One Man’s Search for Ancient China: The Paul Singer Collection
January 19–July 7, 2013
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Trained as a psychiatrist, Dr. Paul Singer is best remembered for his wide-ranging Chinese art collection, which he assembled largely at a time when American contact with China was severely restricted. Born in Hungary in 1904 and raised in Austria, Singer made his first purchase of East Asian art at the age of seventeen. He collected most aggressively after he immigrated to this country in 1939, making discoveries at art dealers, auction houses, and thrift stores alike. By the time of his death in 1997, Singer’s holdings had grown to some five thousand objects, mostly Chinese works of art, that he displayed in his modest two-bedroom apartment in Summit, New Jersey.
The Singer collection is particularly strong in ancient ceramics, metalwork, and jades. He referred to Chinese archaeological findings as a guide in building his holdings. He was also drawn to the unique and surprising, hoping that archaeologists would eventually prove them to be authentic. His pursuits were made more difficult due to a lack of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and China during the mid-twentieth century. American scholars could only follow the progress of Chinese excavations through academic journals such as Kaogu (Archaeology) and Wenwu (Cultural Relics). As he recalled, “A fairly large portion of my collection, acquired in the distant past, consists of objects that had been rejected by experts. Those same pieces were later recognized as being genuine as a result of information provided by archaeological excavations.”
Despite the small size of his apartment, Singer made his ample collection readily available to university and museum specialists, and he welcomed students to learn about Chinese archaeology and material science by examining his holdings. He also knowingly purchased copies and forgeries to highlight characteristics of authentic objects. In this way his collection served as a kind of research laboratory and yielded numerous publications and exhibitions. An amateur researcher himself, Singer was responsible for dozens of scholarly articles and catalogues. “I believe the excitement of working with these enigmatic objects, of trying to resolve questions of provenance, chronology and authenticity—when little or nothing is known about a piece—makes the effort highly worthwhile,” he explained.
Given his interest in Chinese antiquities, Dr. Singer inevitably encountered Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, who was also a psychiatrist and an Asian art lover. The two collectors quickly became friends after they met at a Sotheby’s auction in 1957. In the 1970s Sackler began to support Singer’s collecting habit with an annual allowance—and with the understanding that Singer’s holdings would eventually be donated to a Sackler museum. That promise resulted in the gift of the Paul Singer collection to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 1997.
All objects in this exhibition are from the Dr. Paul Singer Collection of Chinese Art of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; a joint gift of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Paul Singer, the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities, and the Children of Arthur M. Sackler
Dr. Paul Singer amassed one of the most important Chinese archaeological collections in the United States and kept the more than five thousand objects in his modest apartment. With One Man’s Search for Ancient China: The Paul Singer Collection opening on Saturday, we asked photographer John Tsantes, head of Imaging and Photographic Services at Freer|Sackler, to talk about shooting the collection in situ at Singer’s New Jersey home back in 1998.
“Dr. Singer’s house, in a nondescript garden apartment complex in New Jersey, was not what I had expected. When you walked in the front door you had to be careful where you stepped. If you weren’t looking, you could bump into an object. In those days before digital, we shot with film. I had a camera mounted on a tripod and had trouble finding any space that would let me stand behind the three legs of the tripod. Every chair, every sofa, indeed every surface in every room—that includes the bathroom—was filled with objects, but everything was very well packaged and organized. One closet was filled with small boxes wrapped in brocade from floor to ceiling, and in each was an important object. When you opened a kitchen cabinet, you’d discover a work of art. Our registrars, who were cataloguing the collection, never thought that they’d be able to leave.”