought most happily. Some people thought him highly opinionated, but he knew as much about that region as anyone else around.
"Dr. Singer met Dr. Sackler in 1957. They were both about the same age, and they were both psychiatrists, and they hit it off from the start. To raise a little extra money, Dr. Singer had sent some of his lesser objects to Sotheby's, where Dr. Sackler saw them. Then Sotheby's called Singer and said somebody wants to meet you. That's how it all began."
"He was crotchety," said Milo Beach, the director of Sackler and Freer, "and strong in his opinions. It wasn't just the beautiful that interested him. He went to ancient objects to learn about ancient peoples and how they interacted. He knew our collection very well. Later on, when he began buying with Arthur's financial support, he did his best to fill in gaps, and to complement what Sackler already owned.
"This gift of his," Beach added, "it's a great thing."
Eighteen objects from the Singer Collection are already on view in the Sackler's ground-level pavilion. One is a bronze bell, circa 1500 B.C., of very high quality. "You should hear it," said Beach. "It has the most beautiful tone." Another is a large pierced ritual disk, a bi, carved 4,000 years ago of brownish mottled jade.
"That disk," said Jenny So, the museum's curator of Chinese art, "has already changed our view of our collection. We have a similar disk, in storage, which Freer acquired in 1910 which we long thought might be modern. We don't think so any more. We know the Singer piece came from the Great Wall area and when it was carved, and it looks like the Freer disk was cut from the same block."
A catalogue of the Paul Singer Collection and an exhibit at the Sackler are being prepared.