D r Alice Cheng’s Falangcai bowl ranks among the most legendary pieces ever to have been offered at auction and broke a world record for Chinese art when it was sold in 2006 for HK$151,320,000. It is a gem of Imperial porcelain, the delicate, creamy white body having been painted by master court enamellers in Beijing in close proximity of the Qianlong Emperor. The superb painting of two loving swallows beside a flowering apricot tree intertwined with a willow tree is complemented by a short poem evocative of the spring. During the latter years of the Qing dynasty, the bowl and its pair entered the collection of Captain Charles Oswald Liddell, whose collection was sold in 1929. One bowl entered the collection of Sir Percival David and is today the pride of the British Museum. The present bowl then entered the collections of Charles Ernest Russell, Barbara Hutton, J.T. Tai, Tianminlou, Robert Chang and since 2006 has been the crown jewel of the celebrated collection of Dr Alice Cheng.
50 Years New in Asia: Dr Alice Cheng’s Falangcai Bowl, Imperial Porcelain of Illustrious Provenance
Few collectors in recent history have enlivened the Hong Kong salerooms to the same extent as Dr Alice Cheng, and her dramatic entrance at an auction often heralds a new record price for Chinese porcelain. With great passion and style, Alice has assembled since the late 1990s a formidable collection of imperial Chinese porcelain that reflects her impeccable taste. Her discriminating eye has, over the years, mostly focused on the finest wares of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong periods, the Qing dynasty’s greatest emperors. When asked what motivates her acquisitions, Alice will say, “I buy what I like.” Indeed, most of the objects that grace her collection were acquired with passion and the sharpest instinct.
Dr Alice Cheng was born in Shanghai and grew up surrounded by fine objects. Her grandfather, Zhang Jiru, was a famous carver who Empress Dowager Cixi once even commissioned to work. Her father, Zhang Zhongying, was a celebrated antique dealer, in whose footsteps her brother Robert would later follow and build the illustrious career that we know in the field of Chinese art. Alice, a free spirit, went on to build an extraordinary career in business and take an active role in various social issues. She is also very well-known in the world of philanthropy, generously supporting causes in Hong Kong and the mainland, such as improving cultural development, education, health, and wellness of ethnic minorities and fighting poverty. Alice Cheng has devoted much of her resources and time to charitable causes.
She was invited to participate in the Standing Committee of the 9th and 10th National Committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). She has also been honoured with the prestigious titles of Gold Bauhinia Star (GBS, Hong Kong) and the Magnolia Award of Shanghai. Alice is a long-term benefactor of the World Children’s Fund. She also champions promoting cultural and economic exchange between China and other countries. She was awarded by Sweden the Insignia of the Commander of the Royal Order of the Polar Star, and was later elevated to the Commander Grand Cross.
In 2002, Sotheby’s specialists discovered in Purchase, New York, a famille-rose vase with peaches, which had been mounted as a lamp in the 1960s and used as such ever since. The news of the discovery made headlines
around the world. When the piece came up at auction in Hong Kong, Alice Cheng, with her trademark cool and determined bidding, purchased the vase against fierce competition, then a world record for Chinese porcelain. She donated it to the Shanghai Museum in 2004, and the vase now stands proudly there, a testament to the generosity and refined taste of Dr Alice Cheng, one of Asia’s most inspiring collectors.
- Captain Charles Oswald Liddell
- Charles Ernest Russell
- Barbara Hutton
- J.T. Tai
- S.C. Ko
- Robert Chang
- Dr Alice Cheng
Captain Charles Oswald Liddell (1854-1941) went to China in 1877 and formed his collection during his time there at the end of the Qing dynasty. He was able to acquire important ceramics from Zaifeng, Prince Chun (1883-1951), the last Regent of the Qing dynasty from 1908 to 1911, also from the private secretary of the high official Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) in Tientsin, and from a private collection in Shanghai, and managed to procure this bowl together with its pair, which ended up in the collection of Sir Percival David.
The pair of bowls was split in the sale of parts of the Liddell collection at Bluett and Sons, London, in 1929, where the present piece was bought by Charles Ernest Russell (1866-1960) of King’s Ford, near Colchester. He was interested in Song and Ming wares, but as an early owner of one of the dated Yuan dynasty ‘David Vases’ of 1351, as well as a remarkable group of falangcai porcelains, he displayed a rare understanding of the topic ahead of his time, when both types of ceramics were not yet accepted by many of his contemporaries.
We do not know when and where Barbara Hutton (1912-1979) acquired it, but in 1956 she lent it to an exhibition in Hawaii. Hutton, heiress of the Woolworth empire, was a life-long philanthropist, travelled to China in 1934, and assembled a remarkable collection of Qing porcelains, which were sold at Sotheby’s in 1971.
J.T. Tai (1911-1992), an important dealer of ancient Chinese art, was instrumental in forming several major American collections, such as those of Avery Brundage and Arthur M. Sackler. A group of porcelains from his collection, including this bowl, was sold at Sotheby’s in 1985, for the benefit of the J. T. Tai Foundation, to support medical research.
S.C. Ko (Ko Shih Chao, 1911-1992), who acquired the bowl probably through Robert Chang, who bought it at the J.T. Tai auction, arrived in Hong Kong from mainland China late in the 1940s. He started collecting Chinese ceramics around the 1970s and assembled one of the most remarkable groups of Chinese ceramics, mainly from the Ming and Qing dynasties, under the name Tianminlou collection.
A late owner, who particularly treasured this bowl, was Robert Chang, born in the 1920s and now nearly centenarian, enthusiastic collector and dealer throughout his life. He arrived in Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1948, built up from scratch a small empire selling Chinese art and became a driving force in the flowering of the Hong Kong art market, styling himself ‘Number One’.
When Robert Chang sold the bowl, it entered the collection of his younger sister, Dr Alice Cheng is businesswoman in her own right, philanthropist and important collector of fine Qing porcelain. Also native of Shanghai, settling in Hong Kong in her Forties, she built up a series of successful business ventures in Hong Kong itself and in mainland China, in the fields of petroleum, real estate, IT technology and transportation. Besides being deeply involved in political and commercial activities, she is also engaged in many philanthropic causes, supporting commerce, education and culture in various regions of China.