Nearly three months after an exhibition of Chinese artifacts that were donated to CSUN, a retired curator of Far Eastern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art wrote to university President Jolene Koester stating there were “serious questions of authenticity” concerning the objects.
The curator, George Kuwayama, sent a letter dated Nov. 30, 2004, after he and two colleagues attended the exhibition at the Oviatt Library.
The exhibition contained artifacts that were donated to CSUN and dozens of pieces from the personal collection of Roland Tseng, the donor.
“Many of the pieces seem misdated with serious questions of authenticity,” the letter reads. “The Chinese objects on display . . . are not commensurate with CSUN’s academic reputation. Several specialists in Chinese art history and archeology are offering their expertise to study, analyze and report on the Chinese objects if given access to the collection or at least the pieces in possession of the university.”
Kuwayama offered his services along with those of Pieter Meyers, a research scientist and former head of conservation at LACMA. He is currently a consultant for LACMA and former head research scientist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Lothar von Falkenhausen, professor of Chinese archeology at UCLA.
All three saw the pieces during the exhibition, held between April 22 and Aug. 27, 2004.
The university turned down Kuwayama’s offer.
Susan Curzon, dean of the Oviatt Library, responded to Kuwayama in a letter dated Dec. 7, 2004, stating that “the pieces in (CSUN’s) possession have already been independently authenticated,” and that “several members of our faculty are doing ongoing research on the pieces, including a metallurgical analysis.”
The exhibition, “Possessing the Past: Mysteries of Ancient Chinese Art,” was held to honor the $38 million pledge of ancient Chinese antiquities that were to be given over four years to CSUN by Tseng. CSUN honored Tseng’s pledge by naming the west wing of the university library the “Tseng Family Wing” and named the College of Extended Learning after the donor.
Seven experts of Chinese antiquities and archeology who were contacted by the Sundial said they have doubts about the authenticity of the CSUN Tseng collection. See Seven experts say objects not genuine antiquities
Some of the experts saw some of the objects in person, and all viewed photographs from the CSUN university Web site of the objects.
Among their reasons for questioning the collection’s authenticity to make their determinations, they said:
The objects are a jumble of motifs and styles from different periods of history and do not have a uniform style as they should if they were authentic.
The objects have neither the style nor shapes of any known antiquities of the period claimed by Tseng and the university, nor of any known historical period.
Many of the pieces have a uniform surface appearance, which usually indicates a modern and manufactured origin. Many of the pieces have signs of corrosions that do not look natural.
Tseng said in a recent interview the artifacts he donated to CSUN were authentic and that tests done by his representatives and the university’s prove that they are. He said he gave those tests to the university. The university has declined to provide any documents concerning the donation to the Daily Sundial.
Tseng’s donation, when completed, would be the largest gift in the history of the California State University system.
The donation helped CSUN have record-breaking fundraising years for the first two years of the pledge. The university had $18,849,318 in 2002-03 and $28,822,284 in 2003-04; without the Tseng donation fundraising levels would have been stagnant for those years, according to a January 2005 CSUN press release.
The 2003 federal 990 tax forms filed by the CSUN Foundation state the estimated value of the entire art collection is $20,975,956. The document, which covers July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2004, the time period in which the eight objects were donated, states that the university received $20,903,606 in non-cash gifts.
According to the CSUN Winter 2003 annual report, “the exhibit will span 6,000 years of Chinese history with more than 100 objects displayed of archaic jade, ancient bronze, Neolithic pottery, earthenware and Stone Age tools.”
Three out of the more than 100 objects donated to CSUN were included in the exhibition.
These three objects, announced by the university in a September 2003 press release, are described as being worth about $9.5 million.
After the exhibition, five more objects were donated to CSUN by Tseng.
University officials said the additional five donated objects brought the total value of the collection to $24 million, according to an April 2004 CSUN press release.
The donation has been “suspended” due to Tseng having personal problems, according to Ken Swisher, assistant vice president of Public Relations ‘ Strategic Communications in December 2005.
Tseng’s wife, Tamara Kitka, filed for divorce on July 13, 2004, according to court documents.
Tseng’s personal collection of antiquities has been the subject of legal conflict between the two since then.
CSUN authenticator worked for Tseng
According to CSUN officials and Tseng, the university paid Frank Preusser, an independent contractor, as the sole authenticator for the objects.
Preusser is a San Fernando Valley-based consultant who specializes in chemical examination of archeological and historical objects. He has worked for the Getty museum, and was recently hired as a conservatory scientist for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Preusser said he had done authentication work for Tseng in the past and was referred to the university by Tseng. Tseng confirmed that he referred Preusser to the university.
According to court documents filed by Tseng in June 2004 declaring his assets and debts in connection with divorce proceedings, he stated that he owed Preusser $17,000 for art appraisals.
Preusser said in a December 2005 phone interview that he had evaluated artifacts for CSUN and Tseng. He said he was referred to CSUN by Tseng, who is also a client of his.
He said he could not say what pieces he had evaluated for CSUN because if he did, that would be violating the confidential relationship he has with all his clients.
Preusser refused to comment on whether he authenticated the eight objects that CSUN had received from Tseng.
Preusser said he had evaluated other artifacts Tseng wanted to donate to the university and had deemed them not authentic. He said that those pieces had been rejected by the university after his evaluation. He said that evaluating ancient objects “is not an absolute science” and that what he offers to his clients is his own best opinion.
Preusser also said that 95 percent of his judgments are not contested by his colleagues, and some of his colleagues might dispute 5 percent of them.
The only way to find out what those objects really are is by doing specific dating and certain other tests, Preusser said.
He said he is fully capable of conducting those tests, but he does not have the equipment to conduct them when he does consulting work.
In December 2005 and April 2006 phone interviews, Tseng said the eight pieces he donated to CSUN were “completely authentic.”
He also said, however, that two objects that he had hoped to donate to the university at the same time were found to not be authentic by Preusser.
Tseng said he did not know beforehand the pieces that were deemed unauthentic by Preusser were anything but authentic, and said that this was not an uncommon occurrence
in the world of collecting.
He said he has learned as a collector that one occasionally gets objects that turn out to be “not right” and that is something that happens to even the most famous collections and museums.
Tseng said that he was sure of the authenticity of the eight objects accepted by CSUN because he had scientific tests performed on them that confirmed their legitimacy, and because he had received export documents and letters of authenticity from the Chinese government. He said he had given these documents to CSUN and was not sure he had any copies.
Tseng said the university also had tests performed by qualified representatives that confirmed objects were authentic. He declined to reveal who performed the tests and said it was up to the university to reveal the testing information.
CSUN officials would not release any information on the tests completed to affirm the authenticity of the objects, citing donor privacy.
Tseng said he donated the objects to CSUN because university officials said the collection would be completely open to scholars, teachers and students for research.
He said he was very surprised the university was not letting independent researchers study the objects he had donated.
“I want the university to allow scientists to come and look at the collection. The university should be completely open about the collection,” Tseng said. “They promised me that they would.”
Tseng said the reason some scholars might believe the objects in the collection are not legitimate is because the objects are unique and have not been seen outside China before.
“Just because someone has not seen anything like this before doesn’t mean that it’s not real,” Tseng said. “Ask 10 scholars, you get 10 different opinions.”
Though Tseng said he believed in open access to the donated pieces, his views on the scholars’ offer to examine the objects differed. He said he had heard about the letter from Kuwayama and said it was CSUN’s decision to turn down the offer.
Tseng said there is a difference between scholars who wished to study the objects and those who he believed wished to re-authenticate what has already been authenticated.
“There is no basis for that,” Tseng said. “The university has had the pieces already authenticated.”
He said the scholars should be allowed to study the objects after CSUN has a chance to publish more definitive studies on the objects.
Judy Knudson, vice president of University Advancement, which coordinates fundraising and controls the University Foundation, said in a November 2005 interview that the Tseng collection was open and available for scholars to research.
She said the monetary value put on the artifacts is not made by the university, but by the donor, as required by Internal Revenue Service rules.
The IRS requires that gift donations to charitable organizations worth more than $5,000 be valued by an independent appraiser.
“The foundation doesn’t take responsibility for that,” Knudson said. “That is standard operating procedure.”
The CSUN foundation is a 501c3 charity, technically a separate entity from the university, that is not subject to any freedom of information guidelines.
Knudson said the objects’ values were established by an independent appraiser supplied by Tseng, who also provided a letter from the Chinese government to the university that said the artifacts were legally taken out of China.
She said the foundation has always received proper independent appraisals for all object gifts valued over $5,000 as required by the IRS and the California State University system.
A review of an audit by the Office of the University Auditor found that in 2003, 13 of 16 gifts valued over $5,000 given to the Foundation in 2003 lacked evidence of required appraisals as required by the CSU. The report states that the foundation claimed “independent appraisals had not been obtained due to the expense associated with that service. The lack of appropriate appraisal of gifts-in-kind increases the risk that revenues reported are misstated,” the CSU audit report states.
Knudson said the 13 gifts that were not given proper appraisals in 2003 were “probably stacks of books that were missed” and that the objects in the Tseng collection were properly appraised.
University officials have declined to provide the name of the appraiser of the eight donated Tseng pieces after repeated requests by the Daily Sundial.
The officials said releasing that information would violate the donor’s confidentiality.
She said the CSUN collection had been authenticated, and said she had no knowledge of anyone ever questioning the authenticity of the Tseng collection.
When presented with a copy of the Kuwayama letter and Curzon’s letter of response, Knudson said she had never seen Kuwayama’s letter or the response.
Though she said the issue was new to her, she said she agreed with the rejection of the scholars’ offer.
“The objects have already been authenticated, and I frankly don’t see the need to have them authenticated again,” Knudson said.
She also said that three CSUN instructors were doing research on the objects, so the outside offers of authentication were not necessary. She also cited security concerns for the objects as a possible reason the university rejected the offer.
Curzon said in an October 2005 interview in her office that she had little to do with the donated objects and that the Tseng donation was a “presidential-level donation” and that the only thing she or the library had to do with the donation was the actual physical possession of the objects. She said she had little to do with the acquisition or authentication of the objects. Curzon said in a November 2005 interview that she had read the Kuwayama letter and wrote the university’s response to the letter. She said the author of the letter was “interested in authentication and they (the objects) had been authenticated.” She would not comment further on the Kuwayama letter and referred all further questions to University Advancement.
President Koester Interview
Koester, who was interviewed in December 2005, said there will always be differing opinions over works of art, and that was the nature of scientific discourse. She said she had full confidence in the ability of Preusser to evaluate the artifacts, citing his work for the Getty Museum and LACMA.
She said that each piece accepted by the university had undergone “a detailed and thorough testing.”
She said Knudson and Curzon were the people who helped select and hire Preusser.
The hiring process consisted of “talking to people in the Los Angeles art world” and thorough examinations of biographies and qualifications of various people, Koester said.
She said the University Foundation hired Preusser.
Koester said Kuwayama’s letter was handled traditionally and sent to the “operationally responsible” department to answer the letter.
Koester said Curzon provided a set of recommendations and a course of action and Knudson was also given the letter.
The University Foundation has direct ownership of the artifacts. The library, headed by Curzon, has physical responsibility for the collection.
Koester said there was no reason for the artifacts to be re-authenticated because they had already been authenticated by an independent authenticator, Preusser.
She said the issues brought up in the Kuwayama letter were dealt with by Knudson and Curzon, and she declined the offer, as was recommended by Curzon.
Koester, at the time of the initial donation, proclaimed the artifacts in the CSUN Tseng collection as “exceptional treasures,” and a part of helping CSUN to “become a major center for the study and appreciation of Chinese art and culture,” according to a university press release.
Koester and other university officials said a “protocol” had not yet been set up for visiting scholars to
study the objects.
Koester said she does not have a problem that Preusser had worked for Tseng in the past. She said she believes Preusser is a well-respected and completely independent scientist.
“Authentication is actually a business procedure,” Koester said.
CSUN had followed standard operating procedure followed by many institutions in the United States when it hires an authenticator who knows the donator, she said.
Swisher and Geetha Thomas, assistant vice president for the Resource Management Foundation at CSUN, reiterated the fact that they considered Preusser an independent evaluator even though he did business for Tseng in the past.
“Those people (Kuwayama and the two scholars who offered their services) were referring to pieces that are not ours but Roland’s,” said Swisher, stating the university’s position that the letter was talking about the pieces on display that were Tseng’s and not the three that were dedicated to the university.
“We have an authentication done by this independent person (Preusser), and why do we want to go through all the security risk to conduct research that has no value?” Swisher said. “But we did not see the need to authenticate something that was already authenticated.”
Not standard operation at Harvard and UCLA
Luann Abrahams, assistant director of administration of the Harvard University Art Museums, said the use of a donor’s expert to evaluate the authenticity of a donated piece is “very unusual.”
“We have an extensive approval process,” said Abrahams in a December 2005 phone interview. She said if Harvard did not have experts that could tell it what exactly the donated objects were, then it would go out and find experts who could.
She said it “was highly unusual” that an authenticator associated with a donor was used by an institution, and had never heard of anyone using a donor’s expert to authenticate donated pieces.
“We would go to the people who wrote the definitive books on the type of art we would be looking at,” Abrahams said.
Lynn Brodhead Clark, director of development for the Fowler Museum at UCLA, said when pieces are donated the museum will consult specialists and consult “the top person in the field” of whatever particular object is being donated and not just one expert.
Clark said she had never heard of an institution using an expert who had worked for the donor to authenticate donated pieces.
“That’s not standard procedure to take the word of a specialist supplied by the donor,” Clark said. “We would try to get as much document provenance as we could.”
Juliann Wolfgram, who was a CSUN professor specializing in Asian art at the time the donation was acquired, said she was never consulted by university officials to look at the collection, adding that the collection is considered “highly controversial” among many historians of Asian art.
Wolfgram said art professors were usually consulted when historical objects were given to an institution, but declined to comment further.
Another former professor of art history at CSUN at the time of the acquisition, who declined to be identified because she “did not want to get involved in the politics of the Tseng collection,” said that no one in the Art Department at CSUN was consulted.
The response to Kuwayama’s letter said several professors from CSUN were doing ongoing research on the pieces in the university’s possession, including a metallurgical analysis.
The three CSUN professors who received $50,000 from the Chinese Antiquities Research Program to study aspects of the Tseng collection were Jeffrey Wiegley, professor of computer science; Wei-min Sun, professor of philosophy; and Behzad Bavarian, professor of manufacturing systems engineering and management.
Wiegley said he is developing an Internet-based camera system that would enable users to view the Tseng collection live online.
Sun wrote a report on cultural aspects of Chinese society at the time the items in CSUN’s Tseng collection were said to have originated.
“My research has nothing to do with the objects themselves,” Sun said in a November 2005. “For any information on the objects, I rely on what scientists tell me.”
Bavarian said some of the objects were brought to him to examine in May or June 2003, before the University Foundation officially acquired them.
He said he believed the two pieces of the Tseng collection he examined – including a bronze vessel with jade dragon handles and pieces from Tseng’s personal collection – seemed to be authentic, but he “cannot answer the questions of authenticity with certainty.”
Bavarian said his research addressed what the objects were made of and the processes that were used to create the objects, independent of where and when the objects were made.
“Our scope of work was not to authenticate anything,” Bavarian said.
Bavarian expressed surprise that the university turned down the written offer of Kuwayama to examine the collection with the help of Meyers and von Faulkenhausen.
He said to authenticate the objects, one would do intensive testing and chemical analysis of a type that was not part of the scientific processes that he performed, he said.
“That is the process that Dr. Pieter Meyers would do,” Bavarian said.
Bavarian said CSUN should not deny requests to anyone who wished to research the collection.
“We are a public, learning university and scholars should able to look at them and study them,” Bavarian said.
Robert McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.