P ioneers in the Asian art world, Tuyet Nguyet (1934-2020) and Stephen Markbreiter (1921-2014) were the founders and publishers of Arts of Asia, the leading magazine for connoisseurs and collectors of Asian art and antiques. Sotheby’s Hong Kong is delighted to present works from their extraordinary collection, divided into three sessions on 26 May: A Celebration of Enlightenment: Buddhist Metalwork, A Connoisseur’s Eye, and Snuff Bottles from the Tuyet Nguyet and Stephen Markbreiter Collection Part I.
Before creating Arts of Asia in 1970, Tuyet Nguyet was a dynamic journalist hailing from Vietnam and Stephen Markbreiter was a distinguished English architect who designed many important buildings in Hong Kong, such as the Mandarin Oriental. They shared a love of Chinese and Asian art, and over the years formed wonderful and impressive collections of Chinese art, including Ming Imperial bronzes, jade carvings, snuff bottles, Himalayan sculptures, Asian gold rings and jewellery, China Trade paintings, and Chinese ink paintings.
Their son Robin Markbreiter shares some personal stories about his parents’ passion for Chinese art and the inspiration behind their celebrated collections.
How would you describe your parents as art collectors?
My parents were passionate and dedicated collectors. They started by studying very hard, established a huge library and visited important museums around the world. They were fortunate to have many knowledgeable friends, who had similar interests, and they often met at museum and gallery exhibitions, as well as at important auctions in Hong Kong, London, New York and Tokyo from the 1970s to the 2010s. My parents were also highly respected by their peers, who valued their sound advice and decades of experience.
Can you describe their collection in three words?
Educational, Exquisite, Extensive.
The collection is very comprehensive and covers a wide range of diverse categories. What sparked your parents’ collecting pattern?
They travelled throughout China, Japan, Southeast Asia, as well as London, Europe and America, and had the opportunity to meet some of the best antique dealers and collectors over a period of 50 years. They were introduced to outstanding works of art, always collected what they truly liked and never bought for investment.
In your view, what is the focus of the collection? What was the deciding factor for your parents to acquire a piece?
My parents loved Chinese snuff bottles and my mother was an early member of The International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society. In fact, she was among a very select group, who was elected as an honorary member of the Society. She was “convinced that there is a great need to challenge and communicate about Asia through its art”. In 1973, she attended her first convention in San Francisco where she was “equally impressed with the Society’s desire to educate people regarding the history and fabrication of snuff bottles”. She always supported the Society and welcomed fellow collectors on their travels when passing through Hong Kong.
My parents also loved China Trade paintings, Chinese jades, Asian gold rings, jewellery and sculptures. The artworks in their collection were always meticulously selected. In many instances, dealers would allow my parents to take pieces home for a day or two so they could “live” with them before making up their mind. Condition, quality of workmanship and rarity were paramount. My mother had very sharp eyes and would carefully inspect each piece. I enjoyed examining and handling these works of art. It was excellent training and I was able to build up my knowledge base when studying an Asian artwork.
What was their favourite acquisition?
Chinese snuff bottles, inside painted by Ma Shao-hsuan, were their first love and continued to be among their favourites. The bottle, painted with a literati’s collection of rubbings, calligraphy, fan and album of paintings, was their earliest acquisition. The poem, written in Ma’s precise calligraphy on the reverse, reads:
After striving so hard for self-expression
Only to turn into a devotee of calligraphy and painting.
Would not the sages of old laugh at me?
No wonder I feel so depressed.
Had their work at Arts of Asia magazine influenced their collecting journey?
The scholarly articles, written by knowledgeable authors, that were published in Arts of Asia most certainly influenced their collecting journey. Whenever there was a fascinating article that sparked their interest, they would seek out examples for their collection. My parents also enjoyed sharing their experiences with fellow collectors and friends. Their collections were on display throughout their homes and offices, and [these works] brought them great joy. It was wonderful that they could share their knowledge and passion for collecting with people who had mutual interests. They were also very proud that the articles published in Arts of Asia would become an invaluable resource for current and future generations of serious collectors and art lovers.
What or who influenced them as collectors?
My parents were avid readers and they had an incredible library of art books and catalogues from museums, galleries and collectors. They also knew important art collectors and museum curators, as well as leading dealers such as Giuseppe Eskenazi, Roger Keverne, J.J. Lally, and Richard and Stuart Marchant. They were all very kind and generous in sharing their expert advice and knowledge.
Have they had disagreements in the collecting journey and how did they arrive at a joint decision in their acquisitions?
With over five decades of experience, my parents had amazing knowledge, and amassed a vast collection of Asian art. For the most part, they would arrive at a joint decision in their acquisitions. When my father was not present, for instance when my mother and I were travelling together abroad, attending Asian art events in Brussels, London, Paris and New York, then he was happy for her to make a buying decision. Even so, my mother would often call to discuss with my father before making a significant purchase.
What are your most memorable pieces from the collection?
I have always been fascinated by historical China Trade paintings, especially the views of Hong Kong, portraits by Chinese artists and wonderful works by George Chinnery (1774-1854), the flamboyant English artist in India and China. An impressive work from the collection is the magnificent and large gilt-copper alloy figure of Shakyamuni Buddha from Tibet or Nepal, 13th-14th century. This beautiful sculpture had a prominent position in my parents’ home. They also have the most remarkable group of gold rings from the Angkor period, 9th century; these can be dated from the stylistically architectural forms mirrored in the gold work. Due to the superb workmanship and sumptuousness of the rings, they must have been made for the royal courts.
My mother and father taught me a great deal about art, as well as the importance of working hard and treating people with respect. They said: “Buy the very best that you can and you will never have any regrets.” They played an invaluable role in fostering worldwide interest in Asian art and would influence many others to build world-class and famous collections. At the same time, they also managed to form gorgeous collections themselves, especially in the fields of Asian gold rings and jewellery, Chinese jades, paintings, sculptures and snuff bottles, which brought them great pleasure and fulfilment. I hope that I have shared with you my parents’ passion about their collections that remained precious to them for over 50 years.