In the Right Place at the Right Time
The noted collector John W. Gruber (1927-2001) was in the right place at the right time. Educated at Jesuit schools in Philadelphia, Gruber became a partner in Price Waterhouse and Co. (now PriceWaterhouseCoopers), the premier worldwide accounting firm. In 1963, after seven years in Caracas,Venezuela, he was transferred to Japan to the firm's Tokyo office. "Here was a guy from Philadelphia who had never seen Asian art," he recalled later. "Surrounded by that culture, with all those treasures-how could I not have been fascinated?" During his nine years in Tokyo, Gruber became passionate about Japanese chests (tansu) and is said to have owned as many as seventy of them at one point. His tansu collection, considered to be the largest and finest in the world, has been widely exhibited and published. The chests were utilitarian. He integrated them into his apartment as end tables and used them for storage.
He also developed a love of Japanese painting. After lunch at the Imperial Hotel he would stroll across the street and browse in the curio shops, just like Frank Lloyd Wright a generation earlier. The very first painting he acquired in this fashion is a fifteenth-century Buddhist triptych of the Buddha Sakyamuni with Manjusri and Samantabhadra and the Sixteen Arhats, a painting that now hangs in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. John M. Rosenfield of Harvard University exhibited the Gruber triptych, prized for its rare iconography and exceptional state of preservation, at Asia House Gallery in the fall of 1979 in the exhibition "Journey of the Three Jewels: Japanese Buddhist Paintings from Western Collections."
Gruber focused on 17th-century Japanese folding screens and made some major purchases under the guidance of scholars and museum specialists in Tokyo. He was famously cautious and finicky about condition, dating, and authenticity. Essentially self-taught, he had a connoisseur's eye and a talent for searching out fine quality. Years later he sold a pair of Japanese screens Scenes In and Around Kyoto at Christie's, New York, for nearly two million dollars, still a record price. Notwithstanding these successful acquisitions, he always claimed that his fondest treasure was his rustic house and lush moss garden in a mountain setting at Nikko, north of Tokyo.
During the years he was with Price Waterhouse in Washington, D. C., from 1977 to 1983, his interest shifted to Chinese furniture, and he frequently visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum to meet with Laurence Sickman, the director emeritus, and Marc Wilson, the curator of Asian art. Made from rare huanghuali wood, Chinese tables and chairs became a graceful frame for his Asian art. His Washington, D. C. apartment was published in the June 1984 Architectural Digest and his New York apartment, decorated by Stephanie Stokes, was featured this year in Design Times. Today Asian ceramics, furniture, and paintings from the Gruber Collection are in many American museums and private collections.
Note-- The following ar the captions to be used for the photographs which will be dropped into the intro essay.
All photos: Credit Mick Hales unless otherwise noted
1. John Gruber at Asakusa Temple, Tokyo, in the 1960s.
2. Gruber library. A Japanese two-panel 17th century folding screen of bamboo on a ground of gold leaf above a Chinese huanghuali altar coffer with a three-color glazed Ming-dynasty stoneware figure of a demon. On the floor a Japanese 19th-century wood and paper lamp stand; and a Chinese huali rectangular kang table with a large 16th-17th century Chinese blue and white Kraak porcelain dish.
3. Gruber guest room. Chinese 17th-century Ming-dynasty waisted huanghuali side table with a contemporary Japanese Mashiko-style stoneware vase, a Chinese bamboo brushpot and a small signed 18th-century Chinese bamboo holder pierced and carved in high relief, as well as an 18th-19th century soapstone Chinese figure of a seated Guanyin; one of a pair of small Chinese folding stools with soft leather seats; and one of a pair of 18th-century Chinese veneered huanghuali Southern official's hat side chairs.
4. Gruber living room and entrance foyer. A Japanese late 17th-18th century folding screen painted in ink and color on paper with the Views in and around Lake Biwa hangs above the sofa. In the foreground are a pair of Chinese 17th-18th century huanghuali horseshoeback arm chairs ans a 19th-century Chinese huanghuali square kang table with three Chinese Tang-dynasty three-color glazed pottery rams. In the far corner is a large 19th-century Southeast Asian storage jar.
5. Gruber library. A 19th-century Korean six-panel screen of scholar's accoutrements in color on silk hangs over the sofa. There is a rare Japanese red-lacquered wood and paper cube-shaped lamp stand dated 1752 and a Chinese huali rectangular kang table. On the table are a large 16th-17th century Chinese blue and white Kraak porcelain foliate dish for the Dutch and Portuguese markets and a small hongmu mirror stand with metal butterfly hinges.
Japanese Works of Art
Property from the collection of John W. Gruber