Minnesota seems like the last place anyone would go to for a glimpse of ancient China, but thanks to Robert Jacobsen people come from all over the world to see 5,000 years of Chinese furniture, porcelain, jade and architecture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Jacobsen, the museum's curator of Asian art, is retiring Friday after 33 years, during which he expanded a 900-piece hoard of ancient bronzes and Japanese prints into a stellar collection of 14,500 objects, including a 400-year-old Ming-dynasty reception hall and a Ch'ing dynasty scholar's study from 1797.

Jacobson's idea of showcasing objects in authentic rooms is what most distinguishes the institute's collection. Museums in San Francisco, Kansas City, New York and elsewhere also have fine Chinese collections, but nowhere else are things shown in the very spaces where they were used, admired and displayed centuries ago.

"Representing the art of China in a museum is an enormous challenge," said James Lally, the premier New York dealer in Chinese art. With the historic rooms, Jacobsen "was able to create a context ... which really transformed everyone's understanding of Chinese life in a way that no other museum in America or Europe has ever achieved."

Curators don't just go out and buy art, of course. They need expertise based on years of study, in Jacobsen's case at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan and the University of Minnesota, where he earned a doctorate in Asian art history.

And they need the support of wealthy patrons. At the institute, more than a dozen collectors, led by Bruce and Ruth Dayton, provided millions to expand the museum's holdings of Asian art, including Tibetan, Cambodian, Islamic and Indian objects. The Asian collection now fills 22 galleries, a veritable museum within the museum.

Old China and new

Relations between China and the United States were so frosty when Jacobsen was a student in the 1970s that scholars warned him he would never be able to visit mainland China. The best he could hope for was to study, in Taiwan, things that Chinese exiles took there after the 1937 Japanese invasion of their homeland.

The field changed dramatically in the early 1990s after relations normalized between China and the United States. Suddenly, ancient treasures flooded the auction market and Jacobsen began to acquire spectacular items, including a wood-and-marble screen for which Bruce Dayton paid a record-setting $1.1 million in 1996.

"China's very rapid economic growth and global prowess portends very well for collections like this," Jacobsen said. "The more prominent a country becomes, the more interest there is in its history and culture."

A master 'forger'

Despite innumerable trips to exotic locales, Jacobsen has remarkably modest digs at the museum. His narrow, windowless office has a wall of ceiling-high bookshelves, metal file cabinets and a slab desk lit by a pair of police-style interrogation lamps. A couple of tourist Buddhas with garlands of paper flowers add color. Everything else is painted a forgettable shade of taupe.

"Color? That's S37," Jacobsen chuckled. When he started in the minimalist 1970s, everything in the museum was painted the same boring hue -- halls, galleries, shelves, display cases. He first broke the monotony in 1977 when he designed simple but elegant wood cases for a show of Japanese art.

Before turning to Chinese art, Jacobsen had studied architecture, a background he later tapped to oversee two major renovations at the museum, including a three-year, $50 million expansion that opened in 2006. Besides reading, photography and travel with his wife, Patricia, a banker turned painter, he cites architecture and woodworking as hobbies. He has designed a couple of houses and built one for his parents on a lake near Brainerd, finishing the cabinets, windows and woodwork himself.

Now 65, Jacobsen has worked more than half his life at the institute and will depart with a few secrets -- his career as a "forger," for example.

When the museum acquired a life-size Buddhist statue that would originally have perched on a lotus-blossom base, he set to work carving one from redwood that he oiled and finished in the antique manner. Over the centuries most such bases were destroyed in the periodic fires that ravage ancient temples, so originals are extremely rare. Jacobsen produced two for the museum, one for a Japanese and one for a Chinese sculpture.

"It isn't original, but it's exactly what it should be," he said. "I call it reproduction. Until you say it's real, you're not a forger."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431