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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 29, 2003

Museum exhibit shows joys, perils of art collecting

By Victoria Gail-White
Advertiser Art Critic

 •  Collectors' Odyssey

10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 3

Gallery 13

Honolulu Academy of Arts

"Odyssey: Any long series of wanderings, especially when filled with notable experiences, hardships, etc."

This Random House Dictionary definition may conjure up memories of reading Homer's classic eighth-century B.C. poem, but it also describes the journey that many collectors of Asian art embark upon when they launch into buying pieces that enthrall them.

The 29-year-old Society of Asian Art of Hawaii (formerly the Oriental Art Society) has grown — in membership, knowledge, experience and museum exhibits. From humble sit-on-the-floor meetings at members' homes to financing lectures by outstanding scholars and endowing internship programs for students, society members have infused the community with their passion for collecting Asian art objects and learning about Asian countries.

"Collectors' Odyssey" is the society's third exhibition at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, preceded by exhibits in 1985 and 1989. This year's 47-item show is from members' personal collections and was organized by society members and a steering committee of Stephen McClaran, Rhoda Hackler and Cathy L. Wood.

Wood, the society's student recipient of the endowment for curatorial internship, studied gallery design and installation with Tom Klobe at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. In a bold move, she chose a warm red color for the walls. She was given free rein to curate and install the exhibit — six months of hard work with assistance by museum staff, including bringing the items in on loan to the museum, filing condition and insurance forms, making decisions on the items selected as well as their placement.

An 18th-century "Shadow Puppet," encased in a double-sided window, greets viewers upon entry. This puppet of the demonic giant goddess Durga is enveloped by clouds and stands on a bull.

The exhibit also illustrates what happens when scroll paintings are hung in humid areas of the home. "Lychees," one of two scroll paintings by Qi Bashi, owned by Gene Doo, has foxing — a discoloration of paper that looks like rust spots. The other painting, "Pumpkins," is beautifully preserved.

Another visual example of the joys and pitfalls of collecting are two pieces from the collection of society president Timothy Choy. "Jade Catfish" is one of the founding pieces in his collection of more than 200 jade pieces. The other piece, a hat plaque that looks like jade, actually is Beijing glass.

Two pieces were particularly captivating finds: the sculptural "Scholar's Rock" (which seems to encapsulate the spiritual aspect of China's Kunlun mountains, the home of the immortals) and the small blue-tinted "Monochrome Vase," made during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), with its exquisite shape and glazing.

"The show is very striking in the variety of what people collect here. It's also a mirror of what's available in the current Asian art market, which is a moving target," said art museum director and society member Stephen Little.

Another unusual aspect of this show is the labels.

"It's really very rare in a museum to read anything in a label about how the pieces got here," Little said. "Often the public doesn't have a clue about what the museum went through. In this case, the words of the owners, their discussion, mistakes and self-education are part of the exhibit."

Little, who collects propaganda art from China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, is interested in art that is subverted for political and religious ends. He is fascinated by how works of art reflect cultural priorities and ideas that are transient. These works have philosophical underpinnings conveying how what was useful and meaningful becomes detritus.

Little was lucky when he bought the peculiar porcelain sculpture "Scene from 'The Red Lantern Opera,' " because it was purchased in Hong Kong before people started making fakes. Evidently, these sculptures have now become hot collectors' items. The sculpture is rather garish, but that pleases him.

"When you acquire a work of art, you learn something new about the work of art and about yourself," Little said.

Said Robyn Buntin, member and owner of two Robyn Buntin Galleries of Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian and South Pacific art: "Every collector or person who buys art goes through a process of learning and being able to correctly judge the merit of different pieces. We call that period 'the tuition.' You have to buy some pieces of junk to get some reference points. People learn fast when they lose money."

Buntin was disappointed that the exhibit didn't put more emphasis on fakes or misrepresented works that had been purchased. "We initially wanted to spare the feelings of new collectors," he says. "If they buy an ugly duckling (something that is broken, chipped, a fake or a knockoff), it is not necessarily a fault of their taste or understanding. It is just part of the natural process of becoming a knowledgeable collector." Sometimes, he says, collectors become greater authorities than museum professionals.

Buntin's white carved "Jade Dish, Moghul Style" is an excellent example of how Chinese factories today can copy the style, carving and character of authentic antique works.

"If you've found a great treasure and a good buy, you'll always remember it, and you don't forget a forgery or a fake either," says Buntin.

The joys and perils of collecting, narrated and displayed in this exhibit, are valuable to people starting their own odyssey. It is comforting to learn, upon reading the collectors' stories, that some of the pieces still retain their place of prominence in the collectors' eyes, even if they have been broken or have lost some authenticity.