Keith Wilson, curator of the Sackler Gallery. Keith Wilson, curator of the Sackler Gallery.

When Paul Singer died in 1997, he left a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey stuffed with history. Not his own: Singer, a psychiatrist, was a collector of ancient Chinese artifacts. His collection eventually went to the Sackler Gallery, where its highlights compose “One Man’s Search for Ancient China.” Curator Keith Wilson spoke to us about how the Sackler got the collection.

Beyond the obvious similarities — both were psychiatrists, both were interested in Asian art — were Arthur Sackler and Paul Singer alike?

By the ’50s, Sackler was incredibly well established; he was a well-known collector. He could buy anything he wanted to. He was interested in masterworks and he tended to buy collections from collectors. Singer was on his own personal mission to develop a collection that explained early China without totally relying on established paradigms and well-known masterworks.

What pieces did Singer end up with?

Things that were collected in large part as art. Context was much less important to collectors in the late 19th and early 20th century. But as archaeology developed in China, scholars and collectors came to recognize the importance of provenance.

Do you think the focus on archaeology diminishes these works’ role as art?

The archaeologically driven issues made the pieces infinitely more interesting. They’re still studied as beautiful objects, but it’s what the artifacts say about society and their users that’s interesting to scholars and the general public.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; Sat., through July 7, free; 202-633-4880. (Smithsonian)