Haniwa Horse could become ‘a new icon’ of LACMA’s Japanese art collection


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Robert Singer can still remember how he felt when he first laid eyes on the Haniwa Horse in a Kyoto gallery two years ago.

‘The size. The elegance. I had never seen anything like it,’ says Singer, the curator of Japanese art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. ‘It was a no-brainer. I told them, ‘Ship him over and we’ll fund-raise for him.’’


True to his word, Singer and the museum secured the necessary financing. On Thursday, the 6th century terra cotta horse will make its public debut at LACMA, where it is expected to become a signature piece of the Japanese art collection.

Haniwa -- which means ‘circle of clay’ -- are hollow, unglazed sculptures that adorned the surfaces of the mounded tombs of the rich and powerful in 4th through 7th century Japan. Most are shaped like cylinders or in the form of houses, people, animals and military, ceremonial and household objects.

Singer has seen a number of haniwa horses, notably one on display at Tokyo National Museum, the country’s oldest and largest museum. None, he says, is as big as LACMA’s new acquisition, which is 4 feet tall and 4 feet long. (The Tokyo figure is less than 3 feet high.)

No one seems to know why this horse is larger than the others, says Singer as he stands next to the clay creature in the Pavilion for Japanese Art. ‘But everyone who sees it reacts to its size -- and its charisma. Look at this face. He just draws you in.’

Singer notes that about 70% of the sculpture is original. ‘You won’t find any haniwa that isn’t restored. This one is in unusually good condition.’ The Haniwa Horse, as LACMA has named the figure, was excavated in 1955 from a rural area north of Tokyo. It passed from the land’s owner to his son and ended up in the Kyoto gallery.

Singer was on a scouting trip to Japan when the gallery owner approached him about coming to view the horse. ‘Our museum is known to be an active collector,’ says Singer, ‘so we were given an opportunity to see this piece ahead of others.’


He elected not to present the sculpture at the 2009 Collectors Committee Weekend, the annual event at which arts patrons pay dues to help create a kitty for acquisitions and then vote on purchases after hearing pitches from curators.

‘I decided to save the meeting for pieces that might need a little more help in attracting support,’ says Singer, whose 18-of-19 pitch success rate has prompted museum director Michael Govan to dub him ‘the Ty Cobb of Collectors Committee.’

Instead, Singer introduced the horse at a trustees’ acquisition committee meeting and the museum soon had enough donor commitments to make the purchase. LACMA declines to reveal the price but says the sale was completed in February.

The Haniwa Horse will stand on a lighted platform in the pavilion, next to the museum’s other haniwa piece -- a seated nobleman.

‘At the trustees meeting Michael Govan said this horse would become a new icon of the collection,’ says Singer. ‘We think everyone will identify with him.’

-- Karen Wada