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“Hell, yes, it was smuggled!”
The catalogues of Norton Simon’s collection of Asian art avoid the sensitive issue of provenance
By 1971, the American canned-food magnate Norton Simon was already legendary for the buying spree of European masterpieces which he had relentlessly pursued since the mid-1950s. Aged 64, honeymooning in India with his new wife, the movie star Jennifer Jones, he was suddenly smitten by the temple sculpture of the subcontinent. Serious collecting of Indian art was still in its infancy in the US, and Simon was undoubtedly attracted by how cheaply the best examples of Indian sculpture could be bought. His early untrained eye is evident from the mid-19th century ivory chess set he bought on this trip, a charming piece of tourist tat that stands out in comparison with the masterpieces of Indian sculpture that he would go on to acquire.
It was at this time, and for this reason, that Simon first sought advice from Pratapaditya Pal, then newly arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum. Present “at the beginning and the end, but not in the middle phase” of Simon’s incredible decade of buying, Dr Pal acted as an occasional advisor on the acquisition of a collection that most others would have taken a lifetime to assemble.
By 1973 Simon had been offered an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Unfortunately, the star exhibit, a magnificent 10th-century bronze Nataraja, the dancing form of Shiva, for which he had paid $1 million, was impounded in the UK, where it was being restored, after the Indian government declared it to have been stolen from the Shivapuram temple in southern India. Simon insisted that the show would not go ahead without the sculpture and threatened to bring down the house by exposing objects in the Metropolitan’s own collection that had suspect provenances. Dr Pal notes that this incident “resulted in a pause in our relationship”.
As increasing scrutiny is given to the provenance of antiquities on the international art market and as ethical sensitivities have become more acute, it is not surprising that Dr Pal declines to repeat Simon’s comments on the Nataraja published in The New York Times: “Hell, yes, it was smuggled,” he was quoted as saying. “I spent between $15 and $16 million in the last two years on Asian art, and most of it was smuggled.”
Simon stopped collecting Asian art in the early 1980s, by which time he had turned the ailing Pasedena Art Museum into the Norton Simon Museum. Since his death in 1993 and the appointment of Dr Pal as a research fellow at the museum in 1995, the Asian collections have flourished, being substantially expanded by a series of donations, and reinstalled in the remodelled galleries in 1997-98.
Dr Pal’s catalogues, of which two out of three volumes have been published, are a complete description of the collection. Volume I concerns the core of the collection, art from the Indian subcontinent. Prefaced with an historical overview, 229 catalogue entries are arranged chronologically and subdivided by geographical location. The first section covers the art of northern India and the Deccan up to the seventh century AD. The most substantial groups are from the Buddhist Gandhara kingdom on the northwest frontier of present-day Pakistan, and the Kushan kingdom in and around Mathura in present-day Uttar Pradesh, also the source of a smaller group of later Hindu Gupta sculptures.
These are followed by the art of northern India from the seventh to the 19th century, including Hindu sculptures from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh; Jain images from Gujarat and Rajasthan; late Buddhist and Hindu sculptures from the Palas and other dynasties in Bihar and Bengal.
The final part deals with the sculpture of southern India from the ninth to the 18th century and consists mainly of Hindu bronzes of the Chola and Vijayanagar periods in Tamil Nadu and the Deccan, as well as schist figures from Jain and Hindu temples in Karnataka.
Although the publication of objects is noted throughout, recent provenances are less well documented. For example, the two first-century BC railing pillars from the great Buddhist stupa at Bharhut are among the leading treasures of the collection, but nothing is said of their history after their discovery and publication by Alexander Cunningham in the 1870s. Nonetheless, Dr Pal’s scholarship is ample compensation.
The second volume concerns art from the Himalayas and China. With few exceptions, most of the Himalayan objects are from Nepal and Tibet, dating from after the 12th century.
Following an introductory essay on the arts of the region, the catalogue of 185 artefacts is divided into sections on the sculpture and ritual objects of India, Nepal, China and Tibet, followed by a section on book covers and paintings.
Some of the finest works in this part of the collection are bronze and gilt-copper alloy deities from Nepal and Tibet around the 13th century. These include a large standing figure of the goddess Tara, a beautiful figure of Indra in regal recline, and a Nepali Bodhisattva of the early Malla period.
Notable in the final section is a number of intricately carved wooden manuscript covers from Tibet dating from the 11th to the 16th century. Of the paintings, many are Tibetan mandalas and thangkas, meditational aids and cosmic diagrams painted on cotton, but of greatest importance is a Newar ragamala (musical personifications) album from around 1625 with two painted wood covers and containing 36 paintings. One of only two complete Nepali albums of this type, the different ragas (musical passages) are represented in a distinctive style quite in contrast with ragamala albums from northern India, few of which pre-date 1650.
Pratapaditya Pal, Asian art at the Norton Simon Museum (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2003), Vol. I: Art from the Indian Subcontinent, 352 pp, 198 b/w ills, 152 col. ills, £50 (hb) ISBN 0300099150, Vol. II: Art from the Himalayas and China, 57 b/w ills, 211 col. ills, £50 (hb) ISBN 0300099266