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Once at Mia: The professor and the owl

He holds the bronze owl in a curiously darkened room, posing for a newspaper photographer as though the incredible bird has just hatched before the flash bulbs.

Umehara Sueji was a professor of archaeology and a historian of Far East cultures at the University of Kyoto when he came to Mia in January 1954 to examine the so-called Pillsbury owl, designed in the 13th or 12th centuries BCE to hold wine for ritual offerings to ancestors. The professor was an expert in Chinese bronzes, had excavated ancient sites in Japan, Korea, and China, and had impeccable taste. His exquisitely assembled, silk-bound, six-volume catalog of Chinese bronzes, written in the 1950s and ’60s, fetched $63,700 a few years ago at auction. Even so, to hold Alfred Pillsbury’s collection of Chinese bronzes at Mia, among the oldest and most interesting ever found, must have made his head spin.

Pillsbury was a long-serving philanthropist in Minneapolis, president of the Park Board, chairman of the board of trustees at Mia, and a prolific collector of Asian art. In his will, he left a million dollars worth of Asian art to Mia, at the time the most valuable collection ever given to the museum. He began collecting jade shortly after World War I, giving several hundred pieces to Mia, before branching into Chinese and Persian pottery, Chinese tomb figurines, and ultimately Chinese ritual bronzes. A summary of his donations, published by Mia in 1948, described the bronzes as “the ultimate in Chinese art” and his collecting of them as “the natural last step” as well as the “most satisfying” of his collecting career.

“In a way,” the article continues, “they make Mr. Pillsbury the friend of everyone who knows his treasures because they reflect to an unusual degree the personality of the man who assembled them. It is no accident that they are of uniformly high quality; that they are subtle and understated; that they reveal a profound feeling for form and color; and that they are spiced by a sly humor which is the more effective for its infrequent intrusion.”