A Palm Beach collector roots his acquisitions in artistic reverence and scholarly curiosity
John Niblack’s passion for Chinese art actually began in Japan. During his tenure with Pfizer Global Research and Development, Niblack frequently traveled to Japan and became infatuated with the unfamiliar painted scrolls hanging on the walls of the offices he visited. The discovery that they were, in fact, Chinese would serve as a catalyst for a collection of scrolls, paintings, and relics that he now displays in his home and as a benefactor of the Chinese collection at the Norton Museum of Art.
To date, Niblack has amassed approximately 120 paintings in addition to other objects. He tends to acquire pieces from the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), favoring the works of commercial artists of that era as opposed to those by the Chinese literati. “They were not the retired scholar gentlemen who were quite literate and would write poetry and all sorts of other things that gentlemen were supposed to do in retirement,” he says. “These were painted instead by commercial artists who [sold] to the rich gentry and the courts. Many of these people did not sign their names on their paintings, so a number of the paintings that I’ve bought have no signatures that we can use. There are a lot of anonymous works from that period, but that’s okay.”
Nevertheless, Niblack has one piece by Bada Shanren, a former Ming aristocrat and an amateur painter from the literati class who remains a favorite. “It’s almost impossible to find new Bada works, and when you do, they cost enormous sums because there are so many Chinese millionaires and billionaires in the market. It’s very difficult to compete for big-name artists like Bada.”
As Niblack explains, many of these wealthy buyers, most in their 50s and 60s, grew up in the early days of the People’s Republic of China, a time when classical Chinese art was not taught in schools and was, in many instances, destroyed. These works were “identified as old culture that was to be replaced with the new Chinese culture,” he continues. “Therefore, the people in this age group know more about the contemporary art of the twentieth century [than] the older classical works they may have seen hanging in their grandmother’s home.”
This demographic, Niblack adds, tends to view these acquisitions as investments. “They know that these classical paintings are very valuable, and if they put hard currency into the classical paintings, they can use that as a form of wealth that can be moved. So, a lot of these classical works are acquired by agents on behalf of billionaires. The agents are knowledgeable of what’s good and what’s bad, and they go to the auctions to buy them with an allowance from the billionaires, who don’t have them in their homes but put them into safe-deposit boxes.”
Niblack, on the other hand, approaches the collecting process from a place of reverence. A scientist and researcher at heart, he’s sought to gain a more thorough understanding of the aesthetics he is so drawn to. He takes regular lessons in calligraphy and Mandarin, which he admits is a labor of love. “I don’t think that any of my teachers would say that I have come leaps and bounds,” he says, with a chuckle.
He also consults with art experts on specific works and, as his studies take him deeper into the paintings, he has become familiar with the significance behind recurring motifs. “There are so many meanings of objects, flowers, animals, and different kinds of trees,” he says. “For example, mandarin ducks mate for life, so a commercial artist would paint a picture of mandarin ducks to give to folks as an anniversary present, and everyone would understand what was meant by the painting.” He notes that this type of symbolism is prevalent in all forms of classical Chinese art and cites many useful books on the subject, such as Decoded Messages by Hou-mei Sung.
Photography by Jerry Rabinowitz
Since retiring to Palm Beach in 2002, Niblack has established a relationship with the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. In addition to serving on the board of trustees, he’s worked closely with Laurie Barnes, the museum’s Elizabeth B. McGraw Curator of Chinese Art, to help grow that collection into a well-rounded grouping that today includes more than 700 pieces spanning 5,000 years.
When Ralph Hubbard Norton established his namesake museum in 1941, he and his wife, Elizabeth Calhoun Norton, wanted to provide South Floridians with the opportunity to see works from around the world. The Chinese collection initially comprised an array of hard objects, such as jade, hardstone carvings, and bronze, but lacked significant paintings. Niblack knew that he could help fill this void, and it became his objective to aid the museum in developing this important component.
“The paintings are pretty much the backbone of Chinese art; everything else moves out from there,” says Niblack. “The Chinese had a written language before anyone else had one, and that spread to the drawing of pictures. Their invention of paper permitted them to put the images down on paper centuries before anyone else was using it. The paintings are really the core, and you can convey so much more information in a painting than on a pot.”
The Norton Museum’s recent major renovation also presented the perfect opportunity to rethink the configurations of the galleries. The John and Heidi Niblack Gallery is now on the first floor, anchored by a Tang Dynasty limestone Buddha head that is visible through the entrance. This subtly lit space offers a taste of the other Chinese and Asian works that reside elsewhere in the museum; the second floor houses additional jade and bronze objects, while the third floor features ceramics that were originally produced for the European market.
The crown jewel of the Niblack Gallery is a rare, six-panel painting entitled The Lantern Festival (Shangyuan Jie), acquired from a private owner through funding from the John and Heidi Niblack Fund. The piece, which dates back to the Wanli Reign of the Late Ming Dynasty, was in very poor condition, so Barnes and Niblack commissioned two restorers from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to work on it. They estimated it would take two to three years to complete, and Niblack laid down the deadline of Christmas 2018 in order to ensure it would be ready for the unveiling of the “new” Norton in February 2019. “At one point I went to see it, and they had the piece laid on the bed, it was so big,” Niblack recalls. “They were working on tiny bits of it with something like a watchmaker’s precision tool.”
He describes the completed piece as a great treasure of not only the Norton’s collection, but of any Chinese collection around the world. In his own home, Niblack surrounds himself with works that tell the story of the China of yesteryear. A folding screen chronicles the birthday celebration of a famous Tang Dynasty general. A painting by an anonymous Ming Dynasty author depicts an emperor preparing for a morning hunt. And an image of a horse grazing as an official rests against a tree is flanked by two examples of Niblack’s own calligraphy— a display that beautifully captures his thirst for knowledge and admiration of the craft.