Asian Art with Fascinating Provenance Stories, from Fifth Avenue Mansions to the Foreign Service

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There is a certain pleasure derived not only from the beauty and craftsmanship of art and art objects, but also from the stories of these works' pasts — from the fascinating lives of collectors to tales of rediscovery. Sotheby’s upcoming Asian Art sales feature a breadth of such intriguing provenance stories including that of a 'phoenix' vase collected by England’s wealthiest ‘commoner’ as well as a jade 'scholars' brushpot that adorned a lavish Gilded-age mansion. Click ahead to discover these stories and more.

Cover image: Lot 111 shown in An Exhibition of Ancient Chinese Ritual Bronzes, Loaned by C.T. Loo & Co., The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, 1940, pl. XXXIII.

Asian Art with Fascinating Provenance Stories, from Fifth Avenue Mansions to the Foreign Service

  • A Large and Rare White Marble Carving of a Bodhisattva. Tang Dynasty. Estimate $600,000–800,000.
    Formerly in the collection of Ralph King, this sculpture was gifted to the Cleveland Museum of Art around 1915 and featured in its inaugural exhibition in 1916 at the time of its founding. A short article from 1915 in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art describes the sculpture: “Is there anything wanting in the dignity of this figure, in the grandeur of conception, in the sculptural effect, in the proportion, or in the adornments which so closely resemble the real?... Is it not beautiful!"

    Image right: The present piece illustrated in The Cleveland Museum of Art, Catalogue of the Inaugural Exhibition, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1916, pl. 315.
  • A Finely Carved Spinach-Green Jade 'Scholars' Brushpot. Qing Dynasty, 18th Century. Estimate $400,000–600,000.
    Renowned Chicago collectors and philanthropists Samuel and Matilda Nickerson displayed their large collection of modern paintings, engravings, statuary, and Asian art in the Nickerson House, also known as the ‘Marble Palace’. Designed by one of Chicago's earliest prominent architects Edward J. Burling at the height of America's Gilded Age, the innovative fireproof building was one of the city's largest private residences at the time, and is still an architectural and historical landmark in the city today, housing the Richard H. Driehaus Museum. Their storied collection was prominently displayed in their home and much of it, including the present brushpot, was donated to The Art Institute of Chicago in 1900.

    Image right: Photo of the Nickerson Galleries, Art Institute of Chicago, circa 1900. The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY.
  • The Fonthill 'Phoenix' Vase, a Magnificent and Rare Rose-Verte Rouleau Vase. Qing Dynasty, Kangxi Period. Estimate $300,000–500,000.
    This impressive vase belonged to one of the most famous collectors of the Victorian era. Alfred Morrison (1821–1897) inherited the Fonthill estate from his father James Morrison, a wealthy textile merchant who was believed to be the wealthiest ‘commoner’ in 19th century England. Alfred devoted much of his inheritance to collecting extraordinary artworks, and commissioned three bespoke galleries to accommodate his large collection. One of the grandest was a room done ‘in Cinquecento style’ lined with elaborate ebony and ivory cabinets to display Morrison’s impressive collection of Chinese porcelains, among which was the present vase.

    Image right: J. Smith (English) Alfred Morrison, Fonthill Estate Archives, by kind permission by Lord Margadale and the Trustees of the Fonthill Estate.
  • A Rare Peachbloom-Glazed 'Chrysanthemum' Bottle Vase, Jubanping. Kangxi Mark and Period. Estimate $300,000–400,000.
    The vase hails from one of the grandest art collections in New York City in the early 20th century. Mae Caldwell Manwaring Plant Hayward Rovensky was one of the most prominent society figures of her day. The Fifth Avenue mansion she shared with her second husband Morton Freeman Plant gained renown in 1918 when he traded it to the jeweler Cartier in exchange for a pearl necklace for his wife, and the building remains the New York showroom for Cartier today. Upon her death, her will instructed that $6,000,000 be given to charities of her fourth husband John Edward Rovensky’s choosing but in her name. Among the recipients, the Wadsworth Athenaeum was given this vase in her memory.

    Image right: Cartier Mansion on Fifth Avenue, NYC, USA. Courtesy of Alamy Stock Photo
  • A Gilt Copper Alloy Figure of Amitayus. Tibet, 15th/16th Century. Estimate $200,000–300,000.
    His Excellency Mr. James George served as the High Commissioner to India and Ambassador to Nepal from 1967-1972. During his years in India, Mr. George explored what has been a lifelong interest in the spirituality that underlies all religious traditions. He and his wife studied under some of the most renowned adepts of their generation including His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai, Krishnamurti, Thomas Merton and Yogaswami. Gifted to Mr. George in 1971 by Dudjom Rinpoche, the Supreme Head of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, the present sculpture has held considerable personal and spiritual value for Mr. George for nearly fifty years.
  • A Gilt Copper Figure of Indra with Inset Semi-Precious Stones and Turquoise Blue Paste. Nepal, 14th Century. Estimate $200,000–300,000.
    This Nepalese statue was in the personal collection of Adam Stainton (1921-1991), a British botanist and renowned collector of Himalayan plants. Under the aegis of George Taylor at the botany department of the British Museum, Stainton joined John Williams and William Sykes on the museum’s 1954 expedition to survey and collect plant samples in the Nepalese Himalayas. He would return to Nepal on many subsequent trips. In 1972, he published Forests of Nepal and collaborated with Oleg Polunin on Flowers of the Himalaya published in 1984. In later years, Stainton gifted the statue of Indra to close family friends, Alastair and Anne Aberdeen, 6th Marquess and Marchioness of Aberdeen.
  • An Exceptionally Rare and Important Archaic Bronze Ceremonial Halberd Blade (Ge). Eastern Zhou Dynasty, Early Spring and Autumn Period. Estimate $200,000–300,000.
    The present halberd blade is uniquely important as its inscription serves as a critical primary source that reveals the name of its original owner: Qu Shutuo of Chu, a highly important military figure in the famous battle between the Chu and Jin states in 597 BC that ended in a decisive victory for the Chu. Despite the extensive research and literature surrounding this halberd blade in seminal Chinese publications on archaic bronzes, the present blade’s whereabouts had been unknown for much of the 20th century. Scholars had based their theories using published ink rubbings and drawings of the blade which obscured the blade’s inscription, and its reemergence today presents new opportunities to study the owner and the historical context surrounding him.

    Image right: Drawings of the inscriptions on the present lot, illustrated in Exhibition of Ancient Chinese Ritual Bronzes, Loaned by C.T. Loo & Co., The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, 1940, pl. XXXIII.
  • A Rare Lapis Lazuli Figure of a Buddha. Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period. Estimate $80,000–120,000.
    The present lot was purchased from the monumental ‘Art Treasures from the Imperial Palace Pekin’ sale by Yamanaka & Co. at the American Art Galleries in 1917 by William Boyce Thompson (1869-1930). Thompson was an American mining engineer, financier, philanthropist, and founder of Newmont Mining, today the world's second-largest producer of gold. Aside from collecting Chinese jade and hardstone carvings, he also formed a significant collection of gems and minerals, which upon his death was largely gifted to the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

    Image right: William Boyce Thompson’s collection of stones and minerals.
  • A Rare Pale Celadon Jade 'Fish' Brushwasher. Qing Dynasty, 18th/19th Century. Estimate $80,000–120,000.
    This unusual brushwasher hails from an important American collection of Western paintings, European furniture, and Asian and decorative art, part of which was sold at Sotheby’s New York on 2 February 2019 . It was formerly in the collection of Major Sir Humphrey Brunel Noble of Ardmore, 4th Bt. (1892-1968), and then Sir John Woolf (1913-1999), a British film producer who amassed one of the most storied Western collections of Chinese jade.
  • Zainul Abedin, Fishermen, 1970. Estimate $80,000–120,000.
    This work is from the collection of Robert and Nancy Simpson. Mr. Simpson is a retired Foreign Service Officer who worked at the U.S. Consulate in Dacca (Dhaka) in the 1970s. He was assigned there from February 1970 to August 1971 with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) where he was in charge of planning and budgeting the U.S. economic assistance program for East Pakistan. He acquired this work directly from Zainul Abedin in May 1970. It was a birthday gift for his wife, Nancy.


  • Ram Kumar, Two Figures. Estimate $70,000–90,000.
    This work is from the collection of Jan and Abe Weisblat. The Weisblast were expats who had a lifelong love affair with India - its people, its rhythms, its complexity, its colors, the food and the art. They first visited India in 1953 when Abe, an agricultural economist received a Ford Foundation fellowship to study in Bombay. Subsequently he was hired by the Foundation as its administrator before he moved on to the Council of Economic and Cultural Affairs, a small organization funded by John D. Rockefeller III. In the early years the Council provided travel fellowships to Asian artists. Abe sought out and identified many of these artists in the course of their travels. Amongst the awardees were Maqbool Fida Husain, Sayed Haider Raza, Krishen Khanna and Ram Kumar. This work was acquired directly from Ram Kumar in circa 1960s.

    Image right: Jan and Abe Weisblat Image courtesy: Weisblat family.
  • A Large Glazed Pottery Figure of a Prancing Horse. Tang Dynasty. Estimate $50,000–70,000.
    This horse was formerly in the collection of the British Rail Pension Fund, advised by Sotheby’s, which placed $100M (or 2.5% of its portfolio) into art in the 1970s. Amassing a collection of over 2,400 pieces ranging from impressionist paintings to Chinese ceramics and African art, it was the world’s biggest purchaser of art at the time, and ultimately realized an annual compound return of 11.3%.
  • Qi Baishi, Morning Glory. Estimate $50,000–70,000
    The pair of paintings are from the Collection of Lun Sun Wong and Siu Meng, who were married in Shanghai in 1939 and quickly became a known couple for their philanthropic endeavors. Lot 1149 and 1150 were gifted directly by the artist, Qi Baishi, a personal friend of the couple, on the occasion of their wedding anniversary. Morning Glory here is dedicated to Mr. Wong.
  • Qi Baishi, Beans and Cricket. Estimate $50,000–70,000.
    Beans and Cricket is dedicated to Siu Meng. The painting was beloved by the owner that she has taken with her during the time she lived in Rome, Italy with her two children until they were able to join Mr. Wong in 1951 due to difficulty of immigration at that time.
  • A Yellow Jade 'Qilin' Carving. Yuan/Ming Dynasty. Estimate $15,000–20,000.
    This tactile carving was previously in the collection of Dr. Isaac Newton, former Director of Medical Services in colonial Hong Kong. The collection, which he referred to as his ‘zoo,’ was notable for its focus on post-archaic small jade carvings of animals, an area that had traditionally been overlooked in Chinese jade scholarship of the 19th and early 20th century. The present carving was included in the 1981 Bluetts and Son’s exhibition ‘Dr. Newton’s Zoo.’
  • A 'Cizhou' 'Juluxian' Bowl. Northern Song/Jin Dynasty. Estimate $6,000–8,000.
    Covered in an ivory-colored glaze swirled with taupe to mimic marble, the present bowl once belonged to Dikran Goro Kelekian, collector and dealer of Chinese and Islamic art and nicknamed the ‘dean of antiquities.’ His clients included J.P. Morgan, Charles Lang Freer, the Astors of New York and the Walters of Baltimore, and his sale of modern paintings at New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1922 is widely considered as a defining moment for modern art in America.

    Image right: Diran Kelekian, before 1915. Courtesy of The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo.
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