Over 400 works of modern Chinese art have been bequeathed to the Ashmolean museum by Michael Sullivan, a recently deceased Emeritus Fellow of St. Catz college. Professor Sullivan was an art historian and possibly the foremost counsel on Chinese art in the Western world. Upon his death, aged 96, in September, he bequeathed his extensive private collection to the Ashmolean museum.

The collection contains over 400 works and has been described by the museum as, “The greatest private collection of modern Chinese art in the West”. Conservative estimates of the combined works’ value come to around £15m. During his long and distinguished career he was one of the first academics to bring the achievements of modern Chinese artists to light, publishing his first work on 20th century Chinese art as early as 1959.

Professor Christopher Brown CBE, Director of the Ashmolean Museum, said:

“Michael Sullivan was a longstanding friend and supporter of the Ashmolean and it was through his forethought and generosity that we have received this outstanding collection.

“His paintings will be displayed, on rotation, in the Khoan and Michael Sullivan Gallery where they will be enjoyed by thousands of visitors; and scholars around the world will have the opportunity to use the works in their study, teaching, and research. We hope that it is a fitting testament to a great art historian and collector.”           

A small set of paintings from the collection has been exhibited for some time already at the museum, as the ‘Khoan and Michael Sullivan Collection of Modern Chinese Art’. Khoan Sullivan was Prof. Sullivan’s late wife and a Chinese national. The couple met on one of his first visits to the country; they were married in 1943 and remained so for sixty years, until her death in 2003.

Wenyi Wang, a student at Teddy Hall and President of the Oxford University Chinese Society, was effusive about the donation:

“I think this gorgeous gift from Prof. Michael Sullivan is very beneficial for our society and could give the public a brilliant chance to get in touch with Chinese culture and art. I believe Chinese art should be granted more attention and have the same status as its Western counterpart.”

Walter Arader, a dealer of Asian art and DPhil candidate in Tibetan art at St. Cross college, said:

“With the exuberant prices that similar works are fetching at auction these days, many selling for tens of millions USD, the gift [Professor Sullivan] has left to the Ashmolean is unprecedented for a university museum.  

“The collection will surely draw visitors from around the world and in particular in November during Asian Art Week in London.  This gift will also hopefully spur the University to further the study of contemporary and classical Chinese art history.  

“The collection is unique in that it was assembled at a time before the rampant forgeries that now plague the field were being produced. Professor Sullivan’s collection is a rare gem of the contemporary art market in that it was lovingly and carefully selected by a world authority in the field before the present time in which virtually every work’s authenticity must be called into question.”