Chinese Works of Art With Extraordinary Provenance

New York | 10–14 September, 2019
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T here 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 Chinese works of art auctions feature a breadth of such intriguing provenance stories, found in the Imperial and scholarly Chinese works of art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gifted to the Museum by renowned philanthropists and collectors Florence and Herbert Irving; ancient Chinese art from the collection of Stephen Junkunc, III; Buddhist devotional works of art from the Chang Foundation Collection; Prince Gong's imperial seal; and early ceramics from the Art Institute of Chicago. The various auctions also feature objects from storied American collectors, including John Milton Bonham (1836-1897) and Bettie F. Holmes (1871-1941).

Cover image: Portrait of Yixin, Prince Gong

Chinese Works of Art With Extraordinary Provenance

  • A Finely Carved Large Spinach-Green Jade 'Immortals' Brushpot, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period
    Estimate $500,000–700,000

    The present brushpot belonged to one of the most famous collectors of the Victorian era. Alfred Morrison (1821–1897) was the second son of the wealthy textile merchant James Morrison, who was believed to be the wealthiest ‘commoner’ in 19th century England. James Morrison gifted the Fonthill estate in the Wiltshire countryside to Alfred in 1848 and, after his father's death in 1857, he devoted much of his inheritance to collecting extraordinary art works. The brushpot sold at Christie’s London on 9th July 1980, and soon after was acquired by Florence and Herbert Irving, who rank amongst the most celebrated collectors of Asian art in the west, and it was later gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    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 Lavender-Blue 'Jun' Narcissus Bowl, Early Ming Dynasty
    Estimate $300,000–500,000


    This rare ‘narcissus’ bowl was formerly in the collection of Kate Sturges Buckingham (1858-1937), renowned for her generous support of the city of Chicago, and her gift of the Buckingham Fountain. Buckingham collected a variety of Asian, gothic and medieval art, and donated much of her collection in memory of her sister Lucy Maud and brother Clarence to the Art Institute of Chicago. Her generous gift formed the foundation of the museum’s impressive Asian art collection, with her archaic bronzes universally considered as some of the best examples known.

    Image bottom: The Buckingham Fountain in front of the downtown city skyline, Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, USA, credit Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo
  • An Extremely Rare and Magnificent Pair of Gilt-Bronze Inset Hongmu 'luohan' Panels, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong
    Estimate $250,000–350,000

    Resurfacing to the market after a century, the present pair of panels has a particularly illustrious provenance, having been in the collections of both A.W. Bahr (1877-1959) and William Cobbett Skinner (1857-1947). William Cobbett Skinner (1857-1947) was born into the illustrious Skinner family of Massachusetts, who by 1912, owned the largest silk mill in the world. William and his sister Belle inherited their parent's home 'Wisteriahurst' in Holyoke and several homes in New York City, and are believed to have decorated them with Asian art purchased from auctions in New York as well as from their travels to China and Japan in 1889 and 1909. These panels were acquired by Skinner at the American Art Association auction of Bahr’s collection, 17th-19th January 1916, lot 500.
  • A Large Gilt-Bronze Figure of Avalokiteshvara, 17th Century
    Estimate $200,000–300,000

    Twenty Buddhist devotional figures formerly in the Chang Foundation Collection and illustrated in the seminal 1993 published catalogue Buddhist Images in Gilt Metal will be offered in Bodies of Infinite Light . The Chang foundation Collection once owned the Ru brushwasher that currently holds the world’s highest auction record for any Chinese ceramic .
  • A Large and Extremely Rare Blue and White 'Immortals' Vase, Qianlong Seal Mark and Period
    Estimate $200,000–300,000

    The Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong porcelains collected by John Milton Bonham (1836-1897) offer a fascinating insight into the nascent years of Chinese art collecting in America. Bonham bought from auction houses such as M.B. Latimer & Co. and dealers like A. A. Vantine & Co. The long history of this group is traceable by a listing of Bonham’s collection by dealer Kimma Fukishima in March 1896, which correspond to the numbers inscribed on these pieces. Upon Bonham’s death, they were inherited by his niece, who later bequeathed her home and its contents to a local Pennsylvania cultural institution to whom they presently belong.
  • An Important and Extremely Rare Inlaid Iron Flask, Warring States Period - Han Dynasty
    Estimate $150,000–250,000

    It is only through the Korean War-era restrictions on importing Chinese works of art into America that we are able to identify the provenance of this exceptionally unique vase. Having been exhibited in 1934 at the Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris, and formerly in the collections of Georges Bataille (1897-1962) and Martine Marie Pol, Comtesse de Béhague (1870 - 1939), Stephen Junkunc III acquired this flask and lots 234 and 241 at the sale of the collection of the Marquis de Ganay held at the Hôtel Drouot, Paris, in May 1952. Junkunc failed multiple times trying to bring them into the United States, but eventually succeeded with the numerous affidavits, witness documents and original purchase invoices that were submitted to the Foreign Assets Control department, from which we are able to trace their history.

    Image right: The flask illustrated in the auction catalogue Objets d’Art de Chine appartenant au Marquis de Ganay, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 7th May 1952, lot 56.
  • Tang Ying, An Exceptional and Rare Famille-Rose 'Landscape' Panel, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period, Dated Yihai Year, Corresponding to 1755
    Estimate $120,000–150,000

    The plaque is a rare work of art painted by the renowned supervisor of the early Qing Imperial kilns, Tang Ying (1682-1756), who was arguably one of the most influential and celebrated figures in the development of Chinese porcelain. The piece arrived at Sotheby’s with no provenance information aside from an old auction entry affixed to its back, lacking a sale date or location. After pouring through old auction catalogues, it was found to be a porcelain plaque from the renowned collection of Abel William Bahr (1877-1959), and sold in 1922 at the American Art Galleries in New York. A.W. Bahr was born in Shanghai in 1877 to a German father and a Chinese mother. Working in China as a coal merchant and general importer, Bahr also acted as Secretary of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (of Great Britain and Ireland), and he built a large collection of important Chinese art.

    Image bottom: The old auction entry which came affixed to the present lot, prompting a search to uncover the work's history.
  • A Large and Superbly Painted Blue and White 'Windswept' Meiping, Ming Dynasty, Mid-15th Century
    Estimate $80,000–120,000

    This vase is illustrated in the 1975 publication by Ryōichi Fujioka, Tōji Taikei 42 Min no Sometsuke [Outlines of Ceramics: Blue and White Ceramics of the Ming Dynasty], and comes from a Japanese private collection that holds many other pieces included in seminal publications and exhibitions on Chinese art. This vase has also passed through some of the most important figures in the field of Chinese art collecting including R. H. R. Palmer (1898-1970), J. T. Tai, and Robert Hatfield Ellsworth.
  • A 'Chicken Bone' and Black Jade 'Laozi' Inscribed Boulder, Qing Dynasty
    Estimate $60,000–80,000

    This boulder was once in the collection of Bettie F. Holmes, better known as Mrs. Christian Holmes (1871-1941), a noted American collector and generous philanthropist. Her collection included Chinese archaic bronzes, early jades, Tang gold and silver, ceramics of various periods, Buddhist sculptures in gilt bronze and stone, and other works of art and antiquities. She contributed nearly two dozen objects to the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-6, the most important exhibition of Chinese art ever held. After her husband’s death, she established a hospital and a charitable foundation in his memory and became a major donor to the Philharmonic Symphony Society and the Metropolitan Opera.

    Image to right: Mrs. Christian Holmes (1871-1941), previous owner of the present lot, Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
  • An Extremely Rare Large Blue and White 'Carp' Fishbowl, Wanli Mark and Period
    Estimate $50,000–70,000

    This fishbowl, with its multilayered auspicious meanings, was formerly in the collection of Bertram S. Boggis (1887-1958) and has remained in the family to this day. Known as a collector of Chinese porcelains, Boggis was a protégé and chief assistant to the famous art dealer Joseph Duveen (1869-1939). Following Duveen’s death, Boggis became a co-owner of the New York gallery, established in 1877. The likely pair to this fishbowl was sold by the executors of his estate in a single-owner sale representing the better part of his large and impressive collection at Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York.

    Image right: The pair to this fishbowl, sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York, 16th-17th October 1958, lot 401.
  • A Rare Famille-Verte Biscuit 'Landscape' Rouleau Vase, Qing Dynasty, Kangxi Period
    Estimate $30,000–50,000

    With its distinctive revolving stand, this vase can be identified as a piece from the Rockefeller Collection. It has a long and illustrious history, having formerly been in the hands of Richard Bennett (b. 1849), Esq., Edgar Gorer, M. Parish-Watson, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960), and John D. Rockefeller, III (1906-1978).

    Image to right: The present lot illustrated in Edgar Gorer and J. F. Blacker, Chinese Porcelain and Hard Stones, vol. 1, London, 1911, pl. 105.
  • An Important Imperial Quartz 'Horse' Seal, Qing Dynasty, Seal of Prince Gong
    Estimate $30,000–50,000

    This seal once belonged to Yixin (1833-1898), Prince Gong, the sixth son of the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1821-1850). Prince Gong was one of the most influential political figures in the 19th century. He was appointed as the Imperial Commissioner to negotiate the treaty with the Anglo-French delegation, which subsequently ended the Second Opium War. As the Qing empire came to its end, Prince Gong’s grandson sold a large quantity of his collection, including the present seal, to the renowned Asian art dealer Yamanaka Sadajiro (1865-1935), who then dispersed these items during a legendary three-day auction at the American Art Galleries in New York in 1913.

    Image left: Portrait of Yixin, Prince Gong
    Image right: The auction catalogue for the legendary three-day sale of Prince Gong’s collection at American Art Galleries, New York, 27th February 1913, by Yamanaka & Co
  • A Pair of Painted Pottery Tang-Style Ladies, 20th Century
    Estimate $400–600


    The present pair of pottery figures were included in the seminal 1935 International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy of Arts, London and later gifted to the Art Institute of Chicago. They were lent by renowned Chicago philanthropists and collectors Mr. (1826-1902) and Mrs. (1849-1918) Potter Palmer, of Potter Palmer and Company, which eventually became the prominent Midwestern department store chain Marshall Field and Company.

    Image right: One of these figures illustrated in the exhibition catalogue International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-36, cat. no. 2418.
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