Private and institutional collecting

Over the centuries, Chinese have collected art and rare objects for self-cultivation, social status and as an alternative store of wealth. Rulers and well-to-do families have been patrons of artists. Possession and knowledge of art have long been a sign of sophistication and position. During many periods artworks have served as gifts of the highest prestige, and the most important pieces have commanded values equivalent to the homes of the elite.

Traditionally, collections have been held in very private circumstances and access granted only in consequence of relationships or friendship. Along with private theatricals and dinners, shared viewing of artworks was one of the refined social encounters of the traditional elite.

In addition to private collecting among the gentry, over successive centuries much art entered imperial or princely collections – and its concentration in palaces risked periodic large-scale loss through fire and warfare. Both private collectors and noble ones commissioned copies and catalogues of their paintings, as well as adding seals and mountings that established a lasting physical connection with the pieces in their collection.

During the difficult times of the 20th century, however, private collecting in China declined and many artworks were taken abroad. Important private and institutional collections were created in Japan, Taiwan and the United Sates, and dealers were active in major cities. In time, an overseas auction market was also established, centred in New York. An important collector, connoisseur and dealer of this period was CC WANG 王己千 (1907-2003) who converted his family's Shanghai real estate into cash, and then paintings, before leaving for New York in the late 1940s. Through subsequent sale and donation, Wang's paintings have become a key part of the Chinese collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Between 1950 and 1980 overseas institutional support and education developed substantially. In Japan, Taiwan and America museum professionals and academics took important steps to document and research Chinese Classical art. Academics and curators in America pioneered modern studies and published works that consolidated general interest in the field (some of the important texts are introduced in the Resources section of this website.) As a result of sustained and careful collecting during this period, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art and Boston Museum of Fine Arts now hold some of the finest examples of paintings and calligraphy from the Song, Yuan, Ming and early Qing periods. 

Since the mid-1990’s, China has seen a steadily accelerating development of private collecting, academic research, museum creation and markets. This was initially focused on contemporary and modern art, and is now expanding to include Chinese Classical art.