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Dr. Stephen Little at BU: The Strange Tale of the Richard Lane Collection

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Toki Eishö (active late 18th century)
Japan, Edo Period, 18th century
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk
Honolulu Academy of Arts,
Richard Lane Collection (2007.143)
On November 29, 2012, Boston University’s Department of History of Art & Architecture and the Center of the Study of Asia hosted a lecture by Dr. Stephen Little, Curator and Head of Chinese and Korean Art at LACMA. Through delightful anecdotes of Richard Lane’s life and the acquisition process and a look at some artworks in the collection, Little recounted how he was able to acquire at the unbelievably low price of approximately US$26,000, over 9,000 works of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean art for the Honolulu Museum of Art.Little shared the story of Richard Lane, a great scholar of Japanese literature and art from the 1950s—2000s. After moving to Japan in 1957, Richard Lane not only became fluent in both traditional and modern Japanese, but also became an expert on Saikaku’s poetry and art of the Edo period. He published extensively on the subject, including the acclaimed Images from the Floating World, an illustrated dictionary of Ukiyo-e art. In total, he published over 300 studies in both English and Japanese. Outside of his scholastic efforts, he was also an authenticator of Japanese prints and an art dealer. He was one of the few expatriate scholars and art dealers who, while unaffiliated with any institution, was able to attain access to the most private auctions in Japan. His level of expertise on Japanese art and his fluency of the language made him excessively contemptuous and openly critical of other scholars in the field. And apart from James Michener, a Japanese woodblock print collector in Honolulu whom he extensively collaborated with, Richard Lane was very much disliked among his peers. Lane passed away in 2002 leaving no heir or will.

The acquisition of the collection began with a letter sent from Richard Lane to Stephen Little in 1993. In the letter, Lane requested images of artworks at the Honolulu Museum of Art for his latest publication and offered to bestow his library of 8-10,000 books he had collected on Japanese art to the museum after his death. Ten years later when Lane did pass away without a will or an heir, this letter would become the ticket for which Little, on behalf of the museum would acquire Lane’s collection. After being informed by the Japanese court of Lane’s passing away and the claiming of the library, he traveled to Kyoto where he was taken to Lane’s private home.

Dr. Stephen Little showed images of Lane’s basement jam-packed with 400+ boxes, full of rare editions of Japanese books and catalogs, piled to the ceiling. There were also images of smaller rooms filled with 20,000+ scrolls, prints, folding screens, and manuscripts. These were objects amassed through daily purchases and stored in a nature typical of a hoarder. Because many of the artworks were severely damaged and/or forgeries and because the Kyoto court had sought the opinions of the very same scholars Lane had offended during his life, the collection was deemed as "junk". However, Little believed that among the mass of junk, there had to be treasure. Sifting through the collection, he soon discovered outstanding paintings and prints from the Meiji to Edo period, and several Chinese and Korean ones as well. Soon after, arrangements were made between Honolulu Museum of Art and the Kyoto courts to sell Lane’s collection including all of his belongings.

The lecture was very engaging. There were many humorous and captivating anecdotes Little told of Richard Lane’s life and of his own experiences with the acquisition. The Richard Lane collection continues to be archived and restored at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Dr. Stephen Little has recently completed his semester as a Visiting Lecturer at Harvard University. Do not miss an opportunity to hear Stephen Little talk about the collection.

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About Author

Sarah Sulistio is a student at Boston University’s History of Art and Architecture department. From Singapore and Beijing, she interested in Chinese Contemporary Art and Curatorial Studies. She is currently the Curatorial Intern for the 8o8 Gallery. Follow her on Twitter @Spizzock.

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