Timeline of Selected Events in Asian Art and Politics 1939–1981

The early decades of the twentieth century saw a rise in American interest in Asian art. With contributions from pioneering art experts such as Ernst F. Fenollosa (1853–1908), Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877–1947), and Charles L. Freer (1854–1919), important American collections were formed by both institutions and private collectors. Several museums—including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Cleveland Museum of Art; and the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.—made commitments to the display, study, and preservation of Asian art. In 1929, John D. Rockefeller 3rd (JDR 3rd) (1906–1978) visited Asia for the first time, beginning his lifelong involvement in Asia.

*Art events in blue

JDR 3rd (left), Professor Joseph Perkins Chamberlain of Columbia University (center), Hobart Young (second from right), and an unidentified man and woman on the Great Wall of China, 1929.
Image courtesy Rockefeller Archive Center
World War II begins. Japan aligns itself with the Axis powers Germany and Italy.

Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and attacks the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, Malaya, Thailand, Shanghai, and Midway. The United States, Britain, and China declare war on Japan.

Sherman E. Lee (1918–2008) becomes curator of Far Eastern art at the Detroit Institute of Arts.


Laurence Sickman (1906–1988), Curator of Oriental art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, becomes a major in the Army Air Force in the Far East and later serves as an advisor in the arts and monuments section of General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo after the end of the war.

Archibald G. Wenley (1898–1962), the first formally trained American curator of East Asian art who is solidly grounded in Asian language and culture, becomes Director of the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
World War II ends.

Sherman E. Lee is appointed art advisor at the U.S. army headquarters in Tokyo, a post which he holds until 1948. In Japan, he is exposed to major Japanese collections and forms relationships with Japanese art historians and art dealers.
India gains independence from Britain and the two self-governing countries of India and Pakistan come into legal existence.

Sherman E. Lee becomes Associate Director and Curator of Oriental Art at the Seattle Art Museum, a post which he holds until 1952.
U.S. relationship with China ends when the Communist force overthrows the Nationalist government and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is established. The Nationalists are driven to Taiwan. The next year, all U.S. property in China is expropriated.

The Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, regulated by a government agency called the Bunkacho, is enacted in Japan.

U.S. intervenes in the Korean War, responding to the North Korean invasion of South Korea.

Nepal-India Treaty of Peace and Friendship opens Nepal to the outside world.


JDR 3rd travels to Tokyo to participate in the peace mission to Japan led by John Foster Dulles (1888–1959).
Participants in the John Foster Dulles peace mission, Tokyo, Japan, 1957. From left to right, Raitei Tokugawa, Ino Dan, Naokichi Kiitazawa, JDR 3rd, Isamu Fukui, and Masao Maeda. Image courtesy Rockefeller Archive Center

An exhibition of Japanese art is held at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum of Art, San Francisco, to coincide with the signing of the Treaty of Peace with Japan in San Francisco.

The 20-year-long U.S. trade embargo against China begins.

Tibetan representatives sign an agreement with the PRC to affirm China’s sovereignty over Tibet.


Sherman E. Lee becomes Curator of Oriental art at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

An exhibition of Japanese painting and sculpture, organized under the auspices of the Commission for Protection of Cultural Properties of the Government of Japan, travels to Washington, D.C., New York City, Seattle, Chicago, and Boston with the aim of fostering good will between the U.S. and Japan.

Laurence Sickman becomes Director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.

JDR 3rd and his wife Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller (1909–1992) travel together through South and Southeast Asia, the first of many subsequent visits that introduce them to many of the world’s Asian leaders.

JDR 3rd establishes the Council on Economic and Cultural Affairs, Inc. to support international economic and related activities focusing on Asia.

The Korean War ends.


Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage (1887–1975) travels to Japan to collect Asian art. In subsequent years, gifts from his vast collection of Asian art become the foundation of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
Asia Society is founded by JDR 3rd.

Sherman E. Lee is promoted to Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Sherman E. Lee at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1958.
Image courtesy of Archives, the Cleveland Museum of Art
Dalai Lama flees Tibet for India after a failed uprising against the Chinese government.

Asia Society’s first exhibition, “Masterpieces of Asian Art in American Collections,” is held at what was then called the Asia House Gallery in New York. It includes pieces selected by Sherman E. Lee, and other important Asian art experts, including Stella Kramrisch (1898–1993), Laurence Sickman, Harold P. Stern (1922–1977), and Maurice S. Dimand (1892–1986).
U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) commits to aid the South Vietnamese government, beginning U.S. involvement in what came to be known in this country as the Vietnam War.

Sherman E. Lee becomes JDR 3rd’s advisor for his Asian art collecting activities. Over a span of fifteen years, Lee helps JDR 3rd and his wife Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller assemble one of the most renowned private collections of Asian art in the Unites States.
The revision of U.S. immigration law eliminates national quotas and significantly increases the number of Asians eligible to enter the country.
North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces launch the Tet Offensive, attacking several key cities and provinces. The event amplifies American public opinion against the Vietnam War, and many consider this to be the turning point in the U.S. involvement in the conflict.

As museum quality Chinese and Japanese artworks become more difficult and expensive to acquire in the 1960s and 1970s, American collecting interests shifted toward the arts of South and Southeast Asia and the Himalayas. In 1969, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art establishes a major collection of South Asian art when it acquires 300 hundred works from the prominent dealer Nasli M. Heeramaneck (1902–1971).

Sherman E. Lee organizes the exhibition “Asian Art: Selections from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd” at Asia Society.
JDR 3rd and Adam Malik, Foreign Minister of Indonesia, preview the exhibition “Asian Art: Selections from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd” at Asia Society, 1970.

Norton Simon (1907–1993) visits India and begins his collection of South Asian art, which is later housed in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA.

The Indo-Pakistani War and the Bangladesh Liberation War begin.

The Indo-Soviet Union Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation is signed.


U.S. is the first signatory of the 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, expressing a commitment to the preservation of universally significant properties.

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) visits China as the first step in normalizing relations between the U.S. and the PRC.

U.S. combat troops complete withdrawal from South Vietnam, ending U.S. involvement in the war.

The gift of the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection to Asia Society is formally announced.
JDR 3rd and Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller viewing a display of some of their collection in the reception area of Mr. Rockefeller’s office at Rockefeller Plaza, New York, ca. 1968. Image courtesy Rockefeller Archive Center

Sherman E. Lee organizes the exhibition “Asian Art, Part II: Selections from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd” at Asia Society.

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco presents the first major international exhibition of Chinese art to travel outside of China since the end of World War II, “The Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People’s Republic of China.”

Saigon falls to Communist forces.

JDR 3rd dies tragically in an automobile accident.

The Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection gift comes to Asia Society.

The Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection is shown in its entirety in the new building of Asia Society at its current location at 725 Park Avenue.
Pieces from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Collection on view at the opening of Asia Society’s 725 Park Avenue building, 1981.