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Friday, February 28, 2020

Hidden Treasures of the Collection: Asian Statues

One of the reasons that we initially created this blog was to have an avenue to highlight some of Staatsburgh's collections that are not always noticeable or highlighted on the tour.  The house has so many collections that it is impossible to cover it all on a tour.  Some objects or paintings are positioned in such a way that is is hard to see them from the tour path.  The "Hidden Treasures of the Collection" blog series provides a closer look at some of the interesting pieces throughout the house. This essay will examine a Chinese and a Japanese figure, which were just two of the many Asian pieces that adorned Staatsburgh.

Chinese Ming-Style figure, c. early 19th century.
Japanese Buddah statue, c.19th century.

If you were a male visitor to Staatsburgh, you would descend the ‘Bachelor Stairs’ with your host to the Billiard Room below. Between discussions on business and politics, you would admire some of Ogden Mills' personal collection of art and artifacts. Among them, seen in an original photograph of the room, are two early 19th-century Asian statues; a Ming-style Chinese official and a gilded Japanese standing Buddha. Since that space has been transformed into the site's public entrance and gift shop, the room's original contents, including those pieces, have been relocated to storage, out of the public view.

Billiard Room at Staatsburgh showing location of the objects.

As with all other Asian pieces on display in the house, these statues came into the Mills' possession through auction. In 1911, Ogden attended the sale of his uncle’s estate in New York. Heber K. Bishop, a businessman and collector, married Mary Cunningham, sister of Mrs. Jane Cunningham Mills, who was Ogden's mother.  Like his brother-in-law and nephew, Bishop held interests in railroads, mining companies, and banking firms; yet he is perhaps best remembered today as a renowned collector of Chinese jade. Just months before his death in 1902, Bishop donated his collection, considered one of “the world’s leading collection[s]” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nine years later, remaining artifacts from his wide-reaching collection were auctioned off (many for the second time). Notably, that auction is where Mr. Mills acquired Albert Bierstadt’s oil on canvas landscape painting, “Sierra Nevada,” which is today on display in Staatsburgh's library.

Heber Bishop (1840-1902).
Jade Room at the MET donated by Heber Bishop.

Both statues still bear the markings from that 1911 auction. The Chinese figurine, accompanied by a small, square-shaped dark-wood stand, both have a yellow “6740” painted on their undersides, implying they were auctioned together as a set. The statue has an additional “4” sticker on its front, consistent with its lot number from the auction. We don’t know exactly what Mr. Mills paid for this piece, but according to an annotated 1906 auction catalog in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the statue was listed for $52.50 (the Bierstadt was also listed then, for $1650.00). The Japanese Buddha has a similarly painted yellow number on its back ("4725"), along with three stickers of unknown origin. Oddly, 4725 does not match any known lot numbers from either auction. Yet it is known that the Buddha fetched a higher price in 1906 than the Chinese statue: $175.00.

Auction sticker on the Chinese figure.
Painted number and sticker from the Buddha. 

According to William Sargent, former curator of Asian Export Art for the Peabody Museum of Salem, who visited Staatsburgh in 1992, the Chinese figure is possibly made from unfired clay, a common material for these statues at the time. In addition, he suspected the piece depicts a Ming-style official, based off its clothing, and has a "late 19th century feeling." Unfortunately, its striking red color is chipping off, the right hand is missing, and there are large cracks on either side.

Over two feet tall, the Buddha statue is considerably taller, and lighter, than the other figure, being crafted from wood and covered in gilding. While most of the gold remains on the figure, it is missing some fingers and the lotus flower the religious figure stands upon has lost four petals. This representation of the Buddha would have been a common sight in temples, traditionally welcoming the souls of the dead. Their index fingers and thumbs are joined together (to form circles), presenting the sacred Vitarka Mudra gesture, fittingly associated with discussion and learning (the former of which was abundant in the Billiard Room).

Detail of the Buddha's Vitarka Mudra gesture.

The artifacts' current resting place in Staatsburgh's collection storage.

The history of these specific pieces, before their purchase by Ogden Mills, is unclear. It is difficult to determine under what circumstances they came out of Asia and into the possession of Heber Bishop. Such pieces appear in numerous Gilded Age collections from the Mills' peers. Railroad titan Henry Walters, and his father William, amassed a sizable collection of Asian pieces for the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Through influential art dealer Yamanaka Sadajiro, John Rockefeller Jr. and his wife Abby acquired porcelain and sculptures for their residences. Notably, Sadajiro opened branches of his Asian art business in fashionable elite locations like New York, Paris, and Newport (where the Mills, and their social peers, had homes). The number of Asian pieces on view in Staatsburgh attest to the Mills' taste for the style.

Within the wider context of the era, however, is western prejudice towards the Chinese and a growing influence within Japan. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, limiting the entry of Chinese immigrates into America. Additionally, in the 19th and early 20th century, China was largely under the control of European invading forces, resulting in their cultural treasures scattered across the globe into collections. While Japan was never under foreign-rule like China, the 1854 'opening of Japan' by Commodore Matthew Perry signaled an explosion of trade. Japanese artisans were encouraged to produce and export pieces for a growing American market, while western artistic practices spread across the formerly isolated island nation. It is within this tumultuous context that wealthy titans of industry were acquiring Asian artistic pieces. Museums and auction blocks alike became sites for westerners to admire, hoard, and display figurines and other pieces from the ‘Far East’.

*This essay was authored by Zachary Veith, a historic interpreter at Staatsburgh State Historic Site.

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