An Uncommon Treasure-House

Broadway Singer Building
Wikimedia Commons

For decades, a two-bedroom apartment in Summit, New Jersey, was home to one of the most distinguished private collections of Chinese art in America. Dr. Paul Singer assembled the collection over a long lifetime (he lived from 1904 to 1997), and he kept it not in the splendor of a mansion or gallery or museum but in the plainest of circumstances: within the confines of the apartment he shared with his wife, Eva, in a reddish-brick, mid-20th-century-American apartment house of the sort architectural critics can’t even be bothered to disdain. But behind that ordinary brick, what uncommon treasure!

To say that the doctor’s collection claimed every inch of the apartment is an exaggeration—but barely. Thomas Lawton, a senior research associate at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery, visited the apartment often and acknowledges that there were, in fact, pathways through the astonishing accumulation. But they were negotiated at some risk. After his wife died, Singer surrendered even their bedroom to the collection. The balance shifted: the collector no longer made room for the collection; the collection begrudged space to him. For the remaining two decades of his life, Singer slept on a sofa bed—left unopened because the extension would have claimed that much more space.

 Bookcases and shelves lined the walls of Singer’s apartment and jutted into the arm of a sofa or threatened to block a closet door. The cases and shelves, bought as needed, didn’t match, and that didn’t matter. What mattered to Singer were the objects several rows deep that crowded those shelves. By the end of his life, he had acquired more than 5,000 such objects, spectacular evidence of Chinese civilization’s creativity over five millennia—swords, mirrors, bowls, boxes, trays, hooks, pieces of sculpture and pieces of jewelry, objects that were made to be used and objects that were made to be admired, in wood, bronze, glass, jade, lacquer, ivory, bone, amber and silver. And no matter their number or density, Singer always knew the precise location of every item that shared his home.

Singer was born in Hungary but grew up in Vienna, Austria, where he attended medical school. Chinese art captured his fancy in the 1920s and never relaxed its hold on him. (The first Far Eastern object he bought, at the age of 17, a bronze image of the Bodhisattva Manjusri, was on his desk 75 years later.) He and Eva fled from the Nazis to America in 1939, and he worked as a doctor in this country. No amateur or haphazard buyer, he built his collection with a scholar’s assurance and a connoisseur’s eye.

Through his friendship with Arthur M. Sackler, another collector with an Asian passion, Singer in the late 1960s began to receive money each year from Sackler’s foundation to enlarge the collection—on condition that it be left to the foundation at Singer’s death. So the shelves in Summit grew ever more full. After Singer died, the remarkable trove came to the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery thanks to the splendid generosity of the Sacklers. A joint gift of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Paul Singer, the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities, and the Children of Arthur M. Sackler, the collection is now being readied for an exhibition in the 100th anniversary year of the doctor’s birth.

Singer was healthy until a month before his death. He spent that last month in a hospital and nursing home—during which time some 162 Chinese objects we can identify, and perhaps many more, disappeared from the unattended apartment in Summit. To this day, the objects have not been found, and the Smithsonian has issued a brochure—a kind of wanted poster—with pictures of 40 of the missing items. To the mystery of the objects’ past, their disappearance adds fresh mystery. The loss to the public is indeed regrettable. But how thrilled audiences will be by the vast store that remains, for the doctor chose well all those years. The gorgeous clutter from his plain shelves is valued today at more than $60 million. And its cultural worth? That’s beyond calculation.

By Lawrence M. Small, Secretary

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