Fred A. Bernstein

Getting In at the Underground Floor

Lillian Schloss bought Chinese antiquities early

Published in The New York Times, February 25, 2007

AT 84, with more possessions than the seven rooms of her Upper West Side apartment can easily accommodate, Lillian Schloss is the first one to admit: you can't take it with you.

Last year, she sold 47 similar pieces to the Walt Disney Company.
Luckily for her, millions of ancient Chinese felt differently. For centuries, they arranged to have elaborate clay figurines buried with them to make the afterlife more pleasant. Some of the figurines depicted people; others, animals; and still others, pagoda-like buildings.

More than 300 such figurines fill the living and dining rooms of Mrs. Schloss's apartment on West End Avenue. Last year, she sold 47 similar pieces to the Walt Disney Company, which has put them on permanent display at the Chinese pavilion - modeled on the Temple of Heaven in Beijing - at Epcot Center near Orlando, Fla.

There was a lot of bargaining. "You wouldn't think such a big company would care so much about the price," said Mrs. Schloss, who received several hundred thousand dollars for the pieces. She said she put the money into education funds for her three granddaughters.

Back in 1984, an auction of some of the pieces collected by Mrs. Schloss and her husband, Ezekiel, brought in about $2 million at Sotheby's. One iconic figure, a 26-inch horse from the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-906), sold for $660,000.

Mrs. Schloss has never been to China, because, she said, when she was young enough to go, "we never had the money." And now that she has the money, she isn't planning any trips. She said she lives on Social Security and her pension (from 30 years as a teacher) and relies on public transportation. "If I take a taxi, it means someone's sick," she said.

She writes letters, including one to a reporter trumpeting her sale to Epcot, on a manual typewriter, one of several in her apartment. After years of anonymity, "it's nice to have a personality," she said. "In the public school system I was just a number."

Now, over Chinese food from a neighborhood restaurant, she gave a 20-minute lecture (from carefully prepared notes) on the history of Chinese tomb art. With a strong voice and the confidence of a longtime teacher (she spent decades, she said, "conjugating French verbs" at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan), she gives a concise summary of ancient Chinese history.

Her focus is on how the political climate of each dynasty affected the style of its tomb art. Her language is down-to-earth (she describes one glaze as "just like a clear nail polish"). What she knows, she said, she learned from her husband, who fled his native Latvia just ahead of the Nazis. He was, she said, one of the first collectors to recognize the beauty and importance of Chinese tomb art. As a result of his prescience, they were able to pick up pieces like an unglazed "fat lady," from the Tang dynasty, for $100. (They later sold it for $35,000.)

Though English was Mr. Schloss's sixth language, he wrote a book on the artifacts that was "very important at the time," said David Sensabaugh, the curator of Asian art at the Yale University Art Gallery, who called the Schloss collection pioneering.

The couple met in 1942. Because she is Catholic and he was Jewish, their love affair created discord. "I was dead to my parents," Mrs. Schloss said. Still, they married in 1948.

During a belated honeymoon in Mexico in 1952, the couple picked up several pre-Columbian pieces, which they resold in New York for a profit. For the couple, who relied on her teaching income and his sporadic earnings as a political cartoonist, the goal at that point was "to survive," Mrs. Schloss said. (Mr. Schloss was also the editor of World Over, a Jewish children's magazine published by the Board of Jewish Education in Manhattan.)

Hooked on collecting, the couple bought Egyptian art, Greek art, Roman art. "We went through all of the civilizations," Mrs. Schloss said. "For us, the thrill was in the learning."

In the 1960s, they began to focus exclusively on Chinese art. "Greek art, they wouldn't let it out of the country." she said. "Pre-Columbian art you couldn't touch. But Chinese art was so available, and so inexpensive."

The pieces were unearthed when grave robbers went looking for gems. "The figurines, to them, were just so much clay," she said. "And so they dumped them over here." The Schlosses bought nearly all their pieces from dealers in Manhattan.

Finding themselves with a leading collection gave the couple entree to the upper echelons of the museum world; Mrs. Schloss is happy to show a visitor catalogues from exhibitions to which she loaned, or donated, figurines. Traveling to museums, where she was honored, "I felt I had arrived," she said.

But it was during an earlier show, of loaned items, at Epcot in 1982, that Mr. Schloss suffered a heart attack. His wife retired the next year to care for him, and he died in 1987.

Three years later, she took in a cat, which quickly gave birth to eight kittens. Mrs. Schloss's daughter, Simone, who lives in Pelham, N.Y., made plans to divvy up the kittens, but Mrs. Schloss - always the collector - couldn't bear to part with any of them.

"I was still so depressed from the loss of my husband." she said. "They were like a family.

Now the remaining cats are 16 or 17. "We're all old," she said. "We're all going to the same place, around the same time."

But nothing in her manner suggests that Mrs. Schloss is going anywhere anytime soon. She still bicycles around the neighborhood on most days. And she maintains an active correspondence with curators and with friends from her teaching days, one of whom visited her collection at Epcot and brought her a souvenir (which explains why there's a Mickey Mouse sharing a shelf with ancient Chinese treasures).

The Schlosses moved into the second-floor apartment, with three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a maid's room, in 1958, when the rent was $250 a month. ("I still have the receipts," Mrs. Schloss said.) She bought it in 1990, for $250,000. A similar apartment would now be worth at least $2 million.

Decorating isn't her thing; makeshift shelving units for the figurines dominate the rooms. An old television set is front and center, so Mrs. Schloss can show videos of lectures on Chinese tomb art (and of her daughter's appearances as a cabaret singer).

And bargaining isn't her thing. Unlike her husband, "I'll blurt out anything," she said. "I'll tell them how much we paid for a piece."

She said she surprised herself with the Epcot deal. "I'm proud that, at this age, I could swing something like that," she said. Disney has put the pieces on display in a gallery that until recently housed the King Kong Disneyland Preview Center.

The pieces Disney didn't buy still have price tags tied around their necks. And they gather dust, which Mrs. Schloss doesn't remove. The figurines "come from the grave anyway," she said, giving a practical explanation for her no-cleaning policy. She also hasn't painted the apartment in years.

"I'm putting it off," she said. "Everything's old in this apartment. Not just the cats and me."

Perhaps, but when you're surrounded by art that dates to 200 B.C., 84 years is nothing.