Issue 12.4: August/September 2009


story by Deborah Boehm
photos by Charles Emmett Freeman

You’ve probably heard the tales of treasures trouvées, bought for a song in a state of disrepair and later found to be worth a fortune. Those stories might sound like urban legends, but they’re absolutely true: the grimy glass “flowerpot” (actually a vintage Lalique vase), purchased for a pittance at a roadside sale in England and later auctioned at Christie’s for $47,000; the pair of floral still-life paintings by the 19th-century artist Martin Johnson Heade, acquired at an Arizona estate sale for $88, that subsequently fetched just over a million dollars at Christie’s; the 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence hidden behind a funky old picture that a thrift-shop patron had bought for $4 because he liked the frame. (That rare document eventually sold for $2.42 million at Sotheby’s.)

Now there’s a dramatic diamond-in-the-rough saga to add to the litany of mind-boggling bargains: the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ serendipitous acquisition, orchestrated by HAA Director Stephen Little, of the dusty, disorganized cache of East Asian art known as the Richard Lane Collection. Little’s spur-of-the moment decision to buy the Lane collection may have seemed like a gamble at the time, but now that it has been valued at upward of $30 million—more than a thousand times what the Academy paid for it—that leap of faith appears in retrospect to have been pure, visionary, gut-instinct genius.


With its lustrous Chinese antiques and opulent gilded-bamboo screens, Dr. Stephen Little’s office at the Honolulu Academy of Arts could easily be mistaken for one of the museum’s elegant display rooms. One day in 2003, Little, a Chinese-art specialist who had been appointed the Academy’s director earlier that year, was working at his massive koa-wood desk when the telephone rang. It was an attorney calling from Japan to say that Richard Lane—an eccentric, reclusive American scholar, collector and dealer who was one of the world’s leading authorities on ukiyo-e prints—had recently died in Kyoto, intestate and without heirs. (“Maybe he thought not having a will meant he would live longer,” Little muses.)

Lane had, however, left a letter indicating that he wanted his books and papers to go to the Academy of Arts. This bequest was not entirely surprising; Lane had been a visiting research associate for the museum from 1957 to 1971, and had helped catalog HAA’s renowned James Michener Collection of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”). The lawyer mentioned offhandedly that while Lane’s house was crammed full of art, several reputable Kyoto dealers had already surveyed the jumble of scrolls and paintings and dismissed the lot as “a bunch of junk.”

Not long after that fateful phone call, Little and the court-appointed attorney were walking up the stairs to Lane’s austere-looking “bunker” in the leafy Yamashina district of Kyoto. With them was Little’s friend and advisor Yasuyoshi Morimoto, a noted Asian art expert who is also the proprietor of Café David, a gallery-cum-coffee shop in Kyoto. That exquisite establishment is named after Morimoto’s longtime partner, David Kidd—author of Peking Story, frequent host to such disparate luminaries as David Bowie and the Dalai Lama and a legendary figure among old Japan hands—who died in Honolulu in 1996.

After taking stock of the 10,000-volume library, Little and Morimoto began looking at the disorderly mélange of Japanese and Chinese art that overflowed every room in the house. They tossed aside a number of obviously spurious scrolls before coming across something breathtakingly genuine: a 19th-century Japanese artist’s sketchbook of foreign scenes, including the White House and the Pali Lookout on O‘ahu. After unearthing several other unusual items, Little decided to act quickly on his hunch that the collection might not be a pile of junk after all.

“This is going to be a nightmare for you,” he told the attorney. “How about if the Academy just buys everything?” Little offered 3 million yen (approximately $26,000 in those robust-dollar days), and the local probate court—no doubt thinking it had cleverly gotten rid of a white elephant—quickly closed the sale.

“I just had a feeling it was going to be something big,” Little recalls. “And I think I somehow recognized myself in Lane’s fondness for strange things.” Little had never met Richard Lane, but he had heard the art-world scuttlebutt: Other dealers called Lane a “garbage-eater” and described him as a compulsive (and not always discriminating) buyer and reseller.

The “higgledy-piggledy” clutter that Little noticed on his first visit to the Lane house had apparently been accumulating for decades. One day in the 1990s, the story goes, a Tokyo art dealer went to Kyoto to look at some of Lane’s scrolls. “There’s nowhere to sit down inside the house,” Lane informed the surprised dealer. “We’ll have to look at the scrolls in your taxi.”

Yasuyoshi Morimoto had known Richard Lane slightly, and he saw karmic significance in the fact that Lane shared a birthday year (1926) with David Kidd. In that spirit, after agreeing to oversee the process of documenting the 20,000-plus items from the Yamashina house, Morimoto thoughtfully commissioned the proper Shinto ritual “to ease Dr. Lane’s soul” before setting to work.

Imposing order on the sprawling, chaotic trove of art was a major undertaking. “The enterprise completely took over three stories of my building in downtown Kyoto,” Morimoto reminisces. “My guest room was turned into the Room of One Thousand Scrolls.” After five years of total immersion in Lane’s collection, Morimoto came to feel what he calls “respect and hatred” for the man who assembled it but apparently made no attempt at overall organization—though Lane did, at least, mark each new acquisition with date and provenance, stylishly written in classical cursive Chinese.

“Richard Lane was some sort of genius with a heavy chunk of collecting disease,” Morimoto says now. “Maybe he thought he would live forever—or that he would have time to sort out the collection in his old age.”

The posthumous sorting process revealed that many important pieces were in dire need of restoration. Enter Ephraim Jose, a Philippine-born master restorer and conservateur who learned his delicate trade in Japan. “Practice makes perfect” is Jose’s professional mantra, and he got plenty of practice—and achieved a great deal of perfection—with the Lane 
Collection. One particular triumph was a print depicting an Edo Period courtesan; Jose and his apprentices managed to flawlessly restore the beauty’s time-and-grime-blackened face to its original numinous pallor.

To finance the labor-intensive phase of cataloging and conservation, a number of Chinese pieces had to be sold; this judicious pruning also winnowed the vast collection to a more manageable size and clarified the focus on Japanese art. Among the first items to hit the market were several exceptional Ming and Ching Dynasty scrolls, which caused considerable buzz at New York’s Asia Week in 2005. As word of the Honolulu Academy of Art’s amazing acquisition began to spread, the question inevitably arose: Who was Richard Lane, anyway?

Brilliant, erudite, secretive, difficult, antisocial, contemptuous, impossible to know: These are the leitmotif terms that emerge from informal descriptions of Richard Lane by his contemporaries.“He was a very bizarre person and perhaps his own worst enemy,” recalls Manhattan gallery owner Joan Mirviss, “but as a scholar he was nearly unrivaled.” Scott Johnson, a Japanese art expert who teaches at Osaka’s Kansai University, provides a humanizing perspective: “Dick Lane resisted making personal friendships, but he could also be tireless in helping younger scholars. Now, looking through his collection—its depth, its unexpected strengths—I feel as if I’ve come to know him better. Now I’d love to sit down and have a chat with him.”

Lane was, by all accounts, not the chatty type; he gave no interviews and wrote no self-revealing memoirs. Nonetheless, the basic biographical facts are clear. Born in Kissimmee, Fla., Lane served as a Marine in Japan during World War II. He subsequently studied Japanese and Chinese literature at the University of Hawai‘i (B.A.) and Columbia (M.A., Ph.D.), then settled permanently in Japan in 1957. In 1960 Lane married Chiyeko Okawa, a medical doctor. A wedding photograph shows the couple in a sweetly candid moment, exchanging a playful private smile. Strong-featured and lantern-awed, Lane looks more like Central Casting’s idea of a good-natured GI than an aloof, contemptuous curmudgeon.

Unlike most world-class scholars, Lane was never affiliated with any university; he supported himself as an art dealer and by writing about Edo Period woodblock prints and illustrated books, among other topics. His best-known work is the hefty, oft-cited Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print, an encyclopedic survey of ukiyo-e. Lane’s prose style is literate, polished and occasionally mischievous, especially when he’s discussing shunga—the witty, startlingly explicit erotic prints that were one of his favorite areas of scholarship and collecting. In print he doesn’t seem standoffish at all.

Richard Lane and the Floating World: That was the evocative title of the Academy’s first exhibition of its superlative Japanese art jackpot. (The show ran from October 2008 until February 2009 and is still viewable on YouTube.) Guest curator Scott Johnson celebrated Lane’s “fondness for strange things” by deftly juxtaposing fanciful titles such as “Insect Parade,” “Monkey Couple Marries and Fox Wedding Disrupted by Dog” with more conventional “Beauty Writing a Letter”-type fare. That exhibition was, in effect, a sneak preview of things to come, for the forty or so works it included—some of which had never before been published, documented or shown—represented only a fraction of the collection’s floating-world images.

In mid-2009 the entire Richard Lane Collection was finally installed in its new home: a specially built, air-conditioned storeroom at HAA. The process of cataloging 20,000 works of art was enormously time-consuming, and as of May only about 2,000 of the pieces had been fully documented. Remarkably, given Lane’s reputation for buying work of uncertain provenance, 80 percent of the items have turned out to be authentic.

The splendid centerpiece of the collection is its hundreds of ukiyo-e prints and paintings (including masterpieces by such renowned artists as Hokusai and Utamaro) and an estimated 5,000 woodblock-printed books. Two 18th-century paintings, in particular, stand out among many fine examples: the tour-de-force hanging scroll “Bijin [Beauty] in Front of a Tiger Screen,” a stunning mixture of ukiyo-e and Kano styles by Isoda Koryusai; and “Mount Fuji,” an unusual oil painting on silk by Shiba Kokan. The inventory also features a number of strikingly calligraphic Zen ink-paintings, and there is a small but significant sampling of early 20th-century paintings as well; the latter inclusion is a bit surprising, since Lane was known to remark that he had no interest in Japanese art after 1868. Even so, according to Shawn Eichman, the Academy’s curator of East Asian art, “It’s clear that Lane was visionary in his collecting of 20th-century Japanese painting,” at a time when there was relatively little interest in that period.

Several works from the Richard Lane Collection (including the Shiba Kokan oil painting) will appear in a Mount Fuji-themed show in September 2009, and a major survey-exhibition is scheduled for 2012. Selected items will be rotated into the museum’s Japanese galleries, and there may be smaller annual showings to highlight various aspects of the diverse array of art. “Two hundred different themes immediately come to mind,” says Stephen Little, dreamily.

The Academy’s bold purchase of the Lane Collection offers an irresistible illustration of how knowledge plus instinct plus vision can sometimes equal extreme good fortune. (It also demonstrates the hoary but ever-relevant maxim that one expert’s trash—or garbage or junk—may be another’s dazzling treasure.) Whether or not Richard Lane really did expect to live forever, his aesthetic and scholarly spirit will continue to shine for generations to come, through the beautifully restored bounty of his extraordinary assemblage of art.

Leaving behind a valedictory “death poem” is an ancient Japanese literary tradition, and one of the most poignant examples was composed by the ninth-century nobleman Ariwara no Narihira (825-880):
That it is a road
Which someday we all travel
I had heard before,
Yet I never expected
To take it so soon myself.

The translator? Richard Lane (1926–2002). HH