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Asia Week | Fall 2019

Steinberg Collection of Chinese Ceramics Bring Color to Life

By Halina Loft

S otheby's upcoming Important Chinese Art auction promises to be especially colorful, thanks to an array of important ceramics on offer from the esteemed private collection of Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg. Beginning in the 1960s through 2014, the Canadian collectors amassed an impressive selection of fine art and objects, spanning from East to West, ancient to contemporary. This past May, Sotheby's had the honor to sell the Steinberg's remarkable assemblage of Color Field paintings – the finest ever to appear at auction.

On offer in the 11 September auction, the Steinberg Collection's exceptional grouping of Chinese monochrome ceramics, hailing chiefly from the Qing Dynasty, represents a natural corollary to the transcendent reds, blues, yellows and greens of the collector's Color Field artworks. Below, we've paired a selection of paintings sold from the Steinberg Collection with ceramics in similar hues – seen together, the collection reveals the Steinbergs' discerning eye for pure color and form.


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Clockwise from right: A FINE ANHUA-DECORATED WHITE-GLAZED 'EIGHT BUDDHIST EMBLEMS' STEMCUP , YONGZHENG MARK AND PERIOD, estimate $50,000 – 70,000; A FINE AND RARE INCISED CELADON-GLAZED 'FLORAL' BOWL , YONGZHENG MARK AND PERIOD, estimate $50,000 – 70,000; Agnes Martin, Untitled #12, 1981 , sold at the Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction for $5,731,200.

Leading the collection are two remarkable ceramics in pale hues: a fine anhua-decorated white-glazed 'Eight Buddhist Emblems' stemcup and a fine and rare incised celadon-glazed 'Floral' bowl. Glazed in pristine white and pale celadon respectively, these ceramics complement the powder blue, hazy pink and shimmering ivory found in Agnes Martin's Untitled #12, 1981.

The stemcup is notable for the delicate anhua ('hidden decoration'): the Eight Buddhist Emblems are finely incised onto the smooth white ground, creating a subtle yet striking decorative effect, noticeable only upon close handling. The celadon 'Floral' Bowl harkens back to the coveted blue-green wares of earlier Song-Ming dynasty Longquan kilns; this practice of mimicking Longquan celadons began during the Ming dynasty.


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Clockwise from right: A FINE COPPER-RED GLAZED BOWL , YONGZHENG MARK AND PERIOD, estimate $20,000 – 30,000; A COPPER-RED GLAZED STEMBOWL , YONGZHENG SEAL MARK AND PERIOD, estimate $20,000 – 30,000; Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red on Red), 1969 , sold at the Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction for $8,237,000.

In hues of red and copper, a bowl and stemcup from the collection mirror the cerebral coloring found in Mark Rothko's Untitled (Red on Red), 1969. Top right is a fine copper-red glazed bowl with an exterior glaze of glossy carmine, coalescing to a deep red below the mouth and at the foot. Bottom right is a copper-red glazed stembowl; the exterior of this ceramic is a rich, warm red, while the interior and base have a white glaze.

Copper red glazes proved especially challenging for Chinese potters, due to unpredictability in the kiln. Demand was high, though, as red is associated with happiness and celebration. Given this, potters worked to perfect the glaze during the Qing period.


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Clockwise from right: A YELLOW-GLAZED DEEP BOWL , QIANLONG SEAL MARK AND PERIOD, estimate $20,000 – 30,000; A BROWN-GLAZED SHALLOW BOWL , QIANLONG SEAL MARK AND PERIOD, estimate $8,000 – 12,000; Kenneth Noland, East-West, 1963 , sold at the Sotheby's Contemporary Art Day Auction for $920,000.

The present lots, a yellow-glazed deep bowl and a brown-glazed shallow bowl, echo the sumptuous sunshine-yellow and mustard colors found in Kenneth Noland's East-West, 1963.

Yellow glazes held particular significance during the Qianlong Period; sumptuary laws permitted only the Emperor, Empress or Dowager Empress from using ceramics marked by yellow glaze on both the interior and exterior.


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Clockwise from right: A FINE COPPER-RED GLAZED BOWL , QIANLONG SEAL MARK AND PERIOD, estimate $8,000 – 12,000; A FINE BLUE-GLAZED STEMBOWL , YONGZHENG MARK AND PERIOD, estimate $30,000 – 50,000; Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red and Burgundy over Blue), 1969 , sold at the Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction for $10,515,000.

Matching the royal blue and deep crimson found in Mark Rothko's Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue), 1969, is a fine copper-red glazed bowl and a fine blue-glazed stembowl.

Cobalt-blue porcelains such as this stembowl were associated with the Tiantan ('Altar of Heaven'). These ceramics were often used in imperial rituals at this altar, leading the glaze to be referred to as jilan ('sacrificial blue'). A similar Yongzheng blue-glazed stembowl can be found at the British Museum and the Musée Guimet.

Learn More About Blema & H. Arnold Steinberg

Canadian businessman Arnold Steinberg joined his family's business Steinberg Inc. in 1958. He held various executive positions including Chief Financial Officer and Chief Administrative Officer over the course of three decades. In addition to his very considerable business and philanthropic achievements, particularly in the fields of healthcare and education, he was a major patron of young Canadian artists: by the mid-1980s over 1,500 works by Contemporary artists hung in Steinberg offices in Québec and Ontario.

Blema Steinberg joined McGill University's Department of Political Science in 1961, eventually earning the title of full professor and later Professor Emerita upon her retirement in 2001. Arnold was a longtime supporter of McGill as well and served as Chancellor beginning in 2009. In addition to their passion for collecting, the Steinbergs were devoted philanthropists. including their work through the Blema & Arnold Steinberg Family Foundation.

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