The Art of China
One of the 20th Century’s top experts on — and collectors of — ancient Chinese art spent his final years in Ridgefield.
Abel “Billy” Bahr’s vast collection, begun when he was a young man in Shanghai, is today distributed among some of the world’s finest museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which considered him and his daughter major benefactors.
Abel William Bahr was born in 1877 in Shanghai, a son of a German father and a Chinese mother. After receiving an education at a Catholic school in Shanghai, Bahr began his career as a clerk with a wholesale and retail coal merchant, and eventually established his own firm in 1898 at the age of 21.
“Bahr’s interest in Chinese art seems to have begun around 1905, when he began collecting porcelain from the Kangxi period (1662–1722),” says the Smithsonian Institution, whose Freer Gallery focuses on Asian art and holds many of his papers. The idea of exhibiting art for the masses was virtually non-existent in China at the time, and in 1908 Bahr promoted the first exhibition of Chinese art in Shanghai, organized under the auspices of the Royal Asiatic Society.
From 1910 until 1946, Bahr lived in England where he continued to amass a collection of Chinese art, often making trips to China. One of his specialties was early jades, and his jade collection was acquired by the Field Museum of National History in 1928. (The privately printed, 51-page catalogue of the collection today can bring more than $2,000 on the rare book market.)
Bahr had both written and been the subject of books. He donated two of his favorites to the Ridgefield Library in the 1950s, but both — now worth thousands of dollars — are no longer in the library’s collection. One, “Early Chinese Painting from the A. W. Bahr Collection” (1938), can fetch more than $1,000 at auction today. The other, his own “Old Chinese Porcelains and Works of Art in China” (1911) sells for as much as $2,500 today.
Bahr moved to Montreal in 1946 and then to Ridgefield in 1951 when he acquired “The Coach House” on Branchville Road opposite Ivy Hill Road. There, amid his old Chinese art and artifacts, he enjoyed entertaining.
“A gracious host, he insisted his male guests have a drink and advised them that scotch and water, not soda, was most healthful,” wrote Ridgefield Press publisher Karl S. Nash, who knew Bahr. “He offered them cigars and asked everyone to write a message in the guest book he maintained in the front hallway. He enjoyed talking about art, proper diet and his famous friends around the world, who called him ‘Billy.’ ”
Among the treasures in The Coach House were a magnificently carved, 10th Century wooden Buddha, a six-foot tall silk scroll, and Chinese Chippendale chairs from the 1700s.
Over the years Bahr donated or sold many of his pieces of art to museums including the Met, the Field, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, England, the Montreal Museum of Art, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Bahr died in 1959 at the age of 81, and is buried in St. Mary Cemetery.
Nash observed in his obituary: “He often minimized the importance of money and emphasized the pleasure he received from donating his art collection so that future generations could see and appreciate ancient Chinese culture.”
After his death, his daughter, Edna, gave many pieces of his remaining collection to various institutions in her father’s memory, particularly the Metropolitan Museum, which had made her a fellow in perpetuity, and the Ashmolean. A Ridgefielder from 1951 to 1962, she died in 1986 in England where she had lived most of her early life.