"We were a father-daughter team as well as allies in our quest for exceptional paintings."
A distinguished and highly respected connoisseur of Chinese literati paintings, Karen Wang’s father, Wong Nan-ping (1924-1985), amassed one of the world’s finest collections of Chinese paintings and calligraphies across his lifetime. Revered among scholars, the Wong Nan-ping Family Collection notably featured masterpieces including many significant handscrolls and hanging scrolls from across the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as important works dating to the earlier Song and Yuan dynasties. The art historical depth of the collection is a testament to Wong Nan-ping’s discerning eye.
The Master of the Jade Studio, Wong Nan-ping had a most generous spirit for sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge of Chinese paintings and calligraphies; always welcoming artists to study works in his collection and giving frequent talks on Chinese literati art to private collector’s clubs and notable institutions such as the Rotary Club and Min Chiu Society, of which he was a esteemed member. Actively promoting the field of Chinese literati art in the East and West, Wong Nan-ping’s influence on global scholarship in the field is much celebrated. His manuscripts in which he shared advice on building an exemplary art collection remain highly regarded. Wong Nan-ping’s connoisseurship left an indelible mark not only scholars and artists in the field of Chinese paintings and calligraphies, but his lifelong passion and dedication to art was imparted on his eldest daughter.
Guided by her father, Karen began her connoisseur journey in her 20s, visiting auction previews and bidding in salesrooms together. A selection of paintings from her collection – comprising both works bequeathed by her father and her mother, Anna Fang Wong, and those acquired herself – will be offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Fine Chinese Paintings auction this October.
“My father told me that one needs to look at a lot of art closely to ‘sharpen’ one’s eyes,” recalls Karen. “Seeing good and bad art will train your eyes to recognise the difference between authentic and fake.” Born into a well-to-do intellectual family, Wong Nan-ping studied Chinese literature at Fudan University in Shanghai, where he met the renowned collector Ye Gongchuo in 1942. Ye was to become his mentor, as Wong Nan-ping immersed himself into the world of Chinese literati paintings and began his own collecting journey at the age of 20 – a passion he could continue even after moving to Hong Kong in the late 1940s with his family. Karen fondly remembers her formative years growing up in Hong Kong where she often found her father immersed in looking at paintings at home. “He said he was never lonely, because the paintings were like old friends, and he felt he could commune with the artists through their works.”
On one memorable trip at the young age of five, Karen remembers visiting Suzhou with her father, visiting a collector’s home and observing her father in conversation with the gentleman for hours as they viewed scrolls of paintings. Under the guidance of her father, Karen’s connoisseur eye was nurtured.
I greatly treasure the time my father and I spent together looking at and discussing paintings. I am proud to be his eldest child and his lifelong student.
Such trips extended to galleries, museums and auction houses in the US in the 1960s when Karen left home to attend college. In the same decade, Karen’s father, who was a member of the Min Chiu Society in Hong Kong, often met with local collectors and visiting American scholars – such as James Cahill of UC Berkeley, Max Loehr from Harvard, Richard Barnhart from Yale, and Marc Wilson of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – giving talks and opening his collection for viewing and study. It was a time when, Karen explains, Chinese paintings and calligraphy still received little public attention. By the 1970s, however, the auction market for Chinese paintings was burgeoning and her father, having purchased a house in Santa Barbara, California, frequently visited Karen in New York City and together growing their collections.
Although her father did not collect modern paintings, he was a close friend of many modern masters, including Zhang Daqian and Pu Ru to name but two. Karen, on the other hand, found herself gravitating towards modern Chinese paintings. “Once he discovered my burgeoning interest in them, he encouraged me to pursue collecting in this category and mentored me along the way. His collecting philosophy and his aesthetics have made a lasting impact on my own taste.”
Included in the sale is Yellow Peonies and Butterfly, a peony painting by Yu Fei’an, a gift from her father following a trip her parents took to Shanghai in the 1970s which has never been exhibited or seen by anyone outside of Karen’s family and friends; and Zhang’s Fishing in Autumn Mountains, which was purchased by Karen’s father as a surprise for her after showing him the auction catalogue during one of his trips to visit Karen in New York City. “On the day of the auction, I went to work as usual,” recalls Karen, who admits she has always liked Zhang’s paintings. “But when I returned home, […] the painting was sitting on my dining table!”
Among other masterpieces offered at Sotheby’s this autumn are two albums by Dai Xi, which Karen explains were considered by her father to be among the master’s finest album works; two paintings by Xie Zhiliu and Chen Peiqiu - Karen's granduncle and grandaunt – painted during one of the regular family visits to Hong Kong where Xie and his wife Chen Peiqiu would stay with Karen’s parents; and one exquisite album set of landscape paintings by Xie with dedication to Wong Nan-ping from the 1960s send to her father by the artist from Shanghai. Karen recalls not only were they extended family but Xie and her father shared a common interest in art.
Now in her 70s, Karen believes it is time to share her treasured collection with others, setting aside part of it for her daughter, who is an artist and art historian, such that the family legacy may be preserved, while opening up the opportunity for others to share in the love of these paintings. In the decade following his passing in 1985, the collection was showcased across the US and Hong Kong, while a number of paintings have since been donated to significant museums or kept in private hands.
“No one can own these forever, not even emperors. We are only temporary custodians and should pass them on to those who can enjoy and appreciate them as much as I have over the decades.”