The Leshantang Collection – Treasures of Chinese Art from the Tsai I-Ming Collection
Live Auction: 8 October 2023 • 10:00 AM HKT • Hong Kong

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The Leshantang Collection – Treasures of Chinese Art from the Tsai I-Ming Collection 8 October 2023 • 10:00 AM HKT • Hong Kong

Nicolas Chow
Chairman Asia | Chairman and Worldwide Head of Asian Art

A great art collection is a work of art itself. It offers a unique perspective on the tastes, perceptions and connoisseurship of an individual, and when done well, brings together works from across the history of art in a dialogue that enriches each of them. The Leshantang collection formed by Tsai I-Ming is just this. Spanning a millennium of artistic production, the collection is a storied one, representing a connoisseurial depth and art historical breadth with few equals in the world of Chinese art today. The distinctive refinement of the collection epitomises the celebrated Shanghai taste, which has come to be indelibly associated with figures such as Edward T. Chow and J.M. Hu, whose pieces are represented in the collection. Incidentally, it was through a chance encounter with J.M. Hu that Tsai first marvelled at the unparalleled craftsmanship and legacy of Chinese art at a young age – without realising at the time that he was to become one of the most celebrated collectors himself. From that golden era, few collections remain today and the Leshantang collection, which seamlessly weaves together masterpieces of Chinese art from across painting, calligraphy and imperial porcelain, comes as a testament both to the genius of Chinese artists through the centuries and Mr Tsai’s boundless curiosity and exacting eye.

Imperial porcelain stood at the genesis of Tsai’s collecting journey, which impressively lasted close to half a century. Decades after his first meeting with J.M. Hu, Tsai chanced upon one of the earliest Sotheby’s auctions in Asia in the early 1970s while he was on a business trip in Hong Kong, and thereafter began amassing the stellar Leshantang collection. Far from being driven by an investment mindset, the assemblage of the Leshantang collection was a deeply personal and visceral journey steeped in anecdotal gems lying behind every acquisition, and one such notable example was his purchase of Zhang Daqian’s Dragon Maiden Worshipping Buddha (lot 112 in this sale) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 1981, which led him on a quest to meet Zhang Daqian himself to discuss the hitherto unseen striking red pigments in the painting. Tsai’s zeal deeply moved Zhang, so much so that it convinced Zhang to sell him one of his most treasured works, Red Robe Avalokiteshvara.

As the founding member and chairman of the prestigious Ching Wan Society, Tsai was always keen to share with others his knowledge and enthusiasm, all the while actively promoting Chinese art across the region through various platforms. Those who were fortunate enough to have known Tsai would have been inspired by not only his passion and discerning eye but also his generosity and integrity.

May this inaugural sale pay homage to the semicentennial partnership between Sotheby’s and Tsai I-Ming and contribute to the legacy of the Leshantang collection.

A possibly unique Yongzheng moon flask

The present moon flask draws inspiration from masterpieces from the absolute peak periods of China’s porcelain production, from the Yongle (1403-24) and Chenghua (1465-87) reigns, and yet represents a unique design, firmly anchored in the Yongzheng period (1723-35). Superbly enamelled in the famille-rose and doucai palettes, the remarkable flask is possibly unique and its only comparable vessel appears to be the renowned smaller famille-rose moon flask in the Sir Percival David Collection in the British Museum, London. This current flask is an exceptional example and would have most likely been produced by the same potters and painters as the Percival David flask.

Zhang Daqian, Dragon Maiden Worshipping Buddha

A superb painting epitomizing Zhang Daqian’s mastery of the Dunhuang mural painting style, it was executed in 1948 and featured as one of the star pieces of his landmark exhibition in the same year. It depicts the Buddhist tale of the Dragon Maiden, who attains supreme enlightenment by offering a precious pearl to the Buddha, symbolizing the inherent Buddha-nature in all beings. The piece showcases meticulous details and vibrant colours, making it the most intricate among known copies of comparable composition. In 1981, it became the first Chinese painting to enter the Leshantang collection, serving as a testament to the owner’s discerning eye and unparalleled connoisseurship of Chinese art.

Xiang Shengmo, The Tianxiang Studio

"The Tianxiang Studio" was created in the first year of Chongzhen (1628) and dedicated to a relative named Xiang Jia. During this period, Empire Chongzhen had just ascended the throne, and significant political reforms were underway, accompanied by the prominence of Yuan Chonghuan and the downfall of Wei Zhongxian. As a talented painter, Xiang Shengmo received a royal commission to "paint the Nine Chapters of the Imperial Robes" and embarked on an artistic journey with Li Rihua to various locales. This journey spanned nine months and contributed to his artistic vitality and creative peak.

A magnificent Yongle 'melon' charger

Yongle chargers adorned with melon vines are a rare and sought-after instance of artistic variation from its more common peers, which are typically painted with lotus or other floral motifs. The melon motif symbolises prosperity and a long lineage of sons and grandsons, as illustrated in the saying guadie mianmian, 'continuously spreading like melon vines'. Of the extant 'melon' charger examples, there are eight preserved in important museums worldwide, one in the famed Tianminlou Collection, and the present charger which has been retained in the Leshantang Collection for over three decades since 1988.

Fu Baoshi, Scenery of Qutang

Created in 1962, this work utilizes a bird’s-eye view perspective to capture the monumental spectacle of the precipitous Qutang and roaring waves. It was inspired by Lü Qian’s poem Viewing the River, which revealed his longing for the illustrious Ming in his seclusion at Jiangnan during the Manzhu conquest of China. Fu Baoshi, specializing in art history of late Ming to early Qing Dynasties, empathized with Lü, as he too was forced to flee home from war to Sichuan. His time in Chongqing, where “Qutang” is, further inspired him to convey the bleakness of drifting. From 1940s onwards, the poignancy in the poem became a recurring motif in Fu’s works. Here, the brushwork differs from Fu’s 1940s pieces; each stroke is an amalgamation of composedness and profound sentiment.

Huang Daozhou, Poems in Running Script

Huang Daozhou, courtesy name Youxuan, Chiruo, and Xizun, sobriquet Shizhai and referred to as Shizhai Xiansheng, was known as "General Zhushun" in Minnan and Taiwan regions. He hailed from Tongshan in Zhangpu County, Zhangzhou Prefecture, Fujian Province, with ancestral roots in Putian. He was a political figure, scholar, calligrapher, and artist in the Ming dynasty. In his resistance of the Qing dynasty after the fall of the Ming, he was captured and killed for his refusal to surrender. He was thus posthumously honored as "Zhonglie" (loyal till death), which was later changed to "Zhongduan" (loyal and virtuous) during the Qianlong era. Huang's calligraphy reveals an upright and unyielding feeling, transcending the ordinary, with robust and unrestrained brushwork that resembles turbulent rapids rushing past tall rocks. This piece was created in the Renshen year (1632), using dots and strokes of the clerical script with both smooth and angular brushwork, exhibiting a powerful and mature style. The first eight poems present a characteristic structure and cautious style of him, with a leisurely flow of brushwork. In contrast, the subsequent eight poems display a swifter stroke with passion and an extraordinary momentum. The seals "Zi Xuan Du" and "Huang Shi" on this artwork are consistent with those on the regular script piece Six Poems of Mine (Zizuoshi liushou shice) in the Zhejiang Museum and the Cursive Script Poetry Scroll (Caoshu shijuan) in the Fujian Museum, both created in the same year.

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