Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, already a significant repository of Asian artworks, announced a gift yesterday of more than 150 works that moves it to the forefront of American museums with such collections.
The gift, which includes such items as an accordion-pleated manuscript depicting elephants real and divine, a 6-foot-high Burmese lacquer image of the Buddha and a 19th-century carved wooden pulpit from Thailand, came from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which holds the many works collected by the late heiress and philanthropist.
The gift is part of a larger bequest of Asian artworks the Duke Foundation has made to museums and arts institutions in the United States. The other major recipient is the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
"William and Henry Walters were avid collectors of Asian art," said Walters director Gary Vikan. "The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's extremely generous gift is a significant addition to the museum's already strong Asian holdings, and it will greatly enhance the experience of Asian art for our visitors."
The Walters' extensive collection of Asian art includes more than 6,000 works of Chinese, Japanese, Southeast Asian and Indian art. The museum's collection ranges over 5,000 years of art history from ancient Egypt to modern times.
The new works received from the Duke Foundation include Thai, Burmese and Cambodian sculptures in bronze, stone and wood, and Thai and Burmese temple wood carvings, paintings, illustrated manuscripts and decorative objects.
The new acquisitions will catapult the Walters into the top echelon of Asian art collections in American museums, said Hiram W. Woodward Jr., the museum's curator of Asian art.
"It will give us great strengths in a kind of art that is really not found in other museums in the United States," Woodward said.
"The gift includes several outstanding pieces of Burmese sculpture, which is rare, and in the realm of Thai art it gives us wonderful holdings in paintings and lacquered book cabinets and illustrated manuscripts."
Susan Conway, a lecturer in Asian studies at the British Museum and the New School in New York who saw the Duke collection before it was dispersed, said the gift to the Walters seemed to be a perfect fit in terms of the foundation's goals.
"The intention was to distribute the works to museums that already had collections in order to enhance their holdings," Conway said. "So the Walters was a perfect place to put them."
The new gift is the latest in a series of acquisitions that has significantly improved the Walters' Asian collections over the past decade.
In 1992, the Walters received a major gift of Thai art from Baltimorean Alexander B. Griswold's collection. The Griswold gift was the basis for a book published in 1997, The Sacred Sculpture of Thailand, by Woodward, which established the Walters as a leading center for the study of Thai art.
In 2001, the museum was promised another major gift of Tibetan, Indian and Nepalese art from the collection of John and Berthe Ford, which further strengthened its holdings in that area. That acquisition formed the basis of last year's exhibition, Desire and Devotion, which is on tour.
The works from the Duke Foundation, which have been received by the museum and are in storage, include a full-scale pulpit dating from the 1800s where monks once sat to preach. The work will become part of a permanent installation at the museum.
Other objects include an accordion-pleated manuscript on the characteristics of elephants, exquisitely painted in Bangkok, probably in the 1830s; a Burmese lacquer image of the Buddha dating from the late 18th or early 19th century that depicts the attire of royalty; and about 60 Thai paintings on wood and cloth.
Also in the collection are Thai decorative works of art in silver, ivory and gilded lacquer.
"We're putting a few objects on view in coming months, and at some point we will have a special exhibition," Woodward said. "Eventually we hope to exhibit most of the works permanently."
William T. Walters acquired primarily Chinese and Japanese works; by 1884, his collection included 4,100 objects, according to the museum.
His son, Henry, expanded the collection, acquiring Chinese paintings, archaic Chinese bronzes, examples of Chinese Buddhist sculpture and several Moghul manuscripts from India as well as contemporary Japanese works, which he purchased at international fairs in 1904 and 1916.
Currently, the Walters has more than 1,000 works of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and Southeast Asian art on display. Japanese arms and armor and Chinese and Japanese porcelains, lacquers and metalwork are among highlights of the collection.