The Tacoma Method: Turns Out Chinese Americans Get Mad When You Sell Art They Donated to Heal the Worst Act of Anti-Chinese Persecution in American History
by Jen Graves
on Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 1:13 PM
Courtesy the Youngs
The robe, the proud Young matriarch, and the one-time director of Tacoma Art Museum.
In this week's paper, I write about a Chinese American family suing Tacoma Art Museum. It turns out they've decided to drop the lawsuit, and the museum says it will donate a few of the objects it was going to sell to "an appropriate Northwest institution in the near future."
But the issue was never really a legal one. It was a different kind of failure.
The story starts...
Connie Young Yu had no more than $11,000 to buy back her late mother's favorite red robe. The robe came up early in the sale, rising like a flame at the front of a room at Bonhams auction house in San Francisco last December. Embroidered with sprays of peonies, patterned butterflies, and gold medallions, the robe dates back to the Qing dynasty, in the 19th century. Bidding started, and Connie jumped in, but buyers whizzed past Bonhams's low estimate of $8,000, then past Connie's budget. A Chinese businessman bid $15,000. Sold. Just like that, the robe was gone, a half-century after Connie's parents rescued it and sent it to the Tacoma Art Museum to be enshrined as a symbol of reconciliation in the city where the mayor once called Chinese people a "curse" and a "filthy horde."
Losing the robe was the last straw. The Young family—Connie, her brother Al, and her sister Janey—announced a lawsuit against TAM on February 28. The museum had sent the robe to auction along with 131 other robes and jades donated by the Youngs in the 1970s and '80s.
The strands of that single robe stretch from the waning days of imperial China through the American civil rights movements, ending in that San Francisco auction room with the triumph of 21st-century Chinese wealth. The characters are vivid: Al broke the Asian color barrier in race-car driving. Connie is the granddaughter of a widow with bound feet who got locked up under the federal Chinese Exclusion Act. She's also the mother of an Oscar winner and a historian who writes books about the Chinatowns where her great-grandfather once raised money to fund the fighters who tore down the Qing dynasty, scattering imperial cast-offs like the red robe all over the globe for Connie's parents to later find.
The size and scope of the story—even more than the objects themselves—is what TAM underestimated when it set out to sell the Young collection.