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Hamptons Life

Jun 10, 2008 6:27 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Leiber Museum spans the history of China

Jun 10, 2008 6:27 AM

Over the course of nearly both of their lifetimes, Gerson and Judith Leiber have amassed a staggering collection of artwork and artifacts.

They met in 1945. Mr. Leiber, who was a United States Army soldier stationed in Hungary, first made the acquaintance of his future wife right after the liberation of Budapest by the Russians. She was a native of Hungary who had lived through the Nazi occupation.

During their year-long courtship, the two discovered a shared love of art, specifically Chinese porcelain antiques, and began collecting soon thereafter. In 1946, the Leibers bought their first piece together, a blue and white Chinese vase from the K’ang Hsi period (1662 to 1722 AD), for $1 in Budapest. It is worth approximately $7,000 today.

Married for 63 years, the Leibers have seen their collection grow on pace with their love and devotion.

“Maybe this is why our marriage has lasted all these 63 years,” Ms. Leiber joked while reviewing the exhibit of antique Chinese porcelains at the couple’s Leiber Museum on Old Stone Highway in Springs.

At the museum—which opened its doors for the first time in 2007—the Leibers are displaying 140 of their best porcelain pieces for their first public exhibition, which opened on Memorial Day this year. Their eclectic collection of Chinese porcelains contains pieces that date back thousands of years, and spans from the Han Dynasty (207 BC to AD 221) to the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912).

According to friend and biographer Jeffrey Sussman, who also handles public relations for the Leibers, the collection is one of the most comprehensive to be found in the United States.

“This collection represents nearly the entire history of manufacture of Chinese porcelains,” he said.

The oldest piece in the collection is “Watch Tower,” an unglazed earthenware artifact from the Han Dynasty. Some of the Leibers’ favorites are the early Tang Dynasty “Standing Horse” figure in unglazed red clay pottery with real horse hair tail, a blue and white incense burner in the form of a standing Kylin—akin to a Chinese dragon—with a removable head, and a sixth or seventh-century glazed red pottery Bactrian camel.

In addition to amassing hundreds of Chinese porcelains, the Leibers are formidable collectors of paintings, sculpture and Japanese wood-cut prints, among other items. But it is the Chinese porcelain that has a particularly personal meaning to the couple, according to Mr. Leiber.

“Our collection has paralleled our lives and our romance together,” he said at the museum. “It is the culmination of our lives.”

Perhaps it was because the vase was their first purchase together, or maybe it’s just because their combined artistic sensibilities favor the intricate celadon and white ornamentation, but to this day, Ms. Leiber said the blue and white porcelains are among their favorites.

When asked to describe their motivation for purchasing particular pieces, Ms. Leiber said simply, “Whatever we thought was wonderful was what we bought.”

Aside from being collectors of fine art, the Leibers are major creative contributors in their own right.

Mr. Leiber is a prolific and well-known artist and horticulturist who still paints every day. His work consists principally of paintings, drawings, etchings and sculpture and has been displayed in more than 70 museums and numerous galleries. A major retrospective of his paintings, drawings and prints was held at Guild Hall in East Hampton in 2003.

Mrs. Leiber, who has designed approximately 3,500 handbags, is most closely associated with ornately beaded and jeweled animal and plant-themed clutches, though she has actually created several hundred designs as well as a multitude of accessories, brooches and fine jewelry. Her bags have been carried by Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, Pat Nixon and countless Park Avenue socialites.

Her work is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers in 1994 before retiring in 1998 and selling her company to London-based Time Products, Ltd.

Approximately 750 of Ms. Leiber’s handbags and several styles of accessories are also on display at the Leiber Museum.

Outside, on the museum grounds, are 6.5 acres of gardens that Mr. Leiber began creating back in 1956, when he and his wife first moved to the area. Sculptures by Mr. Leiber and other artists are scattered throughout the cubist-style garden.

“I like to think of this place as a gem in the woods in East Hampton,” Mr. Leiber said. “I hope it is of interest to others.”

The Leiber Museum is located at 446 Old Stone Highway in the Springs section of East Hampton and is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. For information, visit www.leibermuseum.org.

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