In-gallery photo of Buddhist sculptures at the Freer Gallery of Art

Buddhist sculptures in gallery 17, the Promise of Paradise exhibition at the Freer Gallery of Art.

This Day in Freer History: November 22, 1920

The Museum Makes its First Purchase

On November 22, 1920, just over a year after Charles Lang Freer’s death, the Freer Gallery of Art initiated its first institutional purchases: two large stone wall reliefs that originated in the cave temples of Xiangtangshan, one depicting a gathering of buddhas and bodhisattvas and another depicting the Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha. Eventually a Song dynasty sculpture of a seated tiger also became part of the acquisition. Yet what seemed to be a straightforward and exciting purchase became an incredibly complex and lengthy process.

A large stone sculpture depicting a gathering of Buddhas and bodhisattvas removed from Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan and mounted for display.
Gathering of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, F1921.1.

An Object of Interest

Lai-Yuan & Company, the New York gallery specializing in sales of Chinese antiquities, had the sculptures in its warehouse by October 1920. Having worked with Charles Lang Freer in the past, the gallery co-owners, C.T. Loo and F.S. Kwen, knew plans for the Freer Gallery of Art were developing rapidly.

Portrait of Katharine Nash Rhoades.
Portrait of Katharine Nash Rhoades by Alfred Stieglitz, 1915, Freer and Sackler Archives, FSA A.01 12.03.01.

They sent Katharine N. Rhoades, Freer’s former secretary and a newly appointed museum trustee, the description and cost of the sculptures on November 22. She shared the information with the museum’s director and curator John E. Lodge (served 1920-1942); Rhoades and Lodge quickly recognized these sculptures would be exciting additions to the collection.

Family portrait of Eugene and Agnes Meyer and their five children.
Eugene Meyer and Family by Edward Jean Steichen, 1926, National Portrait Gallery, NPG.2001.34.

Before his death, Freer mandated that purchases required the approval of his fellow collectors and friends Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer; Louisine Havemeyer; or Rhoades; and the Fine Arts Commission, led by the Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Knowing they needed more time to secure funds and meet Freer’s stipulations, Rhoades and Lodge requested that Lai-Yuan reserve the sculptures through January 10, 1921. Secretary of the Smithsonian Dr. Charles D. Walcott and Agnes Meyer traveled to New York in the new year and approved the sculptures. By January 10 the museum was poised to proceed with the purchase.

Problems Arise

Accountants finalizing Freer’s estate in Detroit, however, informed the Smithsonian that the residual funds that would pay for the sculptures could not be released until late April. Loo and Kwen expressed great frustration upon hearing this news, primarily because their business was closing. However, they agreed to accept payment in two installments when funds were released. With the closure of Lai-Yuan, Loo opened C.T. Loo Chinese Antiques and agreed to oversee the sale’s completion. When the sale encountered another delay after Freer’s estate realized funds would not transfer until May, Lodge asked Lai-Yuan to continue holding the sculptures. To sweeten the deal, he also asked to purchase a sculpture of a seated tiger that Walcott and Meyer had noticed at the gallery’s warehouse during their visit. The owners of Lai-Yuan accepted this plan, albeit noting bitterly in a letter to Lodge, “Were it not necessary for us to liquidate our stock at this time we hardly feel that we could have accepted [this proposal].”

The Sculptures Come to Washington

Thinking the deal complete, Lai-Yuan sent the sculptures via railway to Washington. Upon the acquisitions’ arrival in the capital city on March 26, the museum’s superintendent learned that one of the larger sculptures had broken during transport. Its crate was improperly braced and the train’s jostle had expanded old cleavages. Lacking supports, the sculpture’s midsection cracked into several pieces; rubble filled the bottom of the crate. The Lai-Yuan representatives were distressed, as their secretary had mistakenly secured travel insurance covering damage resulting only from “fire or collision.” Their negotiations with the insurance company remain unknown, but they reached a settlement in February 1922. On behalf of Lai-Yuan, Loo agreed to fund the repair. Museum staff followed the museum’s architect, Charles Platt’s suggestion that the sculptures be integrated into a gallery wall.

High relief carving of Western Paradise. Amitabha presides over a lotus pond that contains flowers opening to reveal newborn souls. Numerous deities and celestial attendants fill in the tableau.
Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha, F1921.2.

Repairs and Installation

Loo routinely wrote to Lodge, inquiring about installation, but it was not until a year after the accident, in March 1922, that the sculptures were finally installed. Loo sent Mr. Takenaka, a conservator from Japan to conduct “finishing touches” and when he completed work, Rhoades presented Takenaka with $15.00 for overnight accommodations and train fare, marking the completion of this 2-year endeavor.

Additional resource


Joanna Gohmann

Joanna M. Gohmann received her PhD in the History of Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the Provenance Researcher & Objects Historian at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.

See all posts by this author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *