For collectors and enthusiasts of South and Southeast Asian art, the name Walter Spink (1928-2019) carries immense significance. Born in 1928 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Walter was destined for a remarkable journey as a pioneering scholar, professor, and collector in the field of Asian art and art history.

Walter & Nesta Spink

Walter’s early interests in science, the arts, and humanities, which were nurtured in an environment that valued education and intellectual curiosity, laid the foundation for his groundbreaking achievements. After receiving degrees from Amherst College and Harvard University, he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan in 1961, where he played a pivotal role in transforming part of their history of art department into one of the nation’s leading centers for the study of South and Southeast Asian art.

Photograph of Walter & Nesta Spink in India, and clipping of news article about their honeymoon.

In addition to his passion for teaching at Michigan for nearly 40 years, Walter Spink had a keen interest in researching all types of Buddhist art and architecture, with a particular focus on the sculptures, paintings, and architecture of Ajanta in western India. This crescent shaped complex of 29 rock-cut caves provided dwellings and places of worship for Buddhist monks during the 5th century. Dr. Spink’s meticulous research over many decades, supported by prestigious fellowships and rigorous analysis, resulted in his reevaluation of existing historical theories, reshaping of our understanding of Ajanta and other ancient sites in the region. His proposal of a “short chronology” for the creation and inhabitation of Ajanta remains a landmark achievement and an ongoing topic of discussion. His thorough analysis of this site, which The Art Newspaper once described as “India’s Sistine Chapel” and which now carries a UNESCO World Heritage Historic designation, was the topic of numerous essays and books over the course of his career. His most ambitious work was his seven-volume study of Ajanta, published sequentially (by Brill, The Netherlands) between 2005-2017 Ajanta: History and Development. Walter Spink’s decades of exhaustive, pioneering research at Ajanta, and his numerous other contributions to his field in general, helped to secure his enduring legacy.

A buff sandstone figure of Kubera, 5th/6th century; Óc Eo Region, Vietnam, $20,000-30,000

Dr. Spink contributed to the broader aspects of his field in other ways, as well. For example, he served as a Trustee of the American Institute of Indian Studies (1962-65; 1972-73) and was a member of the editorial board of scholarly journals such as Ars Orientalis (1963-2000). Dr. Spink’s wide-ranging involvement with the American Committee for South Asian Art spanned many decades. During that time, he founded and directed ACSAA’s Color Slide Project, which aimed to source, prepare, promote, and distribute high-quality thematic sets of slides to universities, museums, and individuals as visual reference sources for 3000 years of Indian and other South and Southeast Asian art, architecture, and culture. This project was launched at a time when access to the internet was not widespread, making it an invaluable resource for scholars and enthusiasts in the field.

A bronze figure of Chandeshvara, Chola Period 12th century; South India, $100,000-200,000

“Ultimately, it is Walter Spink who must be thanked the most for enriching the lives and artistic appreciation of so many students and colleagues, and for being such a resplendent embodiment of the "joie de vivre" that keeps us all forever young.”
Stephen Markel

Ephemera for Walter & Nesta's voyage from Liverpool England to Bombay India aboard the Caledonia, 1952

But Walter’s passions extended far beyond academia. He was an avid collector of art, a lover of nature, poetry, and music. He was also a devoted husband and father. His partnership with his beloved wife, Nesta (1926-2020), was a source of inspiration and support throughout his life. Nesta Spink, a fellow art historian, with degrees from Smith College and Radcliffe/Harvard University, was regarded as one of the world’s preeminent authorities on the lithographic works of James McNeill Whistler and was the lead author of the catalogue raisonne of his lithographs published in two volumes by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998. Prior to embarking on that specialized project, she was curator of European and American art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor (1967-1979).

Both Nesta and Walter were consummate teachers who couldn’t help but convey to others their pleasure for art and life. Sharing Walter’s passion for exploration and discovery, they enjoyed almost 70 years together on a lifelong journey of intellectual and cultural enrichment. The Spink’s home in Ann Arbor became a colorful, welcoming sanctuary lined with books, art, and artifacts from around the world. Their primary goal as collectors was always for enjoyment rather than investment, and yet, with their keen eyes and shared knowledge, their collection appreciated significantly over time. In their later years, Walter and Nesta remained actively engaged in academia and the arts, continuing to inspire and mentor future generations of scholars and collectors. Their generous donations to cultural institutions and museums, from the mid-1980s onward, ensured that their legacy would endure for years to come.

A buff sandstone relief of an attendant figure, 11th century; Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, Central India, $3,000-5,000

Now, John Moran Auctioneers is honored to headline the first day of their two-day Traditional Collector sale with an exceptional selection of South and Southeast Asian sculpture and works of art from the collection of Walter and Nesta Spink. These works, many of which were acquired as far back as the 1960s, not only represent a significant addition to the art market but also serve as a testament to the enduring impact of Walter and Nesta Spink’s contributions to the world of Asian art and culture. For those who appreciate the marriage of scholarship and collecting, these rare pieces offer a unique chance to become part of a legacy that has inspired generations of academics and art enthusiasts worldwide.

A buff sandstone bust of Shalabhanjika, Circa 11th century; Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, India, $4,500-6,500

To learn more about The Collection of Walter and Nesta Spink, visit the online catalogue. There will be additional works from this collection offered throughout the 2024 auction season. Sign up today to be notified of all upcoming auctions. Bidding is available in person, online via Moran’s mobile app, Moran Mobile, available on both iOS and Android operating systems. Live bidding on a desktop is available through our website; bidding is also supported by telephone or absentee.