The Asian Art collections of Arthur M Sackler

Dr Arthur M Sackler, who died today (May 26) in 1987 was an American businessman, psychiatrist, publisher, collector and philanthropist.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Sackler attended New York University, where he attained his MD and began a career devoted to pushing medicine forward. He founded the Laboratories for Therapeutic Research in 1938 and the Creedmore Institute of Psychobiological Studies in 1949.

Sackler worked at the cutting edge of discoveries in the relationship between mind and brain. He edited the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Psychopathology and founded Medical Tribune - the first weekly medical newspaper - in 1960.

Sackler made his money through gaining the rights to market Valium in the United States. With this wealth, he made a number of major contributions to the advancement of medical and psychological studies, and a number of institutions now bear his name.

These include, the Sackler School of Medicine (established at Tel Aviv University in 1972), the Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Science (New York University in 1980), the Arthur M Sackler Science Centre (Clark University, 1985) the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences and the Arthur M Sackler Centre for Health Communications (Tufts University).

Sackler also supported, collected and preserved art especially Asian art and artefacts. At Christie's in March, tremendous excitement was generated for some wonderful pieces at one of the auctions based around his collection.

Some of these pieces performed spectacularly well against their estimates, showing the great strength that the Asian Art market has achieved. A Large Bronze Ritual Ewer from the Late Western Zhou Dynasty, 8th century BC, sold for a startling $134,500 against a $12,000-18,000 estimate to a private Asian collector.

Likewise, a Bronze Tripod Steamer, estimated to sell for anything between $10,000 and $15,000 sparked frenetic bidding, finally being wrested from the stage by an Asian trader for $146,500.

The highest price however was actually paid for an imposing Limestone Figure of a Kneeling Bodhisattva from around the same period as the steamer. A bodhisattva is a being who refuses to enter Nirvana until there is universal enlightenment, and assists people in the journey through their lives.

The figure has been identified him as an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the most venerated and benevolent of all bodhisattvas. He is shown in princely guise, with long hair gathered up into a high chignon behind the crown and splendidly draped in sumptuous silk scarves and jewelry as befitting his regal heritage.

Lime statue of a Bodhisattva
Lime statue of a Bodhisattva

The sensitive modeling, rounded forms and flowing drapery display a marked interest in movement and naturalism, which is a departure from the restraint and penchant for abstract form and line of earlier eras.

Buddhists places representative figures of bodhisattvas around their living places.

Typically these are intended to produce a calming influence, though the life-size (one metre tall despite kneeling) figure on offer in this case would not be suitable for that role in a living room. It sold to a US collector for nearly twice its top estimate of $500,000: $914,500.

Sackler's love of art extended into a lasting legacy with gifts and endowments made to some of the greatest institutions in the world: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Smithsonian in Washington DC, Peking University in Beijing and the Royal Academy in London.

It's certain that his influence on the art world as well as medicine will be felt for many years to come.

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