Chinese Works of Art

Detring and von Hanneken, the Highest Ranking Westerners in the Chinese Court

By Sotheby's

S otheby's Important Chinese Art and St George Street: Asian Art sales will present Chinese imperial ceramics and works of art from the collections of two of the most influential Germans living and working in Tianjin in the late 19th century, Gustav Detring and Constantin von Hanneken.

Gustav Detring (1842-1913)

Born in the Northern Rhine-Westphalia, Gustav Detring moved to China in 1865, and was appointed to serve as the private advisor to Viceroy Li Hongzhang in 1878, a position he held for twenty seven years. Detring rose to one of the most senior positions in the Qing bureaucracy, including a post in the Zongli Yamen (Foreign Ministry) and as Commissioner for the Northern Ports. Among his staggering achievements, he negotiated a series of treaties and trade agreements on behalf of the Chinese government and was used by Li during various diplomatic missions in the 1870s-80s. In 1896, Detring was conferred with Dingdaihauling ‘Rank One’ by the Dowager Empress Cixi, making him the highest ranking Westerner in China, as memorialised in a painting now at the Astor Hotel in Tianjin.

Detring’s contributions to Tianjin - the city he made his home - were no less commendable: he founded Tianjin University, co-published the Chinese Times, constructed the Tianjin racecourse, paved the roads of the foreign settlement, and was instrumental in the construction of the City Hall. At the time of his death in 1913, a Chinese newspaper wrote: “His influence upon the permanent prosperity of [Tianjin] is incalculable. We can hardly find a stage of public life in our present society which has not been associated with the great and valuable contribution made by Detring.”

Constantin von Hanneken (1854-1925)

Born in Trier on the Rhine, Constantin von Hanneken served as a Captain in the Prussian Field Artillery before being hired as one of Detring’s military advisors. He moved to China in 1879 and quickly established himself as a close friend and advisor to Li Hongzhang, for whom he worked until 1887. Li put von Hanneken in charge of reorganizing and modernizing the Chinese army and in designing and building several naval forts including, most significantly, Port Arthur. Von Hanneken was highly decorated for having established Port Arthur in 1881, eventually rising to the rank of Chinese general, and later tasked with the fortification of Talienwan and Weihaiwei by Japanese forces. During the Sino-Japanese war, in November 1894, the Guangxu Emperor issued a decree making von Hanneken commander in chief of China’s armies, in the hope that a Western general could defeat the Japanese army. Together Detring and von Hanneken also oversaw the vast British controlled Kaiping Mining Company, which was the first successful large-scale effort to introduce Western technology and methods into industrial production in China. Von Hanneken married Detring’s eldest daughter, Elsa, in 1895, thereby uniting these two prominent families.

Residence of Gustav Detring, Tianjin
Residence of Constantin von Hanneken, Tianjin

Collecting Chinese art appears to have been something of a hobby for both men - no doubt facilitated through their close working relationships with Li Hongzhang as well as their access to the Qing court, including to the Dowager Empress Cixi and to the Guangxu Emperor.

Certain works from the collection were likely personally gifted to them by the Qing court, but collecting may well also have been a means of decorating their palatial Tianjin homes. Furthermore, both men moved in the same professional and social circles in China as some of the most legendary Chinese art collectors of the time, including Alfred E. Hippisley (1848-1939); Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), later the 31st President of the United States; and von Hanneken’s brother-in-law Ernst Ohlmer (1847-1927), whose extensive collection of Chinese porcelain is today housed in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim.

Interior view of Gustav Detring’s home, Tianjin, circa 1890.

Several of the porcelains and works of art from the von Hanneken Collection in this sale and in the St George Street sale illustrate the close ties between Constantin von Hanneken, Gustav Detring and Ernst Ohlmer. For example, the rare Ding-type handled vase (lot 73) and the blue and white dragon double-gourd vase (lot 70) are illustrated together in a photograph taken in the 1890s depicting the salon of the Detring home in Tianjin. Other pieces, such as the ruby-ground famille rose bowl (lot 72), were on loan to the Roemer-P Museum as early as 1899 and may have been included in selection of porcelains including a green and a blue ‘dragon’ meiping (lots 74 and 75) from the von Hanneken Collection exhibited alongside the Ohlmer Collection of Chinese porcelains and works of art donated to the Roemer-P Museum in 1928 and exhibited in 1930.

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