Collecting Excellence

For Cécile and Sandy Mactaggart, an impulse purchase sparked a lifelong passion - and built one of the world's finest collections of Chinese art

Christie Hutchinson - 11 January 2016

The silken robe felt smooth and comfortable, the boldly coloured threads creating a pattern so exquisite it was impossible to believe it had been woven by human hands. The Chinese robe was breathtaking. In it, Cécile Mactaggart - despite the discomfort of her first pregnancy - felt beautiful.

It was the early 1960s, and for years the centuries-old robe had been tucked away neatly, an impulse purchase by Cécile's husband, Sandy, that until then hadn't found much use. Chinese robes were neither fashionable nor in demand at the time, but the couple found them fascinating - he for their historical and social value, she for their workmanship and beauty. When Cécile wore the garment and felt it on her skin, she not only appreciated the relief from the discomfort of Western maternity clothes; she felt a connection to the beauty and history of the fabric. She was inspired to seek out more like it.

And so, the couple began to cultivate this new-found interest in Chinese textiles, a highly developed art form in China from as early as the first millenium BC. With each new piece, they fell more deeply in love with ancient Chinese culture. Steadily, they began to fill their home in Edmonton with tapestries, costumes, hand scrolls, paintings, albums, engravings and other rare antiquities.

Edmonton was an adopted home for the Mactaggarts but, much as they had come to appreciate Chinese textiles, the couple had become fully invested in the city and had grown to love it. Cécile and Sandy seemed to see the same things in Edmonton that they saw in Chinese art: both had great potential and, at the time, both were somewhat overlooked and misunderstood.

When the Mactaggarts moved to Canada from the Northeastern United States, Edmonton had a population of fewer than 170,000, but Sandy could see the community's potential. He was drawn to the prospect of developing Alberta's north. Here existed the opportunity to share his knowledge and passion to create something truly exceptional. Together with business partner and Harvard classmate Jean de La Bruyère, Sandy established Maclab Enterprises, a property development firm that contributed to Edmonton's tremendous residential housing expansion throughout the 1950s and '60s.

The Mactaggarts nurtured their love of the city and their love of art in tandem. Over the next 40 years, they became involved with the city's art gallery and the Edmonton Opera and were founding members of the Citadel Theatre. Privately, they assembled a collection of rare Chinese textiles, paintings and artifacts.

Eager to learn as much as they could about the people who had made each ancient piece, the couple sought the expertise of - and quickly befriended - art historians and dealers. "Whenever experts were travelling nearby, we would invite them to join us - at least for one night, sometimes two," says Cécile. "In this way, all of us might learn new and fascinating facts about some new purchase. It was a wonderful time in our lives together."

The pair became regulars at auctions and galleries in New York, London and Hong Kong. They learned the significance of the imagery featured in the textiles, paintings and relics they purchased. Cécile learned how to fold the precious robes and fabrics. Painstakingly, she catalogued the collection, assigning a homemade card to each treasure detailing its presumed origins and sometimes how the couple came to own the piece. Meanwhile, Sandy widened his understanding of the history and culture of China.

They bought art they loved, art that brought them joy and art they deemed excellent. They knew they were creating one of the world's best collections of Chinese art, and when Sandy began to consider retirement in the late 1990s, the Mactaggarts decided to share their prized possessions with their beloved community. Between 2004 and 2005, they donated more than 1,000 pieces of their collection to the University of Alberta. "Because we had had this lifelong interest in Chinese history and culture, we could see how important China was going to be to the world, and particularly to Canada," says Sandy, who served as chancellor of the University of Alberta from 1990 to 1994. "I believe strongly that if you're lucky enough to have done well in your community, you should try to put something back into it." The donation inspired the establishment of the university's China Institute. Financed by a matching grant from the Province of Alberta, the institute's mission is to promote scholarship, research and understanding between Canada and China.

The Mactaggart Art Collection has become a research hub for students and scholars across campus for everything from art history to Chinese politics, military strategy to clothing and textile design. One of the finest publicly held collections in the world, it places the University of Alberta among few institutions in North America - alongside the Royal Ontario Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago - where such rare Chinese artifacts can be studied and appreciated first-hand.

Today, Cécile still maintains her dream of seeing the Mactaggart Art Collection inspire what she would consider to be the first world- class museum west of Toronto. Sandy feels certain the collection will somehow find its place: "the more a community understands about the best in the world, the more life becomes more beautiful and meaningful."

Amateur Experts

As they expanded into collecting paintings, Cécile and Sandy endured the cynicism of art aficionados who cast a contemptuous eye on what they perceived to the Mactaggarts' amateur interest in the world of Chinese art. "The first time we bought a Chinese painting at auction ... this man came over to us and asked, 'Why did you buy that painting?' " Cécile recalls. "And I said, 'Because of all the stickers,' and they all burst out laughing." But another auction patron came to the defence of the couple. "He said, 'You're quite right, Mrs. Mactaggart. If that number of emperors put their seals on the painting, it was worth all your interest.' "

Building the Best Collection in the World

It's no bigger than a notepad: A fragment of textile exquisitely wrought by expert hands. Its delicate silk and gold-wrapped threads are woven to form rows of lions marching in opposite directions through a lush jungle. "It's so beautiful! You'd sell your house, your dog, your cat to have it!" Cécile jokes, 25 years later still enamoured of the Chinese kesi, or tapestry. With only a few comparable textile fragments in existence at other institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or the Musée Guimet in Paris, the rarity of pieces such as this in the collection, elevates it to one of the finest of its kind in the world.

More Than an Impulse Purchase

In 1951, on a visit to Paris with friend and business partner Jean de La Bruyère, Sandy visited a casino, reluctantly allowing de La Bruyère to place a bet on his behalf. The $100 gamble - his first and last - earned Sandy $3,000. "But what do you do with it?" Sandy asks. "Are you a good Scotsman and put in the bank, or do you spend it in a way you never have before?" Sandy's sense of adventure compelled the then-23-year-old to do the latter. He spent his winnings at a London department store, where he purchased several inexpensive Chinese robes imported from China following the communist defeat of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek.

Beyond the Auction House

In the years following the Second World War, Chinese textiles were not prized - partly because the United States had negative relations with China and partly because the art was considered by China's ruling government to be a decadent remnant of a defeated regime. Because the Mactaggarts were among the few purchasers of Chinese textiles at the time, they came to know and be known to the few dealers and academics interested in the subject. "We were often among the first to be offered the best pieces that became available," Sandy says. "This was especially true when China invaded Tibet."

As bombs fell on Tibet, the monasteries were ransacked and some ancient textiles were rescued from destruction in the assault, Sandy says. Runners crossed a mountainous continent to deliver the pieces to dealers in Hong Kong, who were offered only 24 hours to purchase the artifacts, impossible to find elsewhere. The Mactaggarts' close relationship with one Hong Kong dealer afforded them an opportunity to purchase such rarities. Sandy adds, "It helped that we were able to make up our minds more rapidly than institutional purchasing committees."