In those years most collectors concentrated on Song and Yuan paintings of the 12th to 14th centuries, so Cahill had little competition in bidding for Ming-Qing paintings of the 15th to 20th centuries as well as Japanese paintings of the Nanga school that were based on Chinese painting done by literati artists.
A documentary about James Cahill is currently being made by Skip Sweeney and Video Free America, and fundraising efforts are under way.
Most narratives of Chinese Contemporary Art start from the end of the Cultural Revolution.
As a connoisseur of Chinese painting Cahill had few peers.
Given his phenomenal visual memory and his passionate love of his subject, it is not to be wondered that he began collecting paintings while still a Fulbright student in Japan during the 1950s.
Around 1979, Chinese artists were suddenly exposed to western art history, which led to a rapid turnover of artistic styles.
Different art historians have different opinions about what happened next.As a teacher Cahill was notable for his exceptional generosity, sharing with students and other researchers the fruits of his own years of study; as a scholar, he tackled issues and groups of artists ranging from the birth of literati painting (in his dissertation), to fantastic and eccentric artists of the early 17th century, to the influence of Chinese painting on Japanese artists of the 18th and 19th century, and to paintings of women during the 17th to 19th centuries.A good number of these topics, and his research on them, formed the basis for exhibitions of paintings that explored the issues and provided at least provisional answers to the questions that Cahill had posed for the very first time.In the years after that he visited China frequently, lecturing at art academies and universities, organizing and participating in symposia, seeing exhibitions and collections, doing research.His first major book, (1980, reprinted 2003, a monumental compilation of all known works.Both of these series are posted for free viewing on the website of the Institute of East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, but can also be accessed through this website.This website also includes a series titled Responses and Reminiscences, made up of essays on many topics, mostly drawing on experiences from Cahill's long career; and the series CLP (Cahill Lectures and Papers), as well as the long file titled CYCTIE or Ching Yuan Chai Treasury of Imperishable Ephemera, a collection of his non-scholarly writings, including a lot of comic verses and song lyrics composed for UC Berkeley Faculty Club Christmas parties and other academic occasions, writings from his early years, and a Shakespearean fragment (recommended) titled Hamlet At Wittenberg.In 1973 he was a member of the Chinese Archaeology Delegation, the first group of art historians to visit China from the U.S., and in 1977 he returned to China as chairman of the Chinese Old Painting Delegation, which was given unprecedented access to painting collections there.A number of his books and articles have attained an especially wide readership in Chinese translation in China and Taiwan.In 2010 the Smithsonian Institution awarded him the Charles Lang Freer Medal for his lifetime contributions to the history of Asian and Near Eastern art.