Mathilde HK at the Hong Kong Club – OCS lecture – “Collecting Chinese Art in Early 20th Century America: the Legacy of Dr Richard E Fuller at the Seattle Art Museum”

You are curious about Chinese Art Collectors in the United States

You never heard of Dr. Richard Fuller,

You want to know more about the collections of The  Seattle Art Museum


Guyuexuan type bowl, Early 18 th Century, picture@SAM

On Monday January 19th, I attended a lecture given at the OCS by Josh Yiu, curator of the Chinese Art Department at the Seattle Art Museum. The lecture “Collecting Chinese Art in Early 20th Century America: the Legacy of Dr Richard E Fuller at the Seattle Art Museum” was very interesting. Divided into tree chapters, it aimed at explaining the quality discrepancies of US Chinese pieces and the problems of authenticity linked to those pieces.

What about Collecting Chinese Art in the early XX th century?


Imperial seal, Qing dynasty, Seattle Art Museum, picture@SAM 

Dr. Yiu examined an important Qing imperial seal taken from the Forbidden City after the Boxer Rebellion, purchased by Dr. Fuller for the museum in 1934. He admitted that was a questionable source for a Chinese art collection and wanted to focus on the context of the acquisition. The seal history was interesting:  it was acquired by an American military official during the boxer rebellion. The man was stopped at San Francisco ‘s customs and a Chinese diplomat asked him to give the seal back. However, that diplomat suddenly departed from the US and the matter was dropped, allowing Dr Fuller to purchase it later.

Was late XIX th – early XX th century the best moment for collecting Chinese art? We assume back there, things were better, is it so true?

For Josh Yiu, we encounter only what was best. He gave us examples of second rank collections. James Pierpont Morgan spent 2 00 000 USD  in 1902 for a poor Chinese collection. John Ferguson, an american missionary sent to China in 19th century and who  began to know officials there, was contacted by the metropolitan to collect Chinese pieces on its behalf. Nothing he purchased is suitable for display nowadays. Even with connections, he had no master pieces. On the contrary, some very cheap items purchased at that time would be very expensive nowadays. So, a blue and white bowl worth 80$ in 1945, or 5000 $ in 2012, was sold in 2013 by Sotheby’s for 18 millions USD!

The History of DR Richard Fuller (1897 – 1976)


Dr Richard Fuller, picture@SAM

Richard Fuller served as the Seattle Museum of Art’s president and main benefactor from 1933 until his retirement in 1973, after which he held the title Director Emeritus until his death. Fuller acquired many of the museum Asian collection pieces himself, in the United States. A diary is even following his acquisitions. Josh explained us that average pieces acquired by the American collector were worth a couple hundred dollars max. Although he wasn’t trained in Chinese art, he eventually ended up with a vast set.  It seems the Rockefeller’s collection was even less diverse than his!

Josh Yiu listed 3500 transaction records for purchases by Fuller.
According to him, the Seattle collector was diligent by reading all the publications existing on Chinese Art at that moment. He bought from 169 sources and went to see many art dealers for information.
His interest in China was given by his mother, Margaret MacTavish Fuller, who went to china in 1890. In 1910, his mother collected also from Chinatown, New York. The same year, he acquired a band vase for 10 dollars, among 22 objects of little value.


Jade Disc with dragon motive, 10 to 8th century B.C.E. picture@SAM

In 1919 the Fuller family took a yearlong trip to Asia, sailing from Vancouver, B.C. to Yokohama on the Impress of Russia.  Margaret and Richard, in particular, began collecting the jades and other Asian antiquities that would one day form the basis of the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection. His experience in Hong Kong changed his collecting, especially jades. However, he also bought Asian Art in American department stores such as Macy’s. He was also exchanging pieces from the famous Hong Kong collector: C.T. Loo.

The founding of the Seattle Art Museum

Richard Fuller started the inception of a museum during the great depression, wanting to create new job opportunities in Seattle. Creating a museum changed his collecting references. Fuller began to collect bigger items….even monumental statues such as  Camels from the spirit roads( tombs). On the 3500 objects he collected, he sold 1000 pieces to make room for better pieces. One of his main supplier was the Japanese Art dealer: Yamanaka, who was providing the American market with top quality objects.


Monk at the moment of enlightenment, China, 14th c, picture@SAM

What wasn’t possible to find in 1900 became available in the 1930s. Back then, far more ancient pieces were coming up on the art market. With railways and urban works, profitable grave-robbing in China raised. In 1935, the London exhibition on Chinese art displayed over 3000 objects, among them, 1000 were from China. Fuller spent 3 month in London and started after that to  collect Chinese Ancient paintings and neolithic jades. During WWII, the status of Japanese in the United States changed. Yamanaka was demised from the American government after 1943 that sized his Us possessions. Richard Fuller bought a part of Yamanaka’s  stock, about 30 pieces. He also picked the right experts to assist and help him classifying and displaying the collection: Sherman Lee and Henri Trubner. 

Plan An Event at Seattle Art Museum

Seattle Art Museum, venue, picture@SAM


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