Large Gift of Chinese Art Goes to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Chinese artworks and artifacts that a 19th-century Chinese scholar acquired while working for emperors’ families will be given to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the museum announced Thursday.

The donor, the historian, filmmaker and collector Wan-go H.C. Weng, age 100, is a great-great-grandson of the original owner, Weng Tonghe. Starting around 1865, Weng Tonghe spent decades in imperial palaces, tutoring Qing dynasty teenagers in line for the throne while stretching his government salary to buy art.

The Weng family’s museum donation, with about 200 pieces made as early as the seventh century, includes landscape paintings, portraits, pages of calligraphy, embroidery and playing cards. (A spokeswoman said that as a rule the MFA does not reveal the values of works of art, but added that the collection is “one of the most significant gifts in the museum’s history.”)

Nancy Berliner, the museum’s senior curator of Chinese art, said that Weng Tonghe’s diary survives. He recorded his frequent trips to art galleries, and wrote of his decision to build his collection rather than buy property for his family.

Many of his acquisitions bear inscriptions and poetry from the artists and from past owners and admirers. The writings indicate what scenery and emotions had inspired the works, and which luminaries stood in front of them over the centuries. “There’s an endless amount of investigation that can go into even one piece,” Ms. Berliner said.

In the late 1940s, Wan-go Weng and his wife, Virginia, traveled from their home in the United States with their toddler daughter to visit family in war-ravaged China, where they retrieved the art collection from storage and packed it up.

Highlights from the Weng gifts will go on view at the MFA in fall 2019. A previous donation from the family, a 53-foot-long Chinese scroll from the 17th century that depicts Yangtze riverbanks, filled an MFA gallery this summer. On its container, Weng Tonghe wrote a self-mocking poem about the purchase: “Acquiring it helps me forget how poor I feel. Who would buy a painting instead of a house?”

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