TAM sale of Chinese treasures upsets donors — Museum sells collection of jades and robes

By Charles Lam
Northwest Asian Weekly

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From left to right: former TAM Director Jon Kowalik, Mrs. Mary Lee Young, and Mrs. Pearlie Baskin at the third exhibition of the Young collection in 1982.

For years, the Tacoma Art Museum has wowed attendees with its collection of Chinese textiles and jades, many of which were donated by Col. John C. and Mrs. Mary Lee Young. But soon, these pieces will be headed back into private collections, as the Tacoma Art Museum sells off their Chinese textiles in a process called “deaccessioning.”

It’s not a move without critics.

“Breaking up the collection is wrong,” said Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America. “The collection was meant to educate and inform the public of the rich cultural heritage of Chinese Americans. It should be retained as a collection for this purpose.”

According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, deaccessioning is “the practice by which an art museum formally transfers its ownership of an object to another institution or individual by sale, exchange, or grant.”

This often happens after a museum reviews its collection for appropriateness and context. The Tacoma Art Museum  has deaccessioned two other collections in recent history: first, in the 1990s, a collection of early American furniture, and then, at the turn of the century, several French tapestries.

Proceeds from deaccessioning are meant only to purchase new works, not to pay for operational funds, build endowments, or to pay for any other expenses. According to the Tacoma Art Museum website, the Young family’s “gift to the museum will continue to be recognized by ensuring their name remains connected with the museum and future art purchases.”

“Deaccession is not something any museum does lightly,” said Tacoma Art Museum Director Stephanie A. Stebich. “It’s a rigorous, thoughtful, and diligent process. We spent two years looking at our collection … we also took the step of meeting with the heirs of the donors. We outlined the reasons [of the deaccessioning] to them. That’s not to say this isn’t painful for them, but again, we are following the best practices and standards.”

Still, the sale of the imperial robes has drawn the ire of community members, including the children of Col. and Mrs. Young, as well as that of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

Al Young and Connie Young Yu, the children of Col. and Mrs. Young, contend that this is not what his parents would have wanted.

Both Col. John C. Young and Mary Lee Young were born in the United States, but saw discrimination under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Mrs. Young’s mother was imprisoned on California’s Angel Island for over a year due to her alien status.

Despite these setbacks, the Youngs persevered and found success in business. Col. Young became a restaurateur and manufacturer of soy sauce, and Mrs. Young became an importer of Chinese goods.

During their travels abroad, the Youngs would seek out Chinese imperial robes and jades. The entirety of their collection was gathered from outside China and is made up of pieces that were removed from China during the tumultuous 20th century.

The Young family struck up a relationship with the Baskin family of Tacoma, eventually donating half of their textile collection and most of their jade collection to the Tacoma Art Museum in the 1970s. The other half of the textile collection, sans jades, was donated to Stanford’s Cantor Art Center.

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A small portion of the Young family collection on display

“John and Mary Young … were well aware of the harsh treatment of Chinese in the Northwest during the 19th century and the forced expulsion of Chinese from Tacoma,” Connie Young Yu, daughter of Col. and Mrs. Young said. “By donating their art collections to TAM, they hoped to promote understanding and bring people together to appreciate Chinese heritage.”

The current sale, however, has done more harm than good. In the 1990s, an undetermined part of the Young collection was lost as part of a private, unannounced sale. The Young family was informed of the most recent sale, but was upset at the characterization of their parent’s gifts, as what the Tacoma Art Museum website calls “mainly tourists’ keepsakes and mementos.”

They say that this characterization is false, considering the multiple well-reviewed exhibitions that have featured the robes.

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One robe from the Young collection.

“[Mrs. Young] wanted to preserve her country’s heritage,” said the late Tacoma Art Museum director Jon Kowalek in a February 1979 interview with the Tacoma News Tribune. “They looked for the finest examples of Chinese embroidery and costumes. The robes were purchased in different locations around the world, none in China. Her discerning eye was very sophisticated. Their selections are of the finest quality in a 99 percent state of perfection.”

The Young family also said that the museum told them the collection “was not of high value.” Early valuations by Sotheby’s auction house placed the value of the deaccessioned items, which includes the Young collections as well as several other donations, at approximately $70,000. Later appraisals by Bonhams auction house, which would eventually run the auction, valued the items at a high of $100,000.

However, at an auction in San Francisco in December, a small portion of the Young collection was sold for a total of $229,467.

The Tacoma Art Museum plans to auction off the rest of the collection in March.

The Young family would rather the museum transfer the remainder of the collection to a Seattle-area institution.

“My parents intended these precious works to showcase Chinese art and culture,” said Al Young, son of Col. and Mrs. Young. “Some of the jade pieces were precious heirlooms that I contributed to my parents’ donation. They were a [part of] the permanent collection at TAM and put on view for all to enjoy. Now, the jade is being used as currency for the museum to buy new works.” (end)

Charles Lam can be reached at charles@nwasianweekly.com.

3 Responses to “TAM sale of Chinese treasures upsets donors — Museum sells collection of jades and robes”

  1. Rebecca Allen says:

    I understand that museums sometimes deaccession. According to the Tacoma Art Museum’s deaccession policy, the museum wishes to focus on Northwest Coast art. The policy also lists the first option for deaccessioning as transfering or donating to another non-profit, museum, agency, or public institution. The second option is sale to the same. Were either options explored? Clearly these items have great cultural value to the larger community. The Young family intended these items to remain together, not be sold off piecemeal.

  2. Barbara Voss says:

    I am very disturbed to hear of this proposed deaccessioning of this important collection. While deaccessioning is sometimes neccesary, it should never be done lightly, or to raise money, since once a collection is dispersed, it is gone forevery. If the Tacoma Art Museum seek to donate the collection to an ethical research and education repository, or return the collection to the donors’ families.

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