T he history of commerce is written in ledgers and maps, the history of taste in objects and collections. Sir Joseph Edward Hotung who died in 2021, was an investor and businessman, who converted his wealth into public philanthropy, an outstanding collection of Chinese jade and early blue and white porcelain. He also cultivated a private collection in his London home which, as art imitates life, harmonised Eastern and Western tastes. The series of sales across Sotheby’s Hong Kong and London this autumn - ‘The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung’ - is an exceptional collector’s autobiography.
Born in Shanghai in 1930, Joseph Hotung was the grandson of the eminent Hong Kong businessman and philanthropist Sir Robert Ho Tung. Hong Kong grew from a fishing village to a financial colossus because it was between East and West. Sir Robert, with his mixed Chinese and European ancestry and his spectacular success, due in part to his fluency in both Cantonese and English, was ‘the grand old man of Hong Kong’, as unique as the city’s location and culture. His grandson’s private collection is an eclectic fusion between worlds, its effortlessness belying the hard work of bridging cultures and cultivating taste.
Joseph Hotung was educated in China and the United States. Following his father’s death in 1956, he returned to Hong Kong, and later became a director of HSBC Holdings plc, joined the board of The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), was a director of the Hong Kong Electric Holdings Ltd and the China & Eastern Investment Company and the first Chairman of the Art Development Council in Hong Kong.
His passion for jade was sparked by chance in the early 1970s, when, whilst waiting out a delayed flight, he came across a pair of perfectly matched Qing dynasty white bowls. A passion was born and it quickly became clear that Hotung was no less perfectly matched with the business of collecting, as he was with his professional career - both requiring depths of resources and discrimination.
"He was very selective, very careful... he was a very good collector because he had strong taste”
“He was very selective, very careful, but also very decisive when he knew what he wanted to do,” says Henry Howard-Sneyd, who worked for Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in the early 2000s and is now Sotheby’s chairman of Asian Art, Europe and the Americas. “As a collector, Sir Joseph was enigmatic: very often, we wouldn't know up until the moment itself if he was actually going to be a buyer. But he was a very good collector because he had strong taste.”
The Personal Collection of Sir Joseph Hotung
Not only was Sir Joseph the first chairmen of the Hong Kong Art Development Council, he endowed lectures and research chairs at universities, and was a trustee of the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the Asia Society and the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute. In 1995, his celebrated collection of early Chinese jade was exhibited at the British Museum, where three galleries, including the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia, attest to his taste and generosity. His bequest of the lion’s share of his jade and porcelain collections to the Museum is one the most significant in its recent history.
Thus far, the public persona. Meanwhile, Hotung gathered a personal collection in his Georgian house in London, a redoubt of privacy to which only a privileged few were admitted. In total, there are more than 400 works in ‘The Private Collection of Sir Joseph Hotung’. In their synthesis of styles and ages - from Impressionist paintings to Chinese furniture, a bronze dragon to a Degas portrait - Hotung achieved a harmony between two archetypes of refinement, the Chinese literati scholar and the English gentleman.
“It was almost like nothing was out of place,” Henry Howard-Sneyd recalls, of his visits to Sir Joseph’s home. “Everything was so beautifully considered, but not in a stiff and contrived way. The effect was extraordinarily natural.”
The English gentleman lives in a staged environment, like a figure in a Gainsborough painting, but the Chinese literati invites guests to share in appreciation. Sir Joseph moved elements of his collection from room to room and wall to wall, creating dialogues between these two modes of appreciation. A blue and white porcelain might swap places with a jade or a bronze vessel, or even an Iznik dish. The patinas of his sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Chinese scholarly furniture accorded with the mahogany of his eighteenth-century Chippendale. The elegance of their arrangement allowed each piece to express itself; their careful juxtaposition sustained their harmony.
Only trusted visitors knew what Hotung had collected. The rarities include a Huanghuali folding horseshoe back armchair from the Ming dynasty; an archaic silver-inlaid bronze corner-piece (Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period) that has been exhibited at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and the Cleveland Museum of Art; and a Dali Kingdom gilt-bronze seated figure of Avalokiteshvara (11th-12th century). And of course, a major piece of blue and white porcelain, and massive and rare Yuan dynasty guan (fish jar).
There are also suggestions of the collector as autobiographer in a magnificent Han dynasty bronze of a pacing chimera, a hybrid creature that lives in the imagination.
When it came to the Impressionists, Hotung responded to the subtle and private atmospheres of Edouard Vuillard, whose elegiac and mysterious ‘Gentlemen in Black’ (c. 1874-75) is making its auction debut as part of the sale and has not been exhibited since 1983. He also assembled a biographical group of works by Edgar Degas, including the significant ‘Portrait of Eugène Manet’ (1874), painted to mark the marriage of two artist friends, Eugène’s brother Edouard and Berthe Morrisot.
When George III acceded the British throne in 1760, he also became Elector of Hanover. In 1780-81, the monarch commissioned a silver candelabra for the Electoral palace from Robert-Joseph Auguste, a celebrated French silversmith. The silver is rare as well as exquisite: most of Auguste’s patrons were French royalty and aristocracy, and so most of his work was melted down after the French Revolution. A small, pleasing coincidence is that the sequence of Augustine’s first names, Robert-Joseph, are those of Robert Ho Tung and Joseph Hotung.
“There's a sense of incredible discovery and excitement for collectors who might have always loved these pieces but not seen them for such a long time,” Henry Howard-Sneyd says. “It's an exciting revelation.”