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On April 10, 2003, Robert O. Muller passed away at the age of 91. The passionate collector and art dealer had amassed the finest and possibly the largest collection of Japanese Shin Hanga prints that the world has ever seen.
His death drew great public attention to what had become famous as the Muller Collection.
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Robert O. Muller made his first encounters with Japanese prints in the early 1930s. He happened to see Japanese Shin Hanga prints offered by Shima Art Company in New York and spontanously made his first purchase.
At that time the American public was not familiar with Japanese Shin Hanga prints. And people had other concerns - the world recession of the early 1930s and later, from around 1935 on, growing political tensions with Imperial Japan.
However in the years 1930 and again in 1936 two major exhibitions had been held for Shin Hanga prints in Toledo, U.S.A. The exhibitions caused a lot of attention and were also a commercial success - the exhibited prints were for sale.
Robert Muller was impressed. And the passion for Japanese prints and paintings that had taken possession of him, should accompany him for the rest of his life.
In 1940 he went with his young bride Inge on a honeymoon trip to Japan. There he met the important Japanese print publishers, mainly Watanabe Shozaburo, the mentor and business promoter of the Shin Hanga movement. Muller established contacts also to others like Nishinomiya Yosaku, Adachi Toyohisa and Kato Junji in Tokyo as well as to the Kyoto publisher Sato Shotaro, a business rival of Watanabe.
And Bob - as his friends called him - began to buy Japanese prints big - from publishers and directly from artists. He could hardly have chosen a better time for buying. The Shin Hanga business of publishers like Watanabe had been mainly an export business to the United States. In 1940 the political climate between Japan and the U.S.A. had brought the exports to a near standstill. Watanabe and the other publishers were only too happy to sell. The book "Crows, Cranes & Camellias" mentions that Robert Muller recalled having paid a price of 28 cents for each print by Koson Ohara.
Before Robert Muller left on his honeymoon trip to Japan, he had bought the Shima Art Company in New York and had established himself as an art dealer with the Robert Lee Art Gallery.
On December 7, 1941 the Pacific war began with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Not a good time to start a business with Japanese art in New York. Sentiments in the country were understandably anti-Japanese. U.S. officials were afraid of a potential Japanese attack on the West Coast and detained more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese origin. Among them was the painter and printmaker Chiura Obata and his wife Haruko. The best thing for the Mullers to do, was to keep a low profile.
After 1945 the climate for a business in Japanese art remained stiff. The Mullers organized sales exhibitions of Japanese prints in American schools.
By the 1960s the Muller art business had established itself. And the collection of prints continued to grow. Robert O. Muller showed again his foresight when he began to extend his interest to prints from the Meiji period and to kuchi-e. This was at a time when ukiyo-e experts and writers of books on Japanese prints like Jack Hillier or Richard Lane regarded the end of the Edo period (1868) as the end of the Japanese woodblock print and ukiyo-e that had been created after Utamaro as degenerated, commercial mass products that were not worth to be collected.
In the 1980s and 1990s the art world became aware of the importance of Muller's collection. Two books were published and exhibitions were organized. The Muller collection became an important source for research and the subject of several books published by Hotei Publishing.
Robert O. Muller supported these activities generously. Different from the famous art collector Dr. Barnes, he opened his treasures to researchers and book writers. The prints and scroll paintings were stored in several safes in a room in a barn-like, red-painted building next to his home in Connecticut.
A sigh of relief went through the art world when the press reported that the collection of 4,000 prints and a large archive of documents had been bequeathed by Muller's heirs to a museum - the renowned Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.
These press reports had a small mistake. Not the collection, but a collection of 4,000 prints went to the Smithsonian Institution. It was presumably the finest part, but not the complete collection. Other parts of the collection went into the market and have been offered in real-world and virtual galleries as well as in internet auctions since late summer of 2003.
For the first time in art history, the internet has made art objects from a large and important collection available to everyone - not just for a few who happen to belong to a small circle of insiders or who have a big wallet. This is a new and truly democratic experience. It would not have been possible without the internet and demonstrates the beginning of a fundamental change of the art market.
Since late summer we have had the pleasure and the luck to come across quite a large number of prints from the Muller collection and to offer them in our online art auctions. But what makes prints from this collection so special, and is the hype justified?
Yes, it is - for several reasons.
First of all, the prints collected by Robert Muller are exquisitely beautiful. Mr. Muller obviously amassed prints not only under business aspects, but by what he personally liked. And he had good taste.
Second, these prints have hardly any condition problems. No wonder - they have been stored professionally over all the years.
And third, the Muller collection suddenly reveals treasures that had not been seen in the market before. There are prints from hardly known artists like Jo or Ryomi, of whom nobody seems to know either the complete name or when they were born and when they died. And other artists like Keinen, known for nice but not overly exciting prints, are suddenly seen with great designs.
And finally it should be mentioned that the prints we have seen so far, were all made according to the highest quality standard - beautifully designed and often printed with deluxe features like embossing or gofun.
Sometimes critics come up with the argument that Shin Hanga prints had been made primarily for the U.S. market - catering for the taste of Americans and showing them a kind of romantic Disneyland Japan that had ceased to exist a long time ago.
There is certainly some truth in it. But who cares? Is art not something that should primarily be beautiful? ... and maybe make us dream a little! Why not? Successful art has never been boring and has always reflected the tastes of the time. Rubens painted images of buxom nudes and the Italian artists of the Renaissance portrayed the aristocratic rulers the way they wanted to be seen - in their full power and wealth.
And artists like Hasui, Shinsui, Shunsen, Goyo and Koson left us gorgeous works of great beauty - created in woodblock technique by carvers and printers who at that time had a skill level that had never been reached before in the 200 years of Japanese woodblock print tradition.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
(November 2003, updated June 2009)
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