Art Patron Max Berry On His Passion for Chinese Art and What to Expect at Asia Week New York

Janet Yoon
Mar 12, 2015 8:48PM

Walking into Max Berry’s sunlit Upper East Side apartment filled with art and antiquities from the Han and Tang dynasties, it comes as no surprise that I am in the presence of an avid collector, as well as a generous and active patron of the arts.  In addition to owning a prominent collection of work from Europe, North America, and Asia, Berry has served as chair to the Smithsonian National Board of Trustees, Archives of American Art in D.C. and New York (the largest archives of art in the world, and also part of the Smithsonian Institution), and also sits on the Board of Trustees at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the weeks leading up to the auctions, exhibitions, and special events planned for Asia Week New York, Berry welcomed Artsy into his home to talk about his love of art and his extraordinary collection, and to offer some advice to budding collectors.

Illustrated with images of historical works of Asian art from Artsy’s collection.

Artsy: How did you first become interested in art, and Chinese art, in particular?

MB: When I lived in Washington D.C., I was very active with the Smithsonian Institution. Before that, I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and often visited the Gilcrease Museum and Philbrook Museum of Art. When I was about eight years old, maybe a little younger, I became sort of an amateur magician. And I got better as I got older. I performed shows for charities and sometimes birthday parties for family or friends. I started reading books on the history of magic. I read about Houdini; I read about the early magicians in India, Japan, and China. In the Chinese and Japanese magic world, way back (ca. 6th–7th centuries), there were all these great colors of design. And quite often the Chinese would pull beautiful, colorful silks out of hats, like the magicians do today.

The use of color is everything, and that attracted me. I found it interesting and mystical. For a boy from Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was fascinated by it; especially the designs of their screens, paintings, silk hangings, and so on. My interest in Chinese design and decorative art is growing each year.   

I have spent a lot of time with the Freer and Sackler Galleries (the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian Art) in D.C., where there’s a great blend of Asian art—Chinese, Japanese, Korean. They have the greatest Chinese antiquities. So, because of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, I started going to Asian art shows up at the Met, the Freer-Sackler, the China Institute Gallery, etc. I would often go through the Met’s Asian Wing, observing the Chinese village and other great Asian antiquities.

Artsy: And how did you start collecting Asian antiquities?

MB: I was already collecting paintings from Europe and North America, as well as antique furniture from Washington, Nantucket, and Europe. Asian décor and decorating, museum pieces, and museum exhibits always intrigued me. So then I started going to some of the Asian auctions to look and learn, but not to buy. I went to the Asian art exhibitions in Seattle, Chicago, D.C., San Francisco, and New York, and started learning. But I was a timid buyer because I was afraid of making mistakes.

Artsy: Maxwell K. Hearn, the chairman of the Met’s Department of Asian Art has noted how much the art world’s perception of Asian art has changed in the past 20 years. How has this extraordinary growth and success, especially in Chinese Art, changed your approach to collecting? Has your interest grown since you first started to collect Chinese art?

MB: Yes, more of an interest and a better education. I can’t say I’m collecting any differently. I’m not collecting nearly as much, because I have so many things; I don’t want to just duplicate. But if someone asked, “What would you collect now if you had the room to collect it?” I would answer “Korean ceramics.” You could put one [traditional Korean work] on a table today and it has just as much style as a contemporary ceramic piece. It’s hard to do that with anything else. But the Korean sense of design is so far advanced over everyone else. I see pieces from 1500s and 1600s; they are remarkable. They’re so simple, minimalist. They are wonderful, but I’d be frightened to death to collect any because they are also faked a lot.

Artsy: What is your favorite piece in your collection?

MB: I have several, but one recent acquisition is a favorite. It is a kowtowing attendant from the Tang dynasty that was originally from a tomb and found in 1955. One of the art dealers in New York who also collects Chinese antiquities told me when I was still thinking of making a bid, “If you don’t at least bid on that, I’ll never talk to you again. It’s one of the best pieces you’ll have in your collection.”

My horse figures with the blue glaze are also special. The blue comes from cobalt. These are also from the Tang dynasty, which is the Renaissance of design and craftsmanship in China’s history. They were real artisans in that period; their ideas were coming from everywhere. This was the age of the Silk Road, when the Chinese were exchanging ideas with Afghanistan, Persia, and other countries. The blue cobalt probably came from Afghanistan, or possibly Iraq. So the Chinese got this rare mineral, made this blue color, and applied it to some of their sculptural figures. I have quite a few, but they’re rare. Museums try to get them. Some do, some don’t. I have other rare Tang- and Han-dynasty horses and also two great, very large, unglazed spirits that are rare and museum-quality.

Artsy: You live very close to the Met. Are there are any galleries you like to frequent?

MB: I am fortunate to be on the Board of Trustees of the Met. I often visit the American Wing and the French impressionists, as well as the Chinese and Japanese wings. There are many I like to visit, but I love the Islamic and Roman/Crete galleries. They’re really special.

I’ve promised gifts of art; one of my pieces Young Husband: First Marketing (1854) by Lilly Martin Spencer, is now hanging at the Met. The painting shows a young married man whose wife obviously sent him out to get dinner. The poor guy has a bag of groceries but everything is falling out, like the chicken and vegetables you see. It’s raining but he has no umbrella like the people behind him, and you see that they are amused by his plight of falling chickens and such. It’s a classic, very European-style of painting, very much like a Caillebotte or Georges Seurat.

Artsy: Going back to Asia Week, this is a truly unique event that brings together museums, auction houses, and galleries. How do you feel about an art world that is growing more interconnected? And will you be attending any of the auctions?

I think it’s great, especially because the big dealers come here. I’m looking forward to seeing Gisèle Croës from Brussels, and James (Jim) Lally of J.J. Lally & Co. here in New York. I’m also going to look carefully at the auction catalogs. If they have an unusual Chinese bronze mirror, I’ll get into the bidding. But I don’t need anything, nor do I have the room for it!

Artsy: Do you have any advice for budding young collectors?

MB: Yes, of course: to visit collections at nearby museums. Go and ask questions of the curators and the directors of those museums. The best way to collect art is to first ask many questions. The curators are anxious to talk with you. They work all day long on a lot of stuff, and are eager for people to ask, “Can you tell me why you acquired that piece?” or, “What’s the history of it?” or, “Where are you going with this collection?” Museums also have lots of wonderful programming. If you’re a single person in the city, the greatest thing to do is get into the museum world because they have so many lectures and concerts, sometimes for free. Also, visit the auctions. Just look for a while to learn. Wait a year or so before you begin to buy wonderful Asian antiques.

Learn more about Asia Week New York 2015

Janet Yoon
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019