A Tribute to My Godfather Robert Hatfield Ellsworth (1929-2014)
“I deal only to collect.”
By Wang Shaofang, August 10, 2014
Robert Hatfield Ellsworth will be broadly remembered as the single most prominent dealer of Asian antiquities in the 20th century. His range of expertise, foresight, and business acumen were exceeded only by his eye for beauty and the generosity of his soul. He influenced every major collection of Asian Art in the United States (both museums and private collections). He instigated the return of artifacts back to China and his primary charitable cause (which he helped establish) was the Chinese Heritage Art Foundation, based in Hong Kong and dedicated to restoring Ming and Qing dynasty structures in Huangshan, a city in central China with a trove of neglected architectural masterworks.
Prof. Wang Fang Yu and Mr. Robert Ellsworth (file photo).
Yet, I will always remember Mr. Ellsworth (everyone else called him “Bobby”) as my Godfather, a surrogate third parent. He first met my father, Professor Fred Fangyu Wang (1913-1997) in 1949. Then, my father was single, a young professor of Mandarin Chinese at Yale University, having emigrated from Beijing in a time of war. In my father, Mr. Ellsworth saw a kindred spirit sparked by a common interest in fine Chinese art. He also saw a lonely man consumed by teaching but not personally fulfilled. As my father began dating my mother, who at that time resided in Hong Kong, Mr. Ellsworth saw the joy she brought him. When my father finally proposed marriage (via air mail), his hand hesitated at the mailbox whereupon Mr. Ellsworth shoved his hand in and made my father drop in the letter of proposal. So, you see, without Mr. Ellsworth, I would never be here.
There was so much more to Mr. Ellsworth than just the dealing of art. My purpose here is to write a remembrance, as much for myself as for others and posterity. For he was truly a unique and important individual.I hope to show the power of his persona via various anecdotes. This paper will also have a sampling of a list of his accomplishments but is not intended to be complete. It is in this manner, a combination of personal interactions and professional achievements that I hope to provider the reader with a more intimate view of my Godfather.
Background – The Early Years
Mr. Ellsworth was born in Manhattan. His mother, LaFerne Hatfield Ellsworth, (1900-1976) was an opera singer and his father , Presley Elmer Ellsworth (1853-1957), a dental surgeon. He was a direct descendant of Oliver Ellsworth (1745-1807), the third Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1796-1800). From an early age he showed both high intelligence and a stubborn streak of independence. And, like many young children, a desire to collect – not baseball cards or the like but Chinese postage stamps. When I asked him why, he said, “Because they were beautiful and cheap since no one wanted them.”
All collectors are constrained by three factors: knowledge, capital, and taste. We attempt to refine our vision of beauty by becoming more knowledgeable, all the while limited by whatever our finances allow. It is the rare individual who can truly appreciate beauty. It is more rare to know what one is looking at. The easy definition of art is, “I know what I like.” The more sophisticated connoisseur would state, “Like it or not, I know what I am looking at.” Rarest of all is to combine these two facets (appreciation of beauty and connoisseurship) with an understanding of value. Anyone can know price (just check a website). However, discerning true value is significantly more difficult. Mr. Ellsworth possessed all three traits as well as a gambler’s taste for risk and the determination to work hard.
Instead of playing ball, Mr. Ellsworth spent much of his childhood rummaging through trash bins seeking disgarded treasures. Addicted to collecting, he constantly sought out items of quality to add to his trove of goods. In high school he found that his ability to discern quality allowed him to purchase items in second hand shops to resell to antique stores for profit (and fun). As a sophomore, he found a Chinese vase and declared it to be from the Ming Dynasty but no antique shops believed his dating. One shop, Stoner and Evans, also doubted the attribution but was impressed enough to send the young Mr. Ellsworth to Ms. Alice Boney (1901-1988) who later became my Godmother. Ms. Boney was the doyenne of Asian art dealers. At that time she was one of a select few broadly recognized authorities on Chinese porcelains. Upon seeing the vase, Ms. Boney (1) promptly verified Mr. Ellsworth’s attribution and (2) called Mr. Frank Stoner to say how impressed she was with the young high schooler. Thus began a fifty year relationship where Aunt Alice served as mentor and collaborator to Mr. Ellsworth in the world of Asian antiquities.
High school was not suited for someone of Mr. Ellsworth’s talents. He attended art school, first in Manhattan, then in Switzerland and became a painter – successful enough to sell his own work to support himself and to continue collecting. However, he came to pragmatic realization – astute for one his age – that while he was a successful painter, he would never be outstanding. His self introspection made him realize his true talent was to recognize an exceptional object.
Throughout this period as a painter, Mr. Ellsworth and Aunt Alice stayed in contact with Aunt Alice encouraging him to learn about different categories of Chinese art such as furniture, paintings, metalwork, and sculpture as well as Japanese, Indian, Cambodian, and Thai art. Mr. Ellsworth happily absorbed this tutelage with great verve. It speaks to Aunt Alice’s generous spirit that she knew she was training her next great competitor.
Yale University and Beyond
On returning to the United States, Aunt Alice felt it critical that Mr. Ellsworth learn the Chinese language. Despite his never having even finished high school, she procured his entrance into Yale University. There, he met his second great mentor – my father. Professor Fred Fangyu Wang was born in Beijing to a wealthy and influential family. Our family home (which I never saw) was full of Chinese artifacts subsequently lost in the war. He was of high intellect and raised in a cultured environment for the purpose of entering government service, then the highest and most noble vocation. His profession in China was to teach English. The tides of historical events brought him to the United States and Yale University. In 1949, Mr. Ellsworth began classes in Mandarin Chinese with my father. To my father, teaching was a means of support. To Mr. Ellsworth, learning (or attempting to learn) Mandarin was a means to end. For both, the lure of New York City and its auctions of Chinese antiquities was the real passion. During auction previews Mr. Ellsworth would convince my father to end class early so they could drive to Manhattan in Mr. Ellsworth’s convertible to look at objects. It was a relationship built on mutual respect, joint interests, and a long deep friendship that lasted until 1997 when my father passed away.
My father immediately recognized (1) Mr. Ellsworth’s incisive and brilliant mind and (2) his lack of attention to his Mandarin studies. It was obvious in class that Mr. Ellsworth’s mind was occupied elsewhere in thoughts of collecting. Thus, my father gave Mr. Ellsworth his Chinese name: An Siyuan – he whose mind is far away.
After two years of Mandarin study, Mr. Ellsworth bid farewell to Yale. Prior to leaving, he approached my father, ever the absent minded professor. Mr. Ellsworth so valued my father’s friendship and knowledge, he asked my father to join him in establishing a Chinese art dealership – Mr. Ellsworth would supply the business acumen and my father the language skill. My father, sitting at a desk, did not even look up but cynically declared, “ You could not even pass my Chinese class – why would I want to go into business with you?” How different might my life be had he simply said yes.
Following Yale, Mr. Ellsworth was drafted into the military. He served in Honolulu, Hawaii for two years. The rigorous program (the Schofield Barracks were known to offer especially difficult basic training) caused Mr. Ellsworth to develop an ulcer from the stress. While recuperating, Mr. Ellsworth found solace in assisting the hospital staff in the recuperation of soldiers wounded in the Korean War by teaching painting. He was viewed so helpful that he stayed on at the military hospital to provide this therapy even after he had recovered. Honolulu provided many opportunities for viewing and studying Asian art and Mr. Ellsworth took full advantage.
Returning to New York City
After the completion of his military service, Mr. Ellsworth returned to New York to continue to paint and collect Chinese works of art. He opened his first gallery in 1960. In addition to dealing, he also developed an interest in architecture. His acumen in this field led to not only designing his own residences but also renovation projects for the United States Ambassador residence in Beijing and the home of Sir Joseph Hotung in Hong Kong. On moving his personal residence to 163 East 64th Street, he then followed Aunt Alice’s model of operating his antique business from his townhouse home. He separately acquired a country home and not only designed it but also personally renovated it as well.
If Aunt Alice was the woman who most influenced his professional career, the actress Claudette Colbert (1905-1996) most influenced his personal life. Mr. Ellsworth would consistently claim these two were the most important women in his life after his mother. In Ms. Colbert, Mr. Ellsworth found a measure of domestic tranquility mixed with the glamour of a star in performing arts.
The couple would vacation in the Caribbean where they owned a large beachfront home. Guests from many fields of endeavor would come to both pay homage and enjoy their company. One guest was the singer and actor, Frank Sinatra, a personal friend of Ms. Colbert. During one visit, Mr. Sinatra went for a swim in the ocean but got caught in a riptide. Mr. Ellsworth, seeing Mr. Sinatra’s dire circumstance, rushed into the water and rescued him. In gratitude, Mr. Sinatra later presented Mr. Ellsworth (an ardent cigarette smoker) with an engraved silver lighter. Mr. Ellsworth carried that lighter to his last day.
The couple spent most of their time in Manhattan, in Mr. Ellsworth’s home which of course was full of artifacts, most of great value. Once, an argument broke out during which Ms. Colbert accidentally bumped into a sculpture. In fury, she shouted, “Do we really have to live in a museum!?!?” to which Mr. Ellsworth calmly replied, “Well, YOU do not have to.” It is only by coincidence (or perhaps fate) that my mother, Sum Wai Wang (1917-1996) ,who greatly admired Mr. Ellsworth, passed away within one day of Ms. Colbert. They each had their funeral viewings at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral home at 1076 Madison Avenue at the same time. Mr. Ellsworth attended both viewings and often referred to that time as one of the saddest and most emotional of his life.
The King of Ming
The New York Times published an article about Mr. Ellsworth on May 17, 1977 and referred to him with this moniker. Specifically it spoke to his expertise in Ming furniture. Chinese furniture is made with no nails. Rather the pieces fit together like a elegant puzzle. He loved to tinker and build and found Chinese furniture so elegant that he would call Chinese furniture makers jewelers versus Western cabinet makers mere blacksmiths. In 1971, he published the definitive book on this category, entitled, Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch’ing Dynasties. Dedicated to Aunt Alice, it remains the defacto reference for Chinese furniture despite it being now out of print.
It should also be noted that Mr. Ellsworth helped spearhead the Metropolitan Museum Art’s construction of the Astor Court which was funded by Ms. Brooke Astor (1902-2007), a close personal friend,in 1977. It was the first Suzhou garden style construction in a major United States museum. Mr. Ellsworth not only supported the project but also donated the furniture that is still currently in the space.
Beyond furniture (and the Ming Dynasty) Mr. Ellsworth also collected a vast range of Chinese materials: jades, lacquer, gold, Tang silver, paintings, calligraphy, bronze mirrors, rugs, and more. And not just Chinese: Indian, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian. Once, I went with Mr. Ellsworth to a Christie’s auction of Chinese works of art. On exiting the galleries on 49th Street, there was a poster of advertising the next sale: Audubon prints. Prior to entering his stretch limousine, he asked me to find the estimate on print depicted in the poster. I found it to be estimated at $1 to1.2 million, to which Mr. Ellsworth replied, “ Yes, that is about right. It is not quite as nice as the one I have in my dining room.”
In 1987, Mr. Ellsworth published Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 1800-1950. This three volume set was the definitive reference for this type of material. Mr. Ellsworth was initially not fond of these post Ming paintings but felt more drawn to the calligraphy. My father always told me, “If you want to study a painter, start first with his calligraphy. Only if his calligraphy is good, can his paintings also excel.”
Mr. Ellsworth attraction to Chinese calligraphy was built on his appreciation of beauty. In response to those who would criticize him for not fully appreciating the meaning of the calligraphy because he could not read Chinese, he would state, “Attempting to decipher the meaning draws away from appreciating the aesthetic. My eye is better for NOT understanding the meaning.”
Two Pearls of Wisdom
As I got older and developed my own passion for collecting, Mr. Ellsworth would try to provide guidance. When I started working in New York City (beginning in 1982), I would try to regularly see him. I was only one of seventeen other Godchildren he had but he always welcomed me with a kind smile and curious of what I was doing. He was disdainful of my chosen profession (investing in financial assets) and often told me when he inherited the family stock portfolio, he immediately sold every holding (and near the market top). He encouraged me to learn about objects knowing my focus was on paintings and calligraphy. He had two pieces of advice:
- Always try to buy someone’s entire collection – keep the best third and sell off the rest.
- Always have a large amount of cash at the ready – sellers will then come to you knowing you are ready source of funds.
In 1981, Mr. Ellsworth made his most daring purchase: that of the Pan-Asian Collection. Assembled by a financier who had also been a client of Mr. Ellsworth’s, the purchase initially placed Mr. Ellsworth under tight financial constraints. Comprised primarily of religious sculptures from multiple cultures in Southeast Asia, the roughly 1600 objects had been displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 1977. In 1982, Mr. Ellsworth placed about twenty percent of the pieces for sale at Christie’s and another group at Sotheby’s in 1990 but still retained the best few pieces through the end of his life.
The profits from these transactions allowed Mr. Ellsworth to purchase a twenty three room apartment in perhaps the most prestigious address in Manhattan and located within two blocks of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was able to fill it with his Chinese furniture collection, fine sculptures, paintings, and other works of art for his personal pleasure and for the business of dealing. Additionally, he bought from my father an extensive library of Chinese research books which he could now house and study.
Some Major Collections He More than Touched
Aside from the personal relationships in the performing arts that Mr. Ellsworth developed through his relationship with Claudette Colbert, the roster of his fine art acquaintances read like a high society page. I certainly can not list them all but through these wonderful relationships Mr. Ellsworth was able to strongly influence major collections.
John D. Rockefeller III (1906-1978) wasa long time friend and client. Known to be an astute collector and admirer of Chinese art, Mr. Rockefeller honed his taste with the ample assistance of Mr. Ellsworth. More, Mr. Ellsworth became friendly with several members of the Rockefeller family, having the longest relationship with David Rockefeller (1915-). Such was the courtesy and respect within that family that while they were friendly, David hesitated to buy anything from Mr. Ellsworth for fear of antagonizing his eldest brother, saying, “You belong to John.” John Rockefeller bequeathed the bulk of his collection to the Asia Society in New York with a ready acknowledgement of the vast contributions made by Mr. Ellsworth toward its creation. John and David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948), kept a family summer home in Seal Harbor, Maine which also housed a series of Buddhist sculptures worthy of study and visitation by scholars. Access to this site was controlled by Mr. Ellsworth.
In 1988, one year after his publication of the aforementioned Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 1800-1950, Mr. Ellsworth graciously donated 471 works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is worth noting that prior to this publication, not just the Met but the Chinese fine art community in general viewed these works as less than desirable. They included such prominent artists as Qi Baishi (1864-1957), Fu Baoshi (1904-1965), Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Huang Binhong (1865-1955), and many others whose works today routinely sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. In gratitude for this gift, a plaque depicting Mr. Robert H. Ellsworth adorns the room dedicated to 20th century Chinese painting at the Met. Five years later, Mr. Ellsworth sold at Sotheby’s 257 other 20th century Chinese paintings. A catalogue dedicated to this sale had its introduction written by my father. To quote,
“The sale of this collection will provide a great opportunity for new collectors. They may have their own desires and motivations, but anyone interested in contemporary Chinese paintings, from serious study to decoration, will find something to desire in this collection.”
I was certainly one of those “new collectors.” Thinking back, I strongly believe Mr. Ellsworth thought in putting this group up for sale was not to make money (which he certainly did) but rather to try to seed the next generation of collectors and connoisseurs. If he had intended merely to maximize the sale price, it would have been imprudent to sell so many works so similar in nature at the same time. Rather, publishing such a catalog results in it being a valuable reference. The sheer volume as measured by the number of lots necessarily meant that a sizeable number of bidders would emerge thus fueling a broader base of buyers. Given the current interest in this sort of material, I would clearly argue that Mr. Ellsworth’s intentions proved successful.
In 1996, the Palace Museum in Beijing opened an exhibition of fifteen historically important rubbings owned by Mr. Ellsworth. This honor was rarely bestowed on “foreigners” but in recognition of both the work and the stature that Mr. Ellsworth had achieved,a special three week exhibition was planned. However, the public response was so strong, it was extended an extra two weeks. Highlighting the display were three juan (sixth, seventh, and eighth) of the Chunhuage compiled by Wang Zhu as ordered by the Song dynasty ruler Taizong (reigned 966-997). The original blocks were destroyed in a fire. These three impressions are the only extant versions remaining and show examples of caoshu (grass script) by Wang Xizhi (c. 307-365), broadly recognized as the progenitor of Chinese calligraphy.
In 1998, Mr. Ellsworth donated 212 works of calligraphy and paintings to the Freer Gallery of Art. The Freer is the national Asian art museum and is a part of the Smithsonian Institute. The timing is of great personal interest. My father had passed away in October of 1997. Professor Fred Fangyu Wang is best known for his scholarship and collection of the late Ming artist, BadaShanren. At the time of his death, my family had assembled the world’s largest private collection of works by this artist of Imperial descent. My father in his will had stipulated that (1) this collection be kept together and (2) it be donated to a US based institution of my choosing. As my “third” parent, I of course ran to Mr. Ellsworth for advise and council. We discussed several options but, in part due to Mr. Ellsworth’s calligraphy gift, I also chose the Freer to receive and care for my parents’ collection.
The list of collections he benefitted is numerous. In addition to the Freer, I dread to think where the Princeton Art Museum, Nelson Atkins Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, Harvard Fogg Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and so many others would be without the presence of Mr. Ellsworth. The list of private collectors influenced by Mr. Ellsworth is even more numerous but equally well known.
When I was small, I used to marvel at Mr. Ellsworth’s physical stature. He was a large and strong man blessed with dexterous hands. We as a family would occasionally go visit his Connecticut home where he would give my father something to research. With my father thus involved, he would then go to a construction project on his property. I, being a child, was much more interested in watching him move rocks to support his fish pond, or lay foundation for the extension he was building for his home than watching my father pore over books and papers I did not understand. Later, when I was older and more aware of his collecting accomplishments, I would watch Mr. Ellsworth clean and repair ancient Chinese metalwork or Ming porcelain. In each project, large or small, rough or delicate, Mr. Ellsworth displayed the same care, passion, and discipline to produce an elegant result.
He drank bourbon and smoked in quantities I have never seen in any other individual. Yet, his lungs and liver remained clear even at the end (at the age of sixty his medical doctor finally gave up trying to stop these habits and told him not to change because if they had not adversely affected him by now, stopping might well be bad for his health).
I found his eye for beauty unmatched. It was buttressed by a lifetime of study. Unlike academics, he had the fortitude to procure objects in large amounts (by quantity and dollar) based on the courage of his convictions and size of his bank account. He lived in a time when world events allowed for the assemblage of such a collection so, combined with his talents, one could say he was lucky.
I believe you make your own luck. Mr. Ellsworth took full advantage of his gifts to become the most successful Asian art dealer of his time. However, I think that understates his life and accomplishments. He was generous (often to a fault). He sought to bolster not just the field but, in anticipation of the future, the development of future collectors and curators. For, as collectors, if we truly and properly fulfill our tasks, the objects will (long) outlast us. Indeed, we are merely temporary custodians tasked to care for the object in the near term and to find proper and decent hands for the next generation and beyond.
Mr. Ellsworth dedicated his life to the care and appreciation of beauty. His life was one fully lived toward this purpose. For, in the end, he loved the objects and responsibilities that came with owning a great collection. Dealing was only a means to this end.
Finally, on a personal note, I now know what it feels like to be an orphan. My mother died in 1996, my father in 1997, and now my Godfather in 2014. The generation above me have now all left this world. I believe in the next world. I hope my efforts here make all three of them smile. I take heart in believing they are together again.
 Sotheby’s; Robert Hatfield Ellsworth Collection of Modern Chinese Paintings, June 16, 1993.