The Price collection’s fierce guardians ponder the next move


Take a walk with genius, and there’s no telling where you might end up.

One day in 1953, Joe Price found himself strolling Manhattan’s East Side with Frank Lloyd Wright, escorting the great architect to his pied à terre at the Plaza Hotel following a visit to the site where Wright hoped to plant his Guggenheim Museum.

Suddenly, Wright got a hankering to look at Japanese woodblock prints (he avidly collected them for most of his life, and Japan is the only country outside of North America where he worked). He veered into an art gallery on 65th street, and Price followed. At the time, Price was innocent of Japanese art, or any other kind, having trained as a construction engineer at the University of Oklahoma. He was in New York to smooth the sometimes testy relations between his father, an oil pipeline construction tycoon, and Wright, who was then creating the 221-foot Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla.

“I was a ping-pong ball,” Price recalls — volleyed across the country by his father, who was baffled by Wright’s allergy to telephone conversation, then returned with the architect’s answer. At 81, the humorous cast of Price’s face as he tells the story, his rimless spectacles and the silver-and-white hair cascading down to his shoulders from a bald dome call Ben Franklin to mind.


Following Wright’s footsteps into that Manhattan gallery has made all the difference. While the master perused prints, the young emissary was drawn to a delicate, rather austere drawing of grapevines. Its modulated shades of black and gray instilled a hunger the 23-year-old hadn’t known.

After depositing Wright at the Plaza, he ran the seven blocks back to the gallery and bought it. No ping-pong ball has ever been whacked harder — or has ricocheted longer and farther. For Price, collecting the art of Japan’s Edo period became his life’s passion and led him to his life’s love, Etsuko, who turned up as his translator for a 1963 art-sleuthing excursion. They married two years later.

The latest public reverberation from Price’s 30-block walk with Frank Lloyd Wright is a double-header exhibition at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the windup to a seven-city series of shows that began in 2006 at the Tokyo National Museum, where “The Price Collection — Jakuchu and the Age of Imagination” was that year’s most heavily-trafficked art exhibition worldwide, averaging nearly 6,500 daily visitors. The tour came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008.

“Ito Jakuchu: A Man With No Age” recently finished its two-month run at the Bowers; now through July 17, a fresh assortment of works by many artists, “Masterpieces from the Price Collection,” has replaced the one-man show by the master whose drawing of grapevines transformed Price’s life.

“They’re rock stars in the world of Japanese art, but I don’t think you’ll run into two collectors who are more down to earth,” says Peter Keller, the Bowers director who has known the Prices for years. They have lived in Corona del Mar since 1988.

Strolling the Bowers exhibition on Jakuchu with the Prices proved a deeply informative and surprisingly action-packed experience.


A painting in which an almost Modernist, abstract-looking rooster guards a chick and hen inspires Joe to enact a pantomime, his hands forming talons that claw the air in a warning to whatever predator might lurk outside the image’s border.

“He’s crouching! He’s down and he’s ready to jump! That’s Jakuchu!” he says, crouched himself in front of the picture, while spinning a play-play-play for a scene that’s been frozen for more than 200 years. “It functions as a live being.”

The Prices can have their own barnyard squabbles — in one animated tête-à-tête that Joe clearly enjoyed, he earned a swift rebuke from Etsuko for suggesting that one colorful painting probably was created for a Buddhist temple. “No, no, no,” she said. Only merchants liked works ablaze with color, or could afford them, given the cost of pigments. Monks preferred something austere.

Their well-documented differences with LACMA are not so loving. In 1980, Joe signed over more than 300 works he’d collected to that point as promised bequests or longterm loans to LACMA, adding $5 million in cash as core funding for the Pavilion for Japanese Art that houses them and many other works.

At the time, Edo art — which dates from the 250 years before U.S. gunboats arrived in the mid-1800s, hastening the fall of the shoguns who had ruled Japan and kept it sealed off from the Western world — was considered passé. That was OK with Price, who was buying to feed his eyes, not his reputation or his net worth. It meant that there was no competition to beat him to the best pieces, or to drive their prices higher.

For Price, how the art is lighted seems to matter nearly as much as the art itself. It should be seen in natural light, he says, and certainly not in direct artificial light.


LACMA never got the lighting right, the Prices say, and it never would stick with fixes they requested, such as dimmers, because museum visitors would complain that the galleries were too dark. Another gripe is the long-ago installation of an office for museum staff in the study center beneath the Japanese pavilion, where the art is stored. Back-and-forth foot traffic from a staff office can’t be good for the paintings, they believe.

The Prices, who retain lifetime control over their gift to LACMA, also wish they could have been allowed to initiate scholarly symposiums and other LACMA events pertaining to the collection. They like Michael Govan, LACMA’s director since 2006, but even with him, they say, their wish for hands-on involvement has been a nonstarter.

Now they’re seeking a different museum to house the 300 pieces they’ve acquired since the LACMA deal.

“We lost our desire with LACMA. This time, no more mistakes,” said Etsuko, 72, adding that they’ve talked to officials of one potential recipient, the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., which is devoted exclusively to Asian art. Bowers director Keller said that the Prices probably are looking to “much bigger” museums, but “if they’re thinking about keeping it close to home, the Bowers would be perfect.”

LACMA’s Govan isn’t giving up, either. “I have nothing but praise for the extraordinary accomplishment of Joe and Etsuko Price,” he said Tuesday, crediting their gift with sparking many others to the museum, and noting that Joe was a driving force in shaping architect Bruce Goff’s conception for the much-admired Japanese Pavilion. Govan said that bamboo trees were trimmed recently outside the translucent Pavilion, to let in more natural light, and that interior lighting improvements will happen as well. He believes that relations with the Prices are not beyond repair, and “it’s my hope that over time we’ll be candidates” for additional gifts.

Joe Price says that any museum receiving their remaining art will have to hire as the collection’s curator the younger of their two daughters, who heads a foundation they’ve set up. “She comes with the art.”


It’s not what museums want to hear from prospective art donors, says Selma Holo, director of USC’s Fisher Museum of Art and head of the university’s International Museum Institute.

“It really would make me uncomfortable to be told, ‘You can have this group of beautiful paintings, but you must take my curator along with it,’” Holo said.

After the Bowers shows, the collection will spend 18 months or so resting outside the public eye for an important mission that awaits: A planned tour of museums in earthquake-stricken northern Japan.

“Right now everybody is living day-to-day,” Etsuko said, but “when they are ready to see beautiful things,” she and her husband will be eager to provide.