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$8.27 Million & Counting: Metropolitan Museum’s Disposable Irving Gift of Chinese Art

When I attended the the Metropolitan Museum’s celebratory press conference in March 2015 that announced multiple major benefactions to its Asian Art Department, little did I know that five years later the Met would auction off a good chunk of those lauded gifts—more than 300 of the 1,277 works of Asian art given by then trustee emerita Florence Irving and her husband Herbert.

Florence and Herbert Irving
Photo from
Sotheby’s press release

The Irvings were major supporters of the Met’s Department of Asian Art for more than 25 years, having donated 19 major works, funded galleries and endowed a curatorship of the arts of South and Southeast Asia.

A Met spokesperson told me that the proceeds from the Irving sales will be applied to Asian acquisitions. The mega-collectors, now deceased, had agreed that “some items could be sold to raise funds for future acquisitions,” according to the spokesperson. The objects sold at Sotheby’s, he stated, had never been formally accessioned by the Met.

That said, the Sotheby’s sales were executed after both collectors had died—Herbert in October 2016; Florence in July of last year. They also came after the sale just last March (at the rival auction house, Christie’s) of works that had remained in the Irvings’ private collection, totaling some $17.9 million—more than the expected final value of Met’s consignments to Sotheby’s.

About 120 of the Irvings’ works were offered at Sotheby’s yesterday, bringing a total (with buyer’s premium) of $8.27 million. More than 200 Irving works of lesser value (presale estimate: $631,000-956,000) are to be offered by the Met this Saturday. Star lots in yesterday’s sale blew past their presale estimates, yielding a hammer total of $6.69 million, compared to the $3.8-million high estimate of hammer total.

Here are two of the Met’s most notable overachievers:

Spinach-Green Jade “Dragon” Washer, Qing Dynasty
Final price (with fees): $1.34 million (high estimate: $150,000)
Photo from Sotheby’s
Exceptionally rare Apple-Green Jadeite “Landscape” Table Screen, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period
Final price (with fees): $1.08 million (high estimate: $120,000)
Photo from Sotheby’s

Who were the greater fools—the buyers for paying so much more than those pieces were estimated to be worth, or the Met’s curators for giving up objects this valuable?

The Met’s Asian art curators at the 2015 press briefing, with department chairman Maxwell Hearn at center. To his left: then director Tom Campbell and lead donor Oscar Tang
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Perhaps I was the greatest fool, believing that the Met had every intention of holding onto the collection that it had so exultantly described in its 2015 press release:

Taken together [emphasis added], this transformative gift fills gaps and adds to the Met’s existing strengths in ways that will further elevate the museum’s stature as one of the world’s premier collections of Asian art.

Instead of being “taken together,” the Irvings’ gift has been picked apart. The cautionary message that other potential donors may take away from this remains to be seen.

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