G reat collections of works of art are always built the same way – over time, with patience and care. Each, though, comes from a different spark, from a particular moment when a collector decides that they are not buying a single piece, painting or object - but starting a journey that lasts a lifetime.
In the case of Sir Joseph Hotung, that spark came during a business trip to San Francisco. Finding himself with some spare time thanks to a delayed flight, Hotung visited a gallery and was transfixed by a pair of white jade bowls made during the Qing dynasty (1636-1911).
White jade has been exceptionally highly valued throughout Chinese history – both because of its rarity but also because of its extraordinary quality of translucence, that gives it an almost ethereal quality. These bowls captivated Sir Joseph, becoming the cornerstone of a magnificent collection that built up in the following years and decades.
While serendipity played a role in this initial acquisition, there was method to the identification and decisions as to which pieces should join the collection as it took shape. Sir Joseph's shrewd eye for the highest quality aligned with his habit of sounding out and taking advice from some of the best scholars in the world. As one of the most successful businessmen of his generation, Hotung did not need to be told about price. He was interested in the provenance of individual objects; their history; their context – and their stories.
Some are extraordinary, such as the very unusual and exquisite seated figure of Avalokiteshvara from the Dali kingdom of what is now Yunnan, China. Dating to the 11th-12th centuries, it was one of the star lots at The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, in October. 2022
'What makes the collection so distinctive – and significant – is the sheer range of objects that Sir Joseph collected'
But what makes this collection so distinctive – and significant – though, is the sheer range of objects that Sir Joseph collected, as well as their quality. Taken as a whole, the Hotung collection speaks of interaction between regions and across continents, of the movement of goods and peoples – all a reflection of Sir Joseph’s own global perspectives and heritage.
One strong example is the Moulded Mandarin Duck and Lotus Pond dish, made under the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) that ruled much of what is now China, under Kublai Khan, (as immortalized by Samuel Taylor Coleridge). It shows an idyllic scene surrounded by flowers both full-face and in profile. This piece speaks of the need to re-assess how we look at the past, and how we should re-think ideas about empires.
The Yuan, however, were conquerors from far away – descendants of Činggis Khan and the Mongols, who ruled huge swathes of Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries, creating the largest contiguous empire in history. While often characterized as violent warriors, the Mongols were also enthusiastic patrons – champions, even – of the arts, particularly when it came to fabrics, textiles and ceramics.
These properties are not only glorious items in their own right, but also speak of influences and connections from far away. Looking again at the Yuan dish, the influences are truly global: the distinctive blue and white style was one that had a long pedigree in Chinese workshops and was much in demand in the Middle East and beyond – where imitation was the highest form of flattery, such as in Delft, Manila, and eventually, in the Potteries in the UK.
These connections can be underlined by the European elements of the collection, such as the Portrait Of A Man by Frans Hals and Studio that was painted in the 17th century, at a time when Dutch merchants were discovering, and becoming wealthy from, trade with Asia.
Elsewhere, the study of the The Grand Canal, with Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Turner, which would have been created for and acquired in the early 19th century by a predecessor of Sir Joseph – namely someone with shrewd judgment, an interest in making sense of the wider world and who wanted to adorn their walls with the finest artworks they could find.
And that is what this collection is: the best of the best. From Han dynasty China to Impressionist art, the collection underlines a connoisseur who did not just acquire but thought deeply about and understood the contexts in which works were produced. Taken together, the pieces reflect a laser-like focus on quality and detail, and a wide-ranging interest in materials that were rare and were worked into new forms by the greatest craftsmen of their time.
Furthermore, each piece in the collection has a long and illustrious history, cherished by successive owners, before being acquired by Sir Joseph. And now, they will now move on again.
'Each piece in the collection has a long and illustrious history, cherished by successive owners, before being acquired by Sir Joseph. And now, they will now move on again'
Core parts of the Hotung collection will stay together, such as the jades that have been gifted to the British Museum. This is an institution Sir Joseph knew well, and one he ensured, benefited from his considerable generosity during his lifetime. Yet, whether as philanthropist or visitor, Hotung was always passionate about ensuring that objects were well-displayed so that new generations could see them in their full glory.
Other objects from the collection will begin a new chapter, with the auction at Sotheby’s this December. Each has their own story to tell; while some, like those two white jade bowls (which will now be on display at the British Museum thanks to a generous gift by Sir Joseph), might be the start of another of the world’s great collections in years to come.