Student Voice


June 20, 2024

Historian says art collecting reveals story of U.S.-Asia relations

Falcon News Service

April 14, 2016

An expert on Asian relations with the West recently spent two days in River Falls speaking on campus and in the community.

While historian Warren Cohen’s presentation on the UW-River Falls campus focused on U.S.-China relations, his Friday, April 8, talk at the River Falls Public Library was on an even more narrow topic — Asian art collecting in America.

Cohen was chosen as this year’s Wyman Visiting Professor in History by Zhiguo Yang, chair of the Department of History and Philosophy.

“He is very approachable… He is less confusing in his presentation because he tends to not place what he is presenting in a complex, theoretical framework,” Yang said. “Many of the audience found this style of presentation appealing and attractive.”

Cohen is a distinguished university professor emeritus at the University of Washington and has written about the subject of U.S-China relations in his book “The Challenge to American Primacy, 1945 to the Present,” part of the four-volume “Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations.”

It is a subject he has extensive knowledge on, and how it can be seen in collections of art gave new insight into those relations.

Through his presentation, he talked of how Asian art collecting arose in the late 20th century, and how it grew from a luxury to a way of life for some. Cohen gave long explanations of how unscrupulous some of this collecting came to be, such as those who would steal priceless ancient artifacts from sites in China or Japan or rob graves for their collections.

As he talked, Cohen revealed a lot of information on various collectors and museums, such as how the Boston Museum of Fine Arts acquired its extensive collection of Japanese art, or how collectors’ personal lives would be concerned with the hunt for new pieces to add to their collections.

Despite how cutthroat the business can get, Cohen confided that collecting that art contributed a lot to a country’s own culture and appearance to the world. For the collector themselves, it can say a lot.

“I think for most people this is a status symbol, and the rarer a piece you have the more important sense of self you have,” he said of those who collect. “But for other people it can be a strictly aesthetic sort of thing: ‘This could be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and I have got to have it.’”

UWRF Professor Emeritus Kurt Leichtle said he quite enjoyed Cohen’s presentation.

“He’s a very good lecturer, and the programs have been good, and the responses have been good. The department’s enjoyed having him. It’s been interesting for us to have to talk to somebody of his caliber and it’s not a set of topics we get to see,” he said of Cohen.

Cohen said that whenever people see a piece of Asian or any foreign art, they should always question where it came from, for they might get some fascinating and important answers.

He recalled one statue he saw in France that he later found out had to be smuggled into the country. Knowing the fate of that piece, Cohen said, who knows what other secrets works of art may hide.