An Uncommon Treasure-house

Paul Singer's New Jersey apartment
FOR DECADES, A TWO-BEDROOM APARTMENT in Summit, New Jersey, was home to one of the   most  distinguished private collections of Chinese art in America. Dr. Paul Singer assembled the collection over a long lifetime (he lived from 1904 to 1997), and he kept it not in the splendor of a mansion or gallery or museum but in the apartment he shared with his wife, Eva, in a reddish-brick, mid-20th-century-American apartment house of the sort architectural critics canít even be bothered to disdain. But behind that ordinary brick, what uncommon treasure! To say that the doctorís collection claimed every inch of the apartment is an exaggeration-but barely. There were pathways through the astonishing accumulation. But they were negotiated at some risk. After his wife died, Singer surrendered even their bedroom to the collection. The balance shifted: the collection no longer made room for the collection:  the collection begrudged space to him.  For the remaining two decades of his life, Singer slept on a sofa bed Ė left unopened because the extension would have claimed that much more space.
     Bookcases and shelves lined the walls of Singerís apartment and jutted into the arm of a sofa or threatened to block a closed door. The cases and shelves, bought as needed, didnít match, and that didnít matter. What mattered to Singer were the objects several rows deep that crowded those shelved. By the end of his life, he had acquired more that 5,000 such objects, spectacular evidence of Chinese civilizationís creativity over five millenniaĖswords, mirrors, bowls, boxes, trays, hooks, pieces of sculpture and pieces of jewelry, objects that were made to be used and objects there were made to be admired, in wood, bronze, glass, jade, lacquer, ivory, bone, amber and silver. And no matter their number of density, Singer always knew the precise location of every item that shared his home. Singer was born in Hungary but grew up in Vienna, Austria, where he attended medical school. Chinese art captured his fancy in the 1920s and never relaxed its hold on him.
     Through his friendship with Arthur M. Sackler, another collector with an Asian passion, Singer in the late 1960s began to receive money each year from Sacklerís foundation to enlarge the collection-on condition that it be left to the foundation at Singerís death. So the shelves in Summit grew even more full. After Singer died, the remarkable trove came to the Smithsonianís Sackler Gallery. The collection is now being readied for exhibition in the 100th anniversary year of the doctorís birth.
     Singer was healthy until a month before his death. He spent that last month in a hospital and nursing home-during which time some 162 Chinese objects we can identify, and perhaps many more disappeared from the unattended apartment in summit. To this day, the objects have not been found, and the Smithsonian has issued a brochure-a kind of wanted poster-with pictures of 40 of the missing items. To the mystery of the objectsí past, their disappearance adds fresh mystery. The loss to the public is indeed regrettable. But how thrilled audiences will be by the vast store that remains, for the doctor chose well all those years. The gorgeous clutter from his plain shelves is valued today at more than  $60 million. And its cultural worth? Thatís beyond calculation.