Spink gift transformed Museum’s holdings of Asian and American art

By | November 4, 2014

George Washington

George Washington, by Rembrandt Peale, is one of 10 works by American artists included in the Spink gift.

In 2014, the Saint Louis Art Museum received the transformative gift of 225 works of art from the collection of the late C.C. Johnson Spink and Edith “Edie” Spink. The bequest included superb works by American artists—including John Singleton Copley, Rembrandt Peale, Norman Rockwell and Andrew and Jamie Wyeth—but the gift was most notable for more than 200 works of Asian art that range from Chinese ceramics of the Neolithic period to works from Meiji-era Japan.

The Spinks’ Asian art collection was developed with the intent of filling major gaps in the Art Museum’s collection and with a specific goal of allowing the museum to present a complete history of Chinese ceramics from prehistoric times to the end of the imperial system.

“This extraordinary gift is the result of three decades of strategic collecting by Johnson and Edie, who were guided by a shared desire to expand and elevate the Museum’s collection,” said Brent R. Benjamin, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, said at the time the bequest was announced. “I am grateful for their generosity, and all of us at the museum are excited to include their legacy as an essential part of our visitors’ experience.”

Many of the most significant pieces in the collection have appreciated greatly in value in recent years, to the extent that it would have been impossible for the Museum to purchase them on the open market. A conservative estimate of the value of the Spink Asian Art Collection is $50 million. Certain pieces, in particular the most unusual and rare of the bronzes and porcelains, could command prices well over $5 million each.

“The Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection of Chinese art is impressive, but the dramatic increase in market prices has made it a challenge to further develop that area of the collection,” said Mark Weil, who at the time of the bequest was a Museum commissioner and the chairman of the museum’s collections committee. “This gift includes works of such a high level that we would have been unable to secure them at auction or in the private market.”

The Spink Asian Art Collection primarily comprises works by Chinese artists, although the gift also includes six important Japanese works. The collection includes 83 ceramics, eight works in glass, 52 jades and hardstones, 22 works made from lacquer and other organic materials, and 50 examples of  metalwork. Highlights include:

  •  Rectangular Food Vessel (fang ding) with Flattened Feet in the Form of Kui-Dragons, a Shang dynasty (11th century BC) bronze bowl with two horseshoe handles and supported by four feet in the shape of long-tailed birds.
  •  Ritual Object in the Form of a Prismatic Cylinder (cong), a rectangular shaped, dark green jade cylinder from the Liangzhu culture and dating to 3000–2000 BC. The object depicts 10 faces on each corner.
  •  Standing Figure of a Horse Groom, an earthenware figure from the Northern Wei dynasty (early 6th century).
  •  Stem Bowl with Design of Flowering Branches of Tree Peony, Pomegranate, Chrysanthemum, and Camellia, a large Jingdezhen ware stem bowl dating from the Xuande period of the Ming dynasty (early 15th century).
  •  Bowl with Design of the Three Abundances, Floral Sprays, and Auspicious Clouds, a large carved pale blue and celadon-glazed bowl from the Yongzheng period of the Qing dynasty (early 18th century).
  •  Dish with Design of Gardenia Sprays, a shallow, circular porcelain plate from the Yongzheng period of the Qing dynasty (early 18th century) featuring floral designs in white on a ground of blue underglaze.

The gift demonstrates the broad collecting interests of the Spinks. In addition to Asian art, the gift includes such important works of American art as:

  • George Washington, a bust-length portrait of the founding father from about 1845 by Rembrandt Peale. The painting, which includes a trompe l’oeil stone oval opening with visible cracks and seams in the stonework,  is one of the best known depictions of Washington.
  • Thanksgiving, an iconic 1943 painting by Norman Rockwell purchased from the artist by J.G. Taylor Spink and given to his son, C. C. Johnson Spink, upon his return from Coast Guard duty during World War II. The painting, which was reproduced for the Nov. 27, 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, depicts a young refugee in war-ravaged Italy giving thanks for a GI’s rations and coat.
  • Hot Stove League, a 1956 painting by Rockwell that shows two old men bickering about baseball while keeping warm next to a potbelly stove. The painting, which shows one man holding a newspaper and another holding a baseball magazine, likely had a special significance for the Spink family, which owned The Sporting News and related baseball publications.
  • The watercolors Glass Lamps and Open Door by Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009) and Butts and Cattle Rubbed by his son, Jamie Wyeth, that together highlight one of the most noteworthy families of American artists.

The gift is a testament to museum patrons C.C. Johnson Spink and Edith “Edie” Spink. In the early 1970s, the St. Louis natives began a period of aggressively collecting art with the long-term goal of expanding the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum.

“The Spink’s generosity and investment in the Saint Louis Art Museum’s collections is inspirational,” said Barbara B. Taylor, who at the time of the bequest was president of the museum’s board of commissioners. “This gift illustrates their love of art and their desire to leave a legacy that will have an impact on our visitors for years to come.”

Charles Claude Johnson Spink was the publisher of The Sporting News, and he was the last owner from the family that in 1886 founded the St. Louis-based national sports publication known as “the Bible of Baseball.” After Mr. Spink died in 1992 at the age of 75, his wife Edith Spink entered politics. As mayor of Ladue, Mo. from 1975 to 1995, Mrs. Spink was one of the St. Louis area’s longest-serving mayors when she retired from office. She died in 2011 at the age of 90.