The Lotus Transcendent: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Samuel Eilenberg Collection

by Martin Lerner & Steven Kossak

A magnificent art collection, presented when 'provenance' only meant speculations about dates and styles, not how rightfully (or not) artworks were bought.

Eilenberg collection 1991

Type: e-book

Publisher: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York | Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York

Edition: MET digital version

Published: 1991

Authors: Martin Lerner & Steven Kossak

Pages: 247

Language : English

ADB Library Catalog ID: eART-MET2

In May 2023, The New York Times solemnly announced a new plan” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (MET) designed in order to become more responsible about the way artworks have been sourced by the famous Museum. A Provenance Research Team of 18 experts will trace the commercial history of each artifact, and assess the claims always more clamorous from looted countries’ (Cambodia having taken the lead in the last decades) for restitution and repatriation. The moves come as the Met — one of the largest museums in the world, with more than 1.5 million works from the past 5,000 years in its holdings — has been buffeted in recent years by increasing calls to repatriate works that law enforcement officials and foreign governments say it has no right to”, stated the article.

In this richly illustrated catalog published in 1991, when artwork looting and trafficking were reaching unprecedented peaks, provenance’ was just a matter of scholarly discussions about the possible period and geographic origin that might be assigned to each piece. Was this splendid sculpture from Thailand or Cambodia, from India or Nepal? From the 7th or 9th century? The authors, whose both path would later cross (or had already crossed) the infamous art dealer Douglas Latchford’s one, did not question one second the closer — and legally and ethically more relevant — provenance” of these artifacts.

About the Collector

Samuel Eilenberg (30 Sept 1913, Warsaw, Poland – 30 Jan1998, NYC, USA) was a Polish-American mathematician and professor at Columbia University who co-founded category theory (with Saunders Mac Lane) and homological algebra. An expert in homological algebra, he was also a prominent collector of Asian art., and in 1991- – 1992, the MET staged an exhibition from more than 400 items that Eilenberg had donated to the museum, The Lotus Transcendent: Indian and Southeast Asian Art .

These perfect credentials do not point to any tricky business or louche acquaintances. As Martin Lerner remarks in the prologue, Eilenberg’s style of collecting is very elegant and to the point‑I have been told he writes mathematics in just the same way. He bought in areas of special interest to him-often acquiring pieces that helped explain features of other objects he owned. He created study collections of the highest order, comprehensive enough to provide an overview of complete classifications of objects, but of such high quality that they delight the eye of the nonspecialist
as well as the initiate. Samuel Eilenberg, it seems to me, has always possessed a particularly acute appreciation of the appropriate.”

We have to remember that many art dealers much later exposed as felons were at the time praised by the scientific community and curators of the major museums. Douglas Latchford was even to be decorated by the Cambodian government in 2004. Within the closed, exclusive world of collectors and museum trustees, artworks could circulate without the latest buyer knowing from where the latest seller had gotten the piece he or she was purchasing. When looking at the roster of MET Trustees for the year 1984, one can see that Douglas J. Latchford was already a Fellow for Perpetuity, while Ms and Mr. Nathan Halpern, from whom Eilenberg was about to buy the Khmer Striding Garuda shown below, were Members of the Corporation who had donated more than 1,000 USD to the museum that year:

A sample of artwork classification by the authors:

Standing Tara, India [?], Eilenberg Collection

66 Standing Tara, India, Gupta period, ca. 2nd half of 6th century, Bronze, h. 12 in. (30.5 cm), Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 1987, 198J.2I8.4

Tara, the Buddhist deity who serves as the feminine counterpart of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, is identifiable through the blue lotus (utpala) held in her left hand and the citron (or pomegranate) in her right. Occupying a pivotal position in the transition from Gupta to Pala styles, this remarkable, perhaps unique sculpture has prompted speculation as to both its date and place of origin. lt has previously been published as Nepali as well as lndian. and has been assigned a seventh-century date. To my eye, this figure must be Indian, and a seventh-century date is probably a bit too late. The sculpture seems to derive, stylistically and iconographically, from late fifth-century Sarnath school images such as the two stone standing Taras, respectively, in the Sarnath Museum and the Indian Museum, Calcutta. The first prototype provides the general kind of jeweled girdle with round central clasp from which is suspended the short, flaring cloth-end, as well as some other jewelry correspondences.”

What about Cambodia?

There are only three artworks listed from Cambodia in the catalogue, including this superb bronze:

Striding Garuda, Pre-Rup-style, Eilenberg Collection

128 Striding Garuda, Cambodia, Angkor period, Pre-Rup style, ca. 3rd quarter of roth century, Bronze, h. 5′/4 in. (I3·4 em), Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Halpern, 1987, 1987.218.21

The great solar anthropomorphic bird-deity, Garuda, depicted here in a vigorous stride, is the traditional vehicle for the Hindu god Vishnu. In Khmer art of the Angkor War and Angkor Thom periods, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, to judge from the many surviving examples, Vishnu standing on Garuda was a particularly popular icon. The absence of Vishnu’s right foot suggests that it was raised and that he too was in a striding stance. It is usually rather difficult to date isolated Garudas on the basis of style alone, particularly when they wear a garment of feathers, as our example does, depriving us of the evidence that would have been provided by the sampot, which is generally arranged in the style of a particular period. Nevertheless, on the basis of the handling of his avian features, bodily proportions, and the design of his crown, I would assign this Garuda to about the middle or the third quarter of the tenth century, and the reign of Rajendravarman II (r. 944 – 68).”

Ceremony to unveil a collection of stolen Khmer artifacts at the Peace Palace, Phnom Penh, April 2023. Photo by Kok Ky/​AFP/​Getty

Photographs by Maggie Nimkin.

Tags: museums, MET, Khmer art, Asian art, Siam, Indian art, museology, provenance, scultpure, artworks, looting, restitution

About the Authors

Latchford lerner nyt

Martin Lerner

Martin Lerner, Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) for 31 years (19722003) is an art historian who became entangled in the controversy around Cambodian looted art for his connections with Douglas Latchford in the years 2000s-2010s.

In a report dated 18 Aug 2022, The New York Times asserted that the documents, found on Latchford’s computer after it was turned over to Cambodia by his daughter, show that Lerner used his expertise and reputation as a former Met expert to help Latchford market items for sale. In letters drawn up for Latchford clients, Lerner vouched for the value and significance of artifacts, in one case using language that closely tracked with what Latchford had asked him to write. They also owned at least one artifact together.”

In public declarations, Martin Lerner argued that acquisition of Asian artworks (and Khmer in particular) at the end of the 20th century was motivated by the necessity of saving them from civil war and destruction, or to financially help poor farmer families. He acknowledged that you were relying on the goodwill and integrity of the dealers themselves.” Gradually, provenance became more important, he said, and he expanded his research on objects before accepting them. But he said it was not a priority set by the museum and he lacked the time and resources to investigate fully. Even if he learned the name of a previous owner, it was often hard to follow up.
At the time I did indeed do what was possible and what I was expected to do,” he said. It was an incomplete system.” Surely toward the end of my tenure at the Met,” he continued, I could have done more.” [Ibid.]

Douglas Latchford and Martin Lerner, date unknown (photo NYT)

Stevenm kossak

Steven Kossak

Steven Kossak, Associate Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) during 20 years (19842006), is also a private collector specializing in the sculpture of greater India’ – including Tibet, Burma, Pakistan and Afghanistan – , Indian court and Himalayan painting, as well as African and Oceanic art.

See the catalog of his Indian court painting 16th-19th century collection.