The Freer Gallery of Art needed an act of Congress to hire and retain Japanese conservator Takashi Sugiura. Following World War II, diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan had not yet been fully reestablished, so the Smithsonian asked Senators Theodore F. Green and Leverett Saltonstall to intervene and sponsor Sugiura. When he arrived, Sugiura was the first private Japanese civilian to emigrate to the United States since before the war.
Why jump through so many hoops to hire a “picture mounter,” his title at the museum? Sugiura was one of only a handful of conservators qualified to restore Japanese national art pieces. He began his studies as an apprentice at the young age of 15 and trained for the next decade as a hyogushi, a master restorer of Japanese art. Sugiura’s job required the careful process of replacing the backing from a sometimes 1,000-year-old work, patching any damage, cleaning the piece with water, and mounting it on a brocade background. He used only Japanese-made papers, silks, brushes, and paints to restore these screens and scrolls.
Sugiura’s studio at the Freer was unlike many conservation labs in the United States. He worked kneeling on a bamboo mat at low benches. Visitors to the studio removed their shoes at the door and sat with Sugiura on cushions on the floor.
The conservation world paid tribute to Sugiura when he passed away in 2005, but the artist was also widely celebrated during his lifetime. In 1978, the Evening Star profiled Sugiura’s painstaking work and mentorship to future generations in an article titled “A master in restoring Oriental art recruits a new hand.” A decade earlier, editors of the Torch, Smithsonian’s staff newsletter, featured the conservator in a half-page spread.
And Sugiura’s legacy is forever cemented in the Congressional Record. In 1955, Senators Green and Saltonstall again intervened for the artist on behalf of the Freer when Sugiura’s family was delayed in joining him in the United States due to immigration complications. Freer director Archibald Gibson Wenley pleaded with Congress in a letter asking the government to take action before Sugiura decided to reurn to Japan. “We feel rather pressed, for it is urgent to the safety and preservation of our great collection of more than 2,000 paintings that Mr. Sugiura remain with us.” Wenley argued that “it would be almost impossible to get someone to take his place here.”
Sugiura retired in 1980 after 27 years of service to the Smithsonian.
- “In Memorium: Takashi Sugiura.” Washington Conservation Guild Newsletter 29, no. 2 (June 2005): 10-11.
- “Only 8 in the World Can Fill Sugiura’s Job,” The Torch, April 1967
- “History of the Studio,” East Asian Painting Conservation Studio, National Museum of Asian Art
- “Relief of Takashi Sugiura” Congressional Record (1955) p. 729–30.
- James, Betty. “A master in restoring Oriental art recruits new hand.” Evening Star, January 18, 1978