The jade collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was once showcased in an opulent room in the style of Louis XV, with fifteen delicate glass cases presided over by a chandelier. But it’s vanished as if it were never there.
The Jade Room came to my attention when I was looking at the old world beauty of clutter that pervaded museums in the 19th century for Hyperallergic’s lost galleries post, and I was captivated by the stunning space with its over-the-top decor. What had happened to this gallery?
According to the museum’s 1922 Guide to the Collections, the Bishop Jade Room contained “a collection bequeathed to the museum by Herber R. Bishop with the condition that it should be exhibited in a room reproducing the owner’s ballroom. The rich and very complete collection of jades is arranged according to the different colors and kinds, and contains not only Chinese jades but different kinds found in India, New Zealand, Nebraska, Mexico, and amongst the prehistoric remains of the Swiss lake dwellers.”
The collection was all the donation of the aforementioned Heber R. Bishop, an incredibly wealthy businessman who was enchanted with jade in all its forms, from geological shards to the most ornate jade carvings of China. He gave away the whole collection of hundreds of objects in 1902, some months prior to his death on December 10 of that year in his mansion on Fifth Avenue. He stipulated in his will that the bequest be exhibited in its entirety in their own room. But not just any room. He donated over $50,000 (over a million dollars in today’s currency) along with the collection for its construction, designating the Paris firm Allard Frères to oversee its design. It was all completed with a portrait of Bishop himself at the far end, looking over what his vast wealth and keen interest in jade had lavishly culminated into.
And that’s not even mentioning the monumental catalogue made of the collection. There were only 100 copies made of the extravagant and exhaustive illustrated two-volume catalogue, with each given to either European royalty or an illustrious public institution or libraries, no private collectors. According to 1906’s The Printed Catalogue of the Heber R. Bishop Collection of Jade by George Frederick Kunz and Heber Reginald Bishop, “The Catalogue is, perhaps, the largest volume ever issued, and certainly the most notable catalogue of a collection in any branch of science or art, and it may not be out of place to say that his work cost double the sum of the monumental folio of Audubon’s Birds of America… ” Maybe not indeed, here’s one that recently sold at Christie’s for $206,500.
But what was it like to view the collection firsthand, which included Indian jade flowers, objects from Ming dynasty tombs, prehistoric implements, a carved elephant inlaid with ruby, dishes of stone fruit from the Qing dynasty, and even human teeth inlaid with jade? As Alan Priest gushed in the December 1937 issue of the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Bishop jade collection is a holiday comparable to the Russian ballet when Nijinsky and Karsavina and Pavlova were weaving their marvelous patterns before our inspired eyes, but in the jades the excitement is caught and frozen for all time.”
The last printed mention I could find for the Jade Room was a citation in the 1945 Journal of the American Oriental Society‘s Comprehensive Bibliography of Jade. After that, it seems to disappear. Was it destroyed in a renovation? Did it fall into disrepair? Are there any remains of that beyond-lavish room? What about the jade itself?
According to my research, the gallery was on the second floor in a northeastern room, but I couldn’t find more details than that, and I didn’t hear back from the museum by press time. Some of the jade is still on display in the much more somber Chinese Decorative Art Galleries, and you can see the vast collection of hundreds of objects on the Met’s online catalogue, most punctuated with the dour refrain of “This artwork is not on display.” From 2004 to 2006 at the Met there also was an exhibition of 100 Chinese and Mughal jade carvings from the collection. Yet the only vision of the stunning Jade Room itself seems to be in a photograph, where you can glimpse the opulent ghost of this vanished space.