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 to power.

"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 the 1980s.

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 hands."

Ringling Asian Art Center.