Dr. Helga Wall-Apelt
Wall-Apelt, a native of Germany, was 15 when she received her first piece
of Asian art -- a bronze Ming Buddha statue that her father left her after he died. He was
a prosperous German Jewish doctor who fled Switzerland with his family when the Nazis came
"He had explored Buddhism as a way of coping with the Nazi experience, I think,"
Wall-Apelt said. "He taught me how to meditate, and triggered my interest in Eastern
culture and philosophy."
He also raised his daughter "in a Spartan way," she said. "He taught me to
be tough, to take life seriously and to rely on myself."
After graduating from medical school, Wall-Apelt spent 20 years practicing as an internist
and radiologist in Germany.
But she became more and more interested in acupuncture, herbal treatments and other
ancient healing techniques practiced by the Chinese. In 1993, she opened the Center for
Traditional Chinese Medicine in Sarasota, a city she first encountered on a vacation in
After retiring from her medical practice, she began traveling in the Far
East, studying Chinese medicine and continuing to collect Asian art. She vacationed in
Sarasota for years, and decided to emigrate, becoming an American citizen in 1993.
Two years later, she founded the East West College of Natural Medicine in Sarasota, which
grants master's degrees in Oriental medicine. In 2000 she gave $70,000 to the H. Lee
Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute at the University of South Florida for
research on herbal treatment of tumors. She sold her share of the center to her partner
last year. "The partnership just didn't work any more," she said. "We
couldn't find a common denominator."
Though Wall-Apelt has traveled the world, she purchased many of her Asian-art pieces from
private collectors in Germany. "All my jade pieces came from one person -- a Chinese
rice farmer who defected to Taiwan in 1947 with Chiang-Kai-Shek," she said. "He
had kept the pieces under his bed." She describes collecting as "almost like an
addiction. But it was never about the financial value of the pieces. It's about the life
they represent. They are living pieces. You can talk to them, touch them. Compared to
them, we die early; they live forever."
Wall-Apelt was married for 35 years to tax consultant Fritz Wall, who died in 2001. The
couple had no children. Besides her collection, her passions include golf, the opera
(she's been a co-producer at the Sarasota Opera since the 1980s) and the circus. "I
had three dreams when I was a child," she said. "One was to be a circus
director, another to be a wild-animal trainer, and the third an orchestra conductor."
Objects in the collection include bronze and stone sculptures dating from the 12th
century. But the collection's centerpiece is a large group of carved Chinese jades. Called
the Stone of Heaven in ancient culture, jade represented perfection, immortality and
nobility. Wall-Apelt's jades are from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), which is considered by
many art historians to be the pinnacle of Chinese jade art. They were showcased in an
exhibition at St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts in 1993. In that show's catalog, Robert
Frey, an expert in jade, wrote, "The number of museums around the world with jades
that could match the brilliance of these pieces can be counted on the fingers of both
Ringling Asian Art Center.