A Connoisseur’s Eye: The Collection of Tuyet Nguyet And Stephen Markbreiter
Live Auction: 26 May 2021 • 10:20 AM HKT • Hong Kong

A Connoisseur’s Eye: The Collection of Tuyet Nguyet And Stephen Markbreiter 26 May 2021 • 10:20 AM HKT • Hong Kong
Stephen Markbreiter and Tuyet Nguyet, co-founders of Arts of Asia magazine

P ioneers in the Asian art world, Tuyet Nguyet (1934-2020) and Stephen Markbreiter (1921-2014) were the founders of Arts of Asia, the premier magazine for Asian art and antiques. Nguyet began her career a dynamic journalist hailing from Vietnam and Stephen Markbreiter was a distinguished English architect. Together they shared a love of Chinese and Asian art, and over the years formed impressive collections of Chinese art.

Presented here in this sale, the gathered works reflect the extensive journey across Asia taken by two passionate and dedicated collectors, in a celebration of the spectacular creative vision and skill of artisans working throughout the continent.

“With over five decades of experience, my parents had amazing knowledge, and amassed a vast collection of Asian art.”
- Robin Markbreiter

The Mystery of Archaic Jade Forms

Archaic ritual jades are the perfect harmony of form and decoration, representing the interaction between art and ritual in a narrative that predates the written word. While the exact meanings have obscured through the passage of time, offering a tantalizing glimpse of bygone Neolothical jade cultures, they remain a source of fascination for millennia. The design and motifs hint at ancient religious or spiritual beliefs, and such clues have attracted much speculation. While the function and meaning remained shrouded in mystery, many of the symbols and motifs have persisted, marking the development of principal jade forms, which have been adapted in later dynasties.

Among the most enigmatic object is the cong, hollowed-out cylinders that are round on the inside and square on the outside. The Neolithic form was given the name cong during later dynasties, and the combination of circle within the square was interpreted as a symbol of earth. These archaic jade forms inspired connoisseurs from as early as the Song dynasty through to the present, some imitated for their aesthetic qualities while others collected as ancient curiosities. The collared disc is another form with Neolithic origins, many unearthed from early tombs. Many such discs are plain without engraving and the stonework tends to be simple. The shape resembles a spinning ring and was primarily associated with female burials for the very wealthy. The form was later interpreted as a symbol of heaven and hence became one of the most important design elements in Chinese history. Motifs such as centipedes and cicadas were also powerful symbols and may have had special functions in burial rites. For example, jade cicadas are emblems of immortality, often presented as burial objects, thought to be placed on the tongue as the final honour to the entombed.

For thousands of years stretching back to the days of prehistoric cave paintings, our art has taken as subject matter flora and fauna of all kinds. The artist’s fascination with animals has expressed itself in stories and dreams — as deities and demons, fables and fantasies, loyal companions and wild enemies. Animals in Chinese art have long been a way of conveying philosophical and sometimes political meaning in a sophisticated visual language of cultural associations and wordplay. Depictions of animals cannot be construed as superficial or merely decorative. Real and mythical animals had spiritual meanings bound to individual motifs, and they were assigned specific places within in the universe in accord with Chinese cosmology.

Travelling in Time Through Chinese Art
Before the advent of photography, painters of these China trade art during the late 18th to mid 19th century created bygone images of Hong Kong, Macau and Canton, depicting scenes of the daily life, architecture and landscapes of the country. From modern eyes, there is something both familiar and yet not of our time in these paintings or drawings. It’s especially rewarding for those who have lived and worked in these parts of South China, as we’ve seen these very landscapes from precisely the same vantage point, only centuries later. Hong Kong has always been a fishing and farming village in the south of China, however it was ceded by the Qing government to the British Empire following the end of the First Opium War under the Treaty of Nanking in 1843. Since then, the rapid development of Hong Kong was documented in many China trade paintings.

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  • Victoria Peak Then and Now
    View From Victoria Harbour. Photo by Joey Cheung. Source: Shutterstock.
    Shutterstock

    Victoria Peak had been a towering presence looming far above the low-rise buildings clustered at its feet. Today you can barely see the peaks through the space between the densely packed skyscrapers and high-rises.

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  • Western Artists that Settled in China
    George Chinnery by George Chinnery

    Many of the earliest painters of these China trade art were Western artists, notable George Chinnery. Chinese artist later began their own studios, employing these new painting techniques with its particular visual repertoire in their depictions of city ports, daily life and mutual cultural exchanges. These works were created as souvenirs for tradesmen who had embarked on long trips from Europe. Because of the particular moment at which these paintings were created, they are not only works of art but also important historic documents.

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  • A Fledgling Colony

    On 26 January 1841, Chinese ceded Hong Kong Island to the British following the end of the First Opium War. The British took possession of Hong Kong at Possession Point. The town they built was named Victoria City, and in two decades the population of the fledgling colony had already grown to 125,504 according to an official government guide for “for travellers, merchants, and residents in general”.

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  • The Evolving Hong Kong Skyline

    High upon the hill is St. John's Cathedral, the oldest neo-gothic cathedral in East Asia that still stands in Central today. At the time of the painting, it was the tallest structure in Hong Kong. Much of the landscape would change dramatically beginning the 20th century, as commercial buildings and the later wave after wave of skyscrapers began to emerge, overtaking the older three-storey trading houses dotted along the waterfront as they look out onto Victoria Harbour.

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  • Port Scenes in China Trade Paintings

    Hong Kong was declared a free port by the Superintendent of Trade on 7 June 1841, and a general invitation to merchants to trade was extended. Despite this, the first couple of decades showed disappointing development of shipping and trade, owing to the rampant piracy, illegal opium trade, and competition from other treaty ports. After the 1860s, Hong Kong saw a boom in shipping buoyed by the growing population and trade with other European nations.

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  • The Development of Trade

    The foreign factories, or hongs, were the catalyst for the rapid development of trade and economic prosperity along waterfront. The present example depicts the waterfront during this time of affluence and growth, as evident by the busy waterways. Below is a portrait of Howqua, a hong merchant and leader of a the powerful guild of thirteen Chinese traders authorized by the Chinese government to oversee dealings with the West. In 1834 Howqua possessed a personal wealth estimated at $26 million, a mighty fortune that made him one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time.

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VIEW LOT

English artist George Chinnery was unusual in that he was one of the earliest European painters to take residence in southern China in the mid-19th century, bearing witness to the height of the China Trade before the outbreak of the first Opium War. He arrived in Macau in 1825 from Calcutta, after having already established himself as the leading Western artist in India. His remarkable oil paintings, sketches, and watercolours captured the port scenes, portraits, and interiors of Hong Kong and Macau, before the arrival of photography to the China coast, and exerted a powerful force on export portraiture. The expatriate English artist would have a significant stylistic influence on the likes of Lamqua, the most notable Chinese export artist who worked for the Western market.

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