Focus on the Collection: Solved: The Mystery of the Museum's Chinese Marbles

Set of marble steles for sale in Beijing, China, February 1931.  Photograph by Henry H. Hart; courtesy of University Libraries, California State University-East Bay, Hayward. 

In the fall of 2006, a set of five impressive marble panels were found in Hearst Gym Basement when we were moving the Egyptian stoneware to new storage. Apparently Chinese, they had been largely forgotten because they were not stored with other objects from the region. Once we got a good look at them, however, we could not find any labels or catalog numbers. The challenge was to try to figure out what they were and how they had gotten to the museum.


Photograph of one of the panels by Ansel Adams.  From Albert M. Bender, To Remember:  Abraham and Max L. Rosenberg (San Francisco:  Printed by John Henry Nash, 1931). 





This month, I was able to come to some conclusions about these mysterious pieces. The first break came a few months later, when I was doing research for our Rajasthan exhibit. I accidentally found a brief note about a set of five Chinese marbles in an accession file of miscellaneous Asian objects. A brief excerpt from the minutes of the September 13, 1932 meeting of UC Regents acknowledged the gift of Albert M. Bender. A Dublin-born insurance broker, Bender (1866–1941) was perhaps the most important art patron in San Francisco during the 1920s and 1930s.

Luckily, the minutes also acknowledged the receipt of a limited edition book on the pieces, privately printed for Bender. This large format volume included original photographic prints by Ansel Adams and a proposed installation design by architect Julia Morgan.

Sketch for Setting of Panels, by Julia Morgan.  From Bender, To Remember. 

In his brief text, Bender explained that the marble steles had been carved during the reign of emperor Qianlong, who reigned 1735–96. Removed from a Buddhist temple in Datong, Shanxi Province, the panels illustrate the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a famous historical novel of the 14th century.

But I still did not know where Bender had gotten them. Putting clues together, I learned that he had purchased most of his Chinese collection from Henry Hart’s Oriental Art Shop. A fascinating character in his own right, Hart was a lawyer-turned-dealer-turned author and lecturer.

I was fortunate to find Hart’s papers at the library of California State University-East Bay. No written documents of his shop have survived, but in one file, I discovered two photos of our marbles. On the back of one, he had written: “Bought today, Peking, 2/5/31.”

According to newspaper accounts, these marbles were on display when the University Art Gallery opened in the former University Power House in March of 1934. The University Art Museum transferred them to the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in 1968, but almost certainly they have not been exhibited for over 70 years.

I am still researching the temples in Datong, trying to discover how they had may have found their way to Beijing in 1931. But now that their recent history has been reconstructed, we can finally catalog the set. And we are looking forward to sharing them with the public in a future exhibit.

Ira Jacknis, Research Anthropologist