Last week three of Asia’s top art scholars quarantined themselves inside the museum’s vault that holds the Richard Lane Collection. Working with the museum’s own Asian art curators, they pored over the first few of thousands of paintings in the collection. Their focus on the works was so intense that the only way to get them to take a lunch break was to shut off the vault lights. Their mission: Analyze 3,000 East Asian paintings, to determine their origins, artists, and need for conservation.

Last January, the South Korean government’s Korean Cultural Heritage Administration sent a group of scholars to the Honolulu Museum of Art to conduct a survey of Korean and East Asian paintings that had been acquired in the purchase of a collection formed by noted scholar Richard D. Lane (1936-2002). During the survey, the group discovered an extremely rare 16th century painting that made international headlines. Read the full article here.

Among the visiting scholars was Prof. Chung Woo Thak, one of the world’s leading experts on Korean Buddhist paintings. He quickly realized that the significance and diversity of the works in the Lane collection required  a more multifaceted approach for a comprehensive survey. With that in mind, Prof. Chung assembled a dream team of East Asian art scholars.

Like Nick Fury assembling the Avengers, putting together an international East Asian art superhero team was absurdly difficult. With busy schedules, it’s hard for senior-level scholars to commit to conducting a survey of paintings in a basement thousands of miles away. Even less motivating is the fact that the project asks scholars to join in the research on their own dime.

But the Lane Collection also offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and despite the challenges, Prof. Chung managed to bring together Prof. Hong Sunpyo of the Department of Art History, Ewha Woman’s University, Seoul, Korea, and Prof. Fukushima Tsunenori, Department of Cultural Heritage Faculty of Letters, Hanazono University, Kyoto, Japan. Having just one of these scholars at the museum would be a gift, having all three combine their specialized art knowledge in the same room is unprecedented.

Because as the late collector and scholar Richard Lane wasn’t the most discerning art dealer, Asian Art Curator Shawn Eichman and Assistant Curator of Japanese Art Stephen Salel thought that there was a good chance that many of the works in the collection could be forgeries. “We were worried that after the first 10 paintings or so they would say, ‘This is all junk, we don’t need to see anymore, we’re done,’ and get on a plane back home,” said Eichman. “That was not the case at all, what really surprised me was they could take up to an hour looking at one painting. You don’t spend an hour looking at an insignificant painting.”

For Eichman and Salel, hosting the scholars was a dream come true. “There’s a synergy that happens when you get a group of really strong scholars all in the room together. They can build off of each other’s knowledge,” Explained Eichman. “The range of knowledge required is just so vast, that even the greatest painting scholar that ever lived would never be able to do it by him or herself. It’s something where you’ve got to have that synergy of a whole bunch of people working together.”

Prof. Hong and Prof. Chung discussing a painting believed to be of Chinese origin

Prof. Chung (right) and Prof. Hong (left) discussing a painting determined to be of Chinese origin

For Chung, Hong, and Fukushima, the number of historically significant and important paintings they identified during their week at the museum exceeded their expectations. They were surprised, for example, at the number of Edo period (1615-1868) works by artists from the Tsurusawa school, a movement that has only recently started to receive attention in Japan and is rarely represented in public collections.

In identifying the origins of these works, the group ultimately hopes to attract funding to conserve up to 1,000 paintings. “We’re talking about paintings that are upwards of 300 to 500 years old,” says Eichman, “and they’ve seen 300 to 500 years worth of use…a lot of the collection desperately needs to be conserved.”

To put the task of conserving 1,000 paintings in perspective, the museum recently received a $100,000 grant from the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration to conserve just two paintings. To conserve 1,000 paintings would cost millions, if not tens of millions.

First, however, identification continues. Prof. Chung hopes to return to the Honolulu Museum of Art at least twice a year over the next five years to sort through the entire Lane Collection. When asked if he feels he’ll be able to get to the end by that time, he laughed, “I hope so, we’ll need a group like this.”

After a week, the dream team has only begun to scratch the surface. In that time, they sorted through about 100 paintings, which amounts to about 3 percent of the Lane Collection’s paintings. What is promising is that of those 100 paintings, 70 to 80 percent of them have been determined to be of some significance, and worth conserving. Eichman and Salel estimate that through the purchase of the Lane collection alone, the museum will potentially double its already impressive collection of Japanese paintings.

The museum recognizes the Robert F. Lange Foundation extraordinary support of the museum’s Asian art collection, and in particular Ruedi Thoni and David Franklin, without whom much of the work already done would not have been possible.

White-Robed Guanyin
China, Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), late 13th century
Hanging scroll; ink and light colors on silk
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003

Unidentified artist
The Orchid Pavilion Gathering
Japan, Meiji period (1868-1912), late 19th-early 20th century
Hanging scroll; ink on silk
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003
(TD 2011-23-208)