“From the Lands of Asia: The Sam and Myrna Myers Collection” Symposium, Part 4

“From the Lands of Asia: The Sam and Myrna Myers Collection” Symposium, Part 4


– So, as we’ve heard this morning, and hopefully as you’ll see when you go through
the exhibition yourself, that there’s kind of four main categories. There are the silks, the
costumes and customs, the ocean of porcelain, the
thousand years of Buddhism, and the magic of jade. And these are all chronicled, as well, in the wonderful catalog entitled “Two Americans in Paris.” And I’m gonna give a real shameless plug for the catalog, because it’s a wonderful,
wonderful catalog. It’s got great photography
of all the works of art that are in the exhibition, and it’s beautifully written and edited by Jean-Paul and Filippo and John. And in addition to those essays, which are in a kind of a narrative form and are very informative but also very readable, I must say, there are these wonderful stories, I mean, really wonderful stories that Sam tells about the collection and how it was formed. And I want Sam to tell us
some of those stories today, because I think that’s what the exhibition is really all about are these stories. And as he says, stories for
my children and grandchildren. And they’re really personal stories, and I think we’ve already heard today that everybody that’s come up on stage has had a personal
connection to Sam and Myrna. And I think that that’s what makes this collection kind of unique as well. And so, if you take the audio tour, you’ll hear some of the stories, but they’re not relayed in the labels. So, again, buy the catalog (laughs). But I wanna go back to the beginning, and Jean-Paul touched
a little bit about it in his talk about the
beginning of the collection. And the thing that really strikes me about the journey that you and Myrna took over the course of 50 years and culminating in 5,000 objects is the role of chance. And the role of chance
occurs over and over again in this journey and passion for Asia and these categories of objects that over time were developed. And so, can you go back
and tell us the story of Ascona, Switzerland? – Sure. I guess the real basis for this unusual journey begins with the fact that we’re just second
generation Americans. Our parents were both immigrants. We were the first people to go to college in our families, in each of our families. We didn’t grow up with antiques or art, and so, for us, it was
absolutely a discovery that it was possible to have something beautiful that was actually a part of history. In terms of the idea of chance, that’s very much true, because, in fact, when we first moved to Paris, I wanted to take Myrna
on a short vacation. And I had remembered
that there was a hotel called La Romantica, and I thought, “That’s where I’m gonna take her.” (laughs) – It’s a love story. – Unfortunately, I mixed up the name of the town, and I was supposed to go to Lugano and instead, I went to Locarno. (audience laughs) Which was 50 kilometers away. And when we got there late at night, I couldn’t find the
hotel, because, of course, it wasn’t in that town. (audience laughs) Then so we found something
that was fairly awful. The next morning, we looked around, and we said, “Oh, this is
not really interesting.” So, we said to a person in the street, “Are there any antique
shops where we can look “at some stuff?” And they said, “Well,
seven kilometers away, “there’s a little town called Ascona.” And so, we drove there, and on the main square, there was this wonderful
17th-century building with one of these huge doorways. And in the courtyard, there were cases and cases of antiques. Greek and Roman and
Persian and Renaissance and everything you could imagine. And everything had a little ticket and a number, but there were no prices. So I said to Myrna, “I think this an antique shop.” It had a sign, Casa Serodine. And she said, “No, it’s not, it’s a museum.” I said, “I’m gonna go in and ask.” And she said, “Don’t you dare. “I’ll be so embarrassed.” (audience laughs) So I went in and asked, and it turned out it was an antique shop. They had four floors, and the very nice, young German woman said, “Go
look through the whole thing.” We came down. It must have been an
hour, an hour and a half, and our heads were spinning to see all these incredible things that were clearly not things that
you would ordinarily find. She introduced us to the
owner, Dr. Rosenbaum, who was very short, very old, sitting behind a desk, mostly bald with glasses
on the middle of his nose. And she said, “This is
Mr. and Mrs. Myers.” And we went and shook his hand, and he said, “Goodbye.” We later found out that meant hello. (laughing) Anyway, we said that we were just amazed to see all these things,
but I was a young lawyer, and, clearly, we couldn’t afford anything. And he said, “How much can you spend?” (laughs) I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I don’t know, $20?” And instead of saying really
goodbye to us (laughs), he called to his assistant, Fritz, and he said, “Bring me the
case of Tanagra heads.” Tanagra heads being little Greek heads about that big, which were of deities or figures from Greek mythology. And he said, “Anything you want, $20.” And so we started to
look because suddenly, we could have a piece of history, and we ended up choosing
four little heads, which were the beginning
of this adventure. – I think that’s just, I
love that story (laughs). It’s a good story. – But next year what happened in Ascona? – Well, the next year we
were there with our daughter. And we went, of course, to
see Dr. Rosenbaum again. And we saw in his office,
on the mantelpiece behind his desk, this Egyptian head, which was just thrilling,
just captivating. But obviously, it was not in our range. So we went through the whole building. And we came down after a while, and we said, “Dr. Rosenbaum, “we saw some things.” Because we usually would
show him what we found, and he’d discuss them and tell us, this is not interesting for you or this is okay. And I said, “But clearly
we can’t buy anything.” At our stage, it was expensive, and it was simply expensive,
it was an important piece. And he said, “Well, think
about it over the weekend. “I’ll think about it, too,
and then we’ll talk.” So we came back on Monday, and we had only been
thinking about this one piece, which we couldn’t get it out of our heads. We came back, and we told him that, and he said, “I have been thinking, too.” He said, “You have a
daughter who’s two years old. “And to have something beautiful “in the house creates an atmosphere. “And that atmosphere will
affect your daughter. “So therefore, “if there’s any way you can
buy it, you should buy it.” I said, “But Dr.
Rosenbaum, I can’t buy it.” He said, “How much can
you pay–” (laughing) “if you pay every month?” Well, I was nonplussed. I said, “Dr. Rosenbaum, I don’t know.” He said, “How much?” I said, “$50?” He said, “Okay. “But every month until it’s paid for. “And you take the piece with you.” And that was our first
really important piece. – Another really good story. So both of those things are
on view in the exhibition. So you need to go see them. When you go through the exhibition, you’ll see that there’s an initial little section of antiquities, because that was the
beginning for you and Myrna, because, at the time, that was
kind of what people collected, that’s sort of what you
were looking at in galleries and being exposed to. But then another kind of role of chance stepped in and also kind of a leap of faith and that’s the other thing
about your collecting story is kind of taking a leap of faith and acquiring things when you didn’t know anything about them, and then taking them home and finding out everything
that you could about them and, again, building up that collection. But you eventually kind
of focused on Asia. And I guess the next story
is how that came to be, and it’s the story of porcelain. So, will you tell us that story, please? (laughs) – Well, the way we got
involved with Chinese art was, again, really purely
a result of chance. We had gone to Ghent, in
Belgium, for the weekend. And we got to an inn
just outside of the town, but we were too early for dinner. And so we went into town
to see what it looked like and what was there. But we were also too late
for any of the stores, because it was just after
most stores had closed and too early for dinner. So we started to look around, and the only shop that was open was a shop that sold Chinese porcelain. And so I said to Myrna, “Well, let’s go in “and we’ll look at it.” She said, “I don’t want to go in.” She said, “I don’t like
that black furniture “with the big ball and claw feet.” But it started to rain. (laughing) So we didn’t have a choice, we walked in, and there was a middle-aged
man, a smallish man, who had a big smile and a
fistful of mimeographed papers, who was very enthusiastic and eager to show us what he had. The mimeographed papers
explained Chinese porcelain and periods. And little by little,
we looked at these cups and saucers and vases and dishes, and actually they were rather nice. And we ended up being there, we almost missed dinner, for about an hour and a half or so, and we said to him, “Well, if we were to
collect Chinese porcelain, “what would you suggest?” And he said, “Oh, kangxi blue and white.” Which meant, the 17th to the 18th century. And so we started to choose
some cups and saucers and a couple of vases and one big plate with
the Wall of China on it. And we ended up, actually, finding that these things are really
rather interesting and quite pretty and so on, and we ended up with a
whole boxful of stuff. And the next morning we went
back and bought a few more. And we took them back to Paris and found that, at the time, there was an identification service at the Musée Guimet. We took them in, and Daisy Lion-Goldschmidt, who had written the book
on Chinese porcelain, and who was one of the
chief curators at that time, explained that these things,
which looked exactly alike, well, one was 17th century,
it was supposed to be, and another was actually 19th century. And that really piqued our imagination, because we thought, why? They look exactly alike,
they have the same color, the same design, the same form. And so we read her book, and we started really to
study to try to understand, how can you tell the difference between two things that look alike, and one is real and one is a copy? And it took us about two years before we broke the code. And during that period, every weekend we would go out to look for more examples. And the following days
we’d go to the museum to try to find out what we had. – That’s another good story. – You have also a very fine
story in Belgium with the lion. Myrna discovered it in person— It’s on the cover of the– – It’s on the cover of the catalog. And in the exhibition
in the Buddhist section. – Yeah. Myrna would very often go with me if I went on a short business trip. And on this occasion, I went
to Brussels for a meeting, and while I was at my meeting, Myrna went to the
antique area in Brussels, the Place Sablon. And she would look at the antique shops. And I met her after my meeting. And on that occasion, I met her and she was really very excited. And she said, “Sam, I
found something wonderful “under a chair in an old antique shop.” So naturally I joined her. We went to the shop down
at the end of the square, and it was a shop with furniture and paintings and little sculpture and all kinds of stuff. And effectively under the chair, there was this white marble lion. And she said, “I think
it’s just wonderful.” Now it was something I hadn’t seen before, that type of object. And it was supposed to
be eighth-century Tang. And so I kind of, instead
of being all excited, I was examining it and looking at it and questioning, how do I
know, and is it or is it not? Well, she had already decided to buy it, so we took it, I’d say under my arm but it was I guess but it’s pretty heavy. But we took it, we went back to the car, and Myrna was crestfallen. I said, “But you have to understand, “I’m trying to understand what it is. “I have to look at it critically.” She said, “Yeah, but I bought
it for you for your birthday.” (laughing) Well, it wasn’t the
best ride back to Paris. – It was a long ride
back to Paris (laughs). – But, in fact, Myrna had
made a wonderful find, because it is a magnificent carving. And when you look at it, if you see the power of the animal and the force of the claws that dig into the marble, you’ll understand why she was right. – I know that you’ve said that a good piece of
sculpture has to look good from every single angle,
I mean, 360 around. And when you go and you see
this lion in the gallery, you can look at it from any
angle and it’s powerful– – Same for the bodhisattva. You can see everywhere. And for the bodhisattva, you have also a story (laughs). – Well, unfortunately, there
are a lot of stories, but– – But with the lion I
think it’s interesting, too, and Jean-Paul touched on this in his talk and talking about Myrna and how her intuition often
was really just spot on. She didn’t always know everything
about a particular object, but she could see the quality, and then if she didn’t
know anything about it, she would go out and she would learn. – She take risks because she don’t know often at the beginning but she take risk– – There were a couple of
principles that we followed. One was, if one of us liked something, and the other did not,
we would not buy it. The other, which was equally important, probably more important, was that we didn’t buy anything unless it had enough power to really captivate us or excite us. It wasn’t a question of just being old and being 3,000 years
old or 200 years old. It’s a question, first of
all, is it really beautiful? And second of all, does it have the power to really capture your imagination? Is it so mysterious that you want to know something about it, you want to understand it? Does it reflect, sometimes, the ferocity that it’s trying to do, and if it’s a sculpture, absolutely, does it succeed from every angle? And that’s true of any
really good sculpture. The Venus de Milo is the same thing or any sculpture by Michelangelo. I mean, we don’t have any of that. But those principles are essential. – Right. I think it’s interesting, too, that amazingly, you do have within, again, these 5,000 works
of art, these four sections and certainly with the jade, one of the most comprehensive, if not the most comprehensive, collection of early Chinese jade from neolithic to Yuan dynasty. The porcelains, the history
of Ming porcelain is there in the gallery. But that you weren’t ever looking to necessarily do that. You bought the things that you responded to in a very kind of visual
and emotional way, things that you wanted to live with that were in your home, and we saw pictures of
their beautiful home and surrounded by these objects. You weren’t looking to
necessarily fill in gaps. I mean, you really had a passion for the art that you were collecting. And I think that’s a really
special characteristic about both you and Myrna, and then, as a result, this beautiful collection that we’re so fortunate to have on display here at the Kimbell. Jean-Paul, I want to ask
you a question, if I can. I actually have two questions. The first is, obviously,
you’ve known Sam and Myrna for many, many years, began as a teacher, then a mentor, and obviously a friend. How did you come up with the idea to do an exhibition? – Exhibition, it was three, four years ago. – Five. No, no, no, more, more, more. The first idea, Myrna
and I and you had lunch shortly after you retired. And, of course, when you retired, you said, “I can’t really do anything. “I have 10 projects, “but one day I will come
and look at the things.” (laughing) – The difficulty is, you have 5,000 pieces, you imagine, on three levels,
everywhere, and what is a way to
organize an exhibition? Is my problem at the beginning, because we see African mask, Korean tortoise, Mediterranean antiques. It’s the first problem for me. What is the way? And we speak together, and we find a way. And for me, it is interesting because my tradition is to make exhibition with museum, not exactly with collector, and the approach is quite different. It is important that the
personality of the collector was in the middle of the exhibition. And it is the reason why, because we have organized
at the beginning a little about antiques, and in the middle a little about exotic cultures. Because this is important for me to say it exactly that you are a collector, not only specialty. For me it is easy to speak,
for instance, for ceramic and so on. But I tried to open everything and to give an image of your approach of the works of art. And we organize three cabinets. One for the antiques, one for the medieval and mixed discoveries, and one for Myrna. Because at the end, Myrna, it was like an integration of the past because she have a necklace. For me, that is so creative to use the tradition,
the past, the history to integrate inside. This is, for me, very extraordinary. And the memory of Myrna
for me is very important. – Well you just segwayed
for me the second question. At the end of the exhibition, you’ll see there’s a case
that has jewelry in it. And you might wonder well, why is there? And it’s contemporary jewelry. But it’s jewelry that’s
made with ancient jades and other stones. And when I was laying out the exhibition, planning the exhibition
here at the Kimbell, I didn’t think that I
had room for that case. And I was gonna cut it out completely and just show one necklace. And Jean-Paul was extremely adamant that I include this case of jewelry. And I said, “Okay, I’ll
figure out some way “to get it in there (laughs).” And if you look at the
photo up on the screen, you’ll see that Myrna’s
wearing this beautiful necklace with this carved amber. – Amber from the Liao dynasty. – From the Liao dynasty. – 10th century. – And in this case are
these other necklaces that she took pieces from the collection, ancient pieces and then she had, particularly two contemporary
jewelry designers, Annabelle d’Huart and Joel Rosenthal, to make
these necklaces for her. And it’s because, and
Jean-Paul explained this to me, why it was so important to have this case. And I get it. These jades were worn in life. They were made to be worn, they reflected the character of the person that wore them. Confucius likened the purity of jade to the moral purity of
the Confucian gentleman. When you wore jade in these pendants, and you’ll see this
wonderful complex pendant that Jean-Paul kind of cobbled together from a bunch of jades. But it’s not unlike what they would wear in the eastern Zhou period. All these jade pendants and hanging down and as you walked into the room, they would move and hit one another and make this tinkling sound. And so you literally, you heard somebody when they were coming in the room. And you knew that was somebody important. And Myrna wanted to bring
these jades back to life. She wanted to resurrect these jades by making them into contemporary jewelry and wearing them. And after Jean-Paul explained that to me, and then displaying
them and really learning as I was doing the exhibition and as I was laying things out, I was like, I get it now. And this is the way to
kind of end the exhibition, because it sort of wraps up the story in a really nice package. And this story of a journey of discovery and a passion for Asia, the role of chance, a little bit of good luck sometimes, and a lot of study, and some intuition, and wanting to live with beautiful things. And one of the necklaces in the display case has a little Han dynasty cicada. And Han dynasty is second century BC to second century AD. But I want you to tell
the story of the shoe box. – Well, we had been
collecting Chinese porcelain. Virtually it took over
all of our interest for many years. And in 1974, each time
I would go on a trip, I would go to the shops wherever I was, and I’d come back with a
little part of a suitcase filled with what I had found, and I’d lay it out on the table to show Myrna if she wasn’t with me to see if she liked
what I found, et cetera. And on this particular occasion in 1974, she said, “Oh, Sam, I’m getting
tired of Chinese porcelain. “Why don’t you look for something else?” And I said, “Well, what do you want?” She said, “I don’t know. “See if you can find some sculpture “or maybe some jade.” So on my next trip I was in Philadelphia, and I took the afternoon
to look at the shops in the center city. There was a little shop, they didn’t have a window,
it just had a sign. And it was halfway below ground. But we knew the shop. and so we looked around. He had things from all over. He had Persian things, he had Chinese, he had Korean, he had Indian, and so on. And so I asked him, his
name was Mr. Fiorillo. And I said, “Oh, by the
way, do you have any jade?” And he said “Yeah.” He was a cranky old man. He’d been there 50 or 60 years. And he said, “Yeah, I have some jade. “But I don’t put it out, people steal it.” I said, “Well, can you show it to me?” And so he brought out a shoe box that had 60 jade carvings in it. And he said, “If you want it you have “to take the whole box.” (laughing) I was very reluctant, because I hadn’t really
looked at jade before. So I didn’t know what
all these things were. And I got him to agree that if I took it, I would show it to Myrna, and if she liked it and we both liked it, I’d buy it, but otherwise I’d give it back. Anyway, he sent it off. It was at a time, for some
reason he mailed it to me in Ascona, because we
were there for the summer or the month, not the whole summer, and when we got it we looked
through the whole thing. They were really interesting carvings, but we didn’t know anything. So naturally we went to Dr. Rosenbaum, and we showed him the jade in the box. And he didn’t know
anything about jade either. So we went to Mr. Kohler
who had another type of antique shop with mostly
Tibetan and other Asian things, and he couldn’t tell me anything either. So we said, well, we’ll go to the jeweler in Ascona, because he must know about jade. He didn’t know anything either. Well, by then we were really wondering, well, what the hell do we have here? And so we decided to buy it and try to find out what we had. And eventually it turned out that there were jades, mostly Chinese, a couple of pre-Columbian, and they ranged from the Han dynasty to the 19th century. And that was how we got
involved in Chinese jade. – So that little Han dynasty cicada– – Was in that box. – Was in that box and is a pendant that you
can see in the exhibition. – And Myrna wore it all the time. – Another really good story. (laughing) Well, I’m going to quote
from your closing thoughts that are also in the catalog, because this really touches me, and I feel this way, too. And I’m just gonna read
a few little sentences. “Each object must stand on its own.” “I believe each object must
have an inherent beauty “and the power to move you.” And, “The mere sight of
wonderful work of art “thrills me to this day.” – That’s true. – Sorry, that makes me get kind of weepy. (applauding) But I want to thank you, Sam, and Myrna, for sharing your collection with us. And I hope that their
collection will move you the same way that it moved Sam and Myrna and moves me. Jean-Paul, I want to thank you for bringing the exhibition together and bringing it to me and to the Kimbell. I want to thank Eric Lee
and George Shackelford, our Director and Deputy Director, for supporting me in bringing this
wonderful exhibition here. It’s just been such a
pleasure to work with you, to know you, Filippo, and John, I feel like we’re all family now. – I would like to add one word. And that is that I really want
to thank you in particular and all of the people that work with you for a job that you’ve done, which I think is really incredible. Because even though I actually do live with most of these objects and see them all the time, I’ve never seen them the way
I see them in this museum now. And so I am thrilled. (applauding) – Well, then I did my job. – The museography is very clear. It is clear and clear, thank you. – Thank you, Jean-Paul. Thank you everyone for joining us today and joining us on this journey. Please go see the exhibition
again and again and again. It’s on view for six months. There’s 450 works, so it warrants multiple visits, I hope. And tell all your friends to come, and thank you, thank you again. (applauding) – Thank you.

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