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Monday, March 4, 2013 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Tacoma Art Museum auction of Chinese collection upsets donors

By Maureen O'Hagan
Seattle Times staff reporter

When the Young family donated a collection of Chinese robes and jades to the Tacoma Art Museum in the 1970s, they intended it to stay there forever. But the museum recently sold most of the collection at auction, upsetting some members of the Chinese-American community and leading the family to question the museum’s motives.

The museum, meanwhile, says weeding out collections periodically is necessary to focus resources on its core mission — which has nothing to do with works from China. The remainder of the Young collection is slated to be auctioned soon.

Al Young, a retired schoolteacher, says he’s flabbergasted that his parents’ treasures are being sold off into private hands.

“Those things were gifted to Tacoma and to the Northwest so that we can see examples of Chinese art,” he said. “Now they’re going to be gone forever. And they’re just being used for currency.”

The items obviously mean a lot to his family. After retiring from the restaurant business in San Francisco, John and Mary Young traveled overseas, collecting Chinese art along the way. Both have since passed away. Al Young said the robes were spectacular examples of embroidery from the Qing Dynasty, which ended in the early 1900s.

“Some of the robes took maybe a year to make and 20 people to make them,” he said. “These are irreplaceable. Nobody ever does anything that crazy anymore.”

The Youngs could have left the collection to their children, but that would have meant the public couldn’t see it, Al Young said. They chose TAM, in part, because of the city’s history of anti-Chinese sentiment.

On a rainy night in November 1885, a mob rounded up hundreds of Chinese people, marched them to a train station and ran them out of town.

“The leaders were not miners liquored up ready to fight, but city officials — the mayor, sheriff and members of the town council,” according to the Washington State Historical Society website. It became known as “the Tacoma Method.”

That history makes the auction sting even more, says Theresa Pan Hosley, president of the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation. The collection is being sent away just like the Chinese people, she said.

“If we can find a way to preserve [the collection] here, I think that will be a better ending,” she said.

Wilson O’Donnell, associate director of the University of Washington’s Museology Graduate Program, said what TAM did is not unusual. Museums should periodically look at their collections for possible “deaccessioning,” he said. There's a formalized process for it, which TAM officials seemed to follow as they took a serious look at what they had and how it served their goals.

According to museum Director Stephanie Stebich, the museum’s mission is to “have the premier collection of Northwest art.” Given that, the robes and jades just didn’t fit. Keeping and caring for them in storage made no sense. By selling the items at auction, the museum raised cash that can be used to boost its Northwest art collections, she said.

Stebich noted that Al and his sister were told of the auction months in advance and didn’t object. To her understanding, they wished the museum well. Al Young, meanwhile, says that all along, he’s wanted the collection to go to another museum, like Wing Luke or the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and was under the impression TAM was going to try that first.

Officials at the Seattle Asian Art Museum declined to comment for this story, and officials at Wing Luke said they hadn’t seen the collection.

The Young items sold for $230,000. “Hey, it was a great day at auction for us,” Stebich said. And that's great for the public, who comes to TAM, she added.

On March 12, the remainder will be auctioned, but Stebich said she’s intent on doing right by the Young family. One idea is to use some of the auction proceeds for works by Chinese-American artists.

“I’m looking to sit down with the family and figure out a way to come to a positive resolution,” she said.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com


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