F or the new collector, Chinese works of art can be a daunting proposition, not least for the sheer breadth of the subject matter, and a time canvas that stretches back over 5,000 years.
A compelling basis on which to start a collection springs from the notion of regarding objets as decorative art – an ideal vividly captured by ‘A Scholar’s Relish’, which is the second online-only Chinese art sale held by Sotheby’s London following its acclaimed first sale in 2018.
Featuring a range of pieces that might once have been found in a scholar’s study, the sale facilitates the foundation of a fledgling collection around very specific objets – say, carved ink-stones or soapstone teapots where the entry price points are sufficiently affordable to allow the budding collector a degree of experimentation.
In classical China, a scholar’s study or home was invariably filled with beautiful paintings, calligraphy tools, antiques and the accoutrements of his elite status. These luxury items represented both the continuing tradition of scholarship, and the manifestation of his good taste and aesthetics.
Of course, over the centuries, these aesthetics changed, even if the functionality (and covetable nature) of individual items did not, whether a celadon-glazed ceramic water pot in the form of three-legged toad (Lot 45) or a paperweight shaped like a mythical beast (Lot 73).
What emerges from ‘A Scholar’s Relish’ is a sense of timelessness, especially since the Chinese artisans and metalsmiths often reused and modified forms, sometimes from earlier dynastic works, and sometimes from the artistic traditions of nations which had been conquered by China.
The result is that a harmoniously designed objet can be as much appreciated today as when it sat on a desk a millennia ago. A good example is the censer, a staple accessory in the Chinese scholar’s study, whose shape morphed in just a hundred years from the relatively minimalist lines of a 14th-century Yuan tripod (Lot 51) to the Baroque flamboyance of a 17th-century gilt bronze censer with squirrel handles (Lot 19).
Beyond this, the sophistication and, in many cases, the sense of humour evident in the pieces also testify to the ingenuity and skill practiced in those ancient workshops. A smiling young boy, cast in bronze and inlaid with silver, throws up his hands in mock frustration (Lot 71); the branches of a peach tree, alive with buds and curling leaves, embrace a bronze waterpot (Lot 82); whilst a 17th-century bronze paperweight takes the form of a elderly fisherman on the riverbank, patiently whiling away the day with a sip of wine from the cask by his side (Lot 70).