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Asia Week

"For the Enjoyment of Scholars"

Selections from the Robert H. Blumenfeld Collection

Christie's, New York

10 AM, March 25, 2010

Sale 2391

Lacquered porcelain brush pot Bacl of brush pot

Lot 954, "A Very Rare Mother-of-Pearl-Inlaid Black Lacquered Porcelain Brush Pot," Kangxi Period, 1662 to 1722, 5 3/8 inches high, (estimate$80,000 to 120,000/sold for $662,500)

By Michele Leight

Exquisite brush rests, intricately carved ivory brush pots, and scholars rocks that induce meditation might not seem like dire necessities to some, but the beguiling artworks on offer at Christie's March 25, 2010 sale "For the Enjoyment of Scholars: Selections from the Robert H. Blumenfield Collection" might help change their minds. The black lacquer brush pot and ivory bowl illustrated here give some idea of the quality on display in a gallery packed with gems from this unique collection. Sadly one cannot include them all.

Christie's Asian Art Week totaled $60 Million, 2nd highest total for Christie's Spring Asian Art Week in New York.

This sale was a great success and realized $13,866,500, 71 % sold by lot and 94% by value.

"Our tremendous achievement this week," Theow H. Tow, Deputy Chairman of Christie's Americas and Honorary Chairman of Christie's Asia, said, "is a clear testament to the immense strength of Asian Art, with success across all categories. Christie's sales totaled $60 million this week, the 2nd highest total for Asian Art Week at Christie's New York with a 73% market share and Chinese Works of Art totaled $40 million, the highest ever achieved at Christie's New York. We have continued to attract an international and diverse range of buyers who look for exceptional and rare works of good provenance that are attractively estimated. Our totals show that the demand continues to be strong among worldwide collectors and reinforcing market confidence as we go forward into the year."

Lot 954, "A Very Rare Mother-of-Pearl-Inlaid Black Lacquered Porcelain Brush Pot," illustrated above, created between 1662 and 1722 is tiny but it packs a mighty punch. A technical marvel, its rarity is due to the difficulty in getting lacquer to adhere to porcelain, then challenging this fragile foundation further by in-laying it with mother-of-pearl, which required enormous skill. Christie's catalogue for this sale sheds light on the theme of this exquisite object:

"The theme of scholars on or near a river was a popular one amongst the literati. The notion of spending their days in peace and seclusion fishing on the river had a special appeal for Chinese scholars, and influenced many of the decorative scenes of scholarly accoutrements in a variety of media such as the one on this extremely rare brush pot."

Lot 954 has an estimate of $80,000 to 120,000. It sold for $662,500!

Portrait of Wang Shizhen by Zu Zhiding

Lot 848, "Happiness Trhough Chan Practice: Portrait of Wang Shizhen," by Yu Zhiding, hand scroll, 13 7/8 by 31 1/2 inches

The top lot of this sale was Lot 848, an exquisite handscroll by Yu Zhiding (1647-1716) entitled, "Happiness Through Chan Practice: Portrait of Wang Shizhen," which sold for $3,442,500, far exceeding its pre-sale estimate of $150,000 to $280,000, and establishing a new auction record for a Classical Chinese Painting sold in the United States. It measures 13 7/8 by 31 1/2 inches.

The subject of the painting, Wang Shizen, is depicted in the guise of a Buddhist monk, when he was in fact a writer, poet and well-known bibliophile who amassed a huge library. He was also an important official who became the president of The Board of Censors (1698) and The Board of Punishments (1698). While the latter position hardly seems suitable for the gentle and humbly attired monk in this painting, the finely bound books and flywhisk at his side give more clues to his real identity. Christie's catalogue for this sale points out: "A flywhisk would have been an essential accoutrement for a gentleman in the summer months....." The artist was not so carried away by his imagination that he forgot how annoying flies could be, and generously supplied his gentle scholar monk with a tool to swat them away.

Lot 846, "A Rare Imperial Engraved Turned Ivory Bowl," 18th Century, 18th Century, 3 11/16 in diameter. Estimate $$30,000 to 50,000/t sold for $842,500

Lot 846, "A Rare Imperial Engraved Turned Ivory Bowl," 18th century, set a world auction record for an ivory carving sold in the U.S. when it achieved $842,500. Its pre-sale estimate was $30,000 to 50,000.

Left: Lot 925, "A Carved Red and Green Lacquer Brush and Cover," Ming Dynasty, 16th to 17th Century, 10 3/8 inches, (estimate $15,000 to 18,000/Failed to sell); Lot 895, "An Imperial Bamboo Veneer and Bone Knife and Sheath," 18th to 19th Century, 12 11/16 inches (estimate $15,000 to 18,000/sold for $17,500); Lot 885, "A Rare Silver-Inlaid and Lacquered Zitan Tray," 17th to 18th Century, 10 3/8 inches (estimate $15,000 to 18,000/sold for $30,000 )

The tools of the trade of Chinese ink brush painting were - and continue to be for contemporary Chinese ink brush painters - as important as the pure hand-ground pigments and sable brushes were to the great Renaissance painters, with similar results. Chinese ink brush painting required the best quality ink available, and had to be ground so finely that no blemishes would mar the composition. Those that might have tried this demanding medium know that there is no margin for error in ink brush painting. There is no sneaking back in and covering up an unsightly blob, or erasing it with turpentine!

The resulting perfection of the finest classical Chinese ink brush paintings and the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance remain unsurpassed in the pantheon of art, holding up both aesthetically and technically over centuries.

Lot 912, "A Very Rare Imperial Songhua Stone Inkstone, Box and Cover," Qianlong Nianzhi Four Character Mark and of the Period (1736-1795).

This was not lost on Chinese literati and scholars, who collected fine brushes and ink stones, like Lot 912, (estimate $150,000 to 280,000),"A Very Rare Imperial Songhua Stone Inkstone, Box and Cover," as great a work of art as a Rolls Royce of technical perfection for its proficiency in grinding the ink, It sold for $386,500.

Left to Right: Lot 863, "A Painted Ivory Figure of a Court Lady," 18th Century, 7 ½ inches high (estimate $5,000 to 7,000/sold for $13,750); Lot 864, "A Buffalo Horn Figure of a Guanyin," 18th to 19th Century, 10 ¼ inches high (estimate $20,000 to 30,000/Failed to sell); Lot 858, " A Rare Carved Ivory Brush Pot," Late 18th to 19th Century, 5 7/8 inches high, (estimate $60,000 to 80,000/Failed to sell); Lot 861, "An Ivory Figure of a Scholar," 18th Century, 5 ¾ inches high (estimate $8,000 to 12,000/sold for $17,500)

Ivory and Rhinoceros horn is something of an obsession, as can be seen by the numerous cups and vessels in these materials at this sale. While we might wince today at the very idea of elephant's tusks and Rhino horns being turned into drinking vessels or pots to store paintbrushes because the species are endangered, this was not an issue when these beautiful objects were created. Back then rhinos and elephants were plentiful and roamed together in hordes - a wonderful thought. Clearly they were selected because ivory and Rhinoceros horn are the perfect foil for carving, as the objects here demonstrate.

Center: Lot 869, "An Ivory Figure of a Lady," 18th to 19th Century, 9 ¾ inches (estimate $12,000 to 18,000/sold for $27,500); Far Right: Lot 867, "An Ivory Figure of Zhengli Quan," Late Ming Dynasty, 16th to 17th Century, 9 7/8 inches (estimate $10,000 to 15,000/sold for $25,000); Rear: Lot 922, "An Unusual Ivory Two-sided Table Screen," 18th to 19th Century, 8 5/8 inches high ($6,000 to 8,000/sold for $15,000)).

Far Left: Lot 800, "An Unusual Rhinoceros Horn Lily-Form Cup," 17th Century, 6 1/4 inches; Center: Lot 823, "A Finely Carved Rhinoceros Horn Botanical Motif Cup," 17th to 18th Century, 5 1/4 inches; Upper Right: Lot 893, "A Rock Crystal Brush Pot," 18th to 19th Century, 5 5/8 inches high.

Featured in the glass cabinet illustrated above (far left), is Lot 800, " An Unusual Rhinoceros Horn Lily-Form Cup," (estimate $40,000 to 50,000/sold for $266,500), whose innovative and unusually sinuous and uncluttered design pre-dates Art Nouveau by several centuries. In the center is Lot 823, "A Finely Carved Rhinoceros Horn Botanical Motif Cup," ($60,000 to 80, 000/sold for $266,500), a flower lover's dream, tilts slightly as if in anticipation of delivering plum wine or saki to a thirsty scholar's lips.. On the right is a surprisingly contemporary "Rock Crystal Brush Pot," (Lot 893, estimate $18,000 to 25,000/Failed to sell), carved to resemble rock faces. It bears the inscription "precious plaything."

Huanghuali seal chest

Lot 815, "An Embellished Huanghuali Seal Chest," 18th Century, 13 7/8 inches high, 14 5/8 inches wide, and 10 ¼ inches deep.

Lot 815, "An Embellished Huanghuali Chest," estimate $20,000 to 30,000/sold for $80,500), was designed to store seals, an important addition to any writer or scholar's study, and there are many in this sale, including Lot 939, illustrated below, "A Rare Imperial Variegated Red and Buff Shoushan Soapstone Rectangular Seal," (estimate $40,000 to 60,000/sold for $134,500). The chest, illustrated here, is inlaid in ivory, soapstone and mother-of-pearl, and depicts boys and girls playing, a menagerie of birds, phoenixes and dragons as embellishments, and chrysanthemums and peonies. As the dimensions above show, it is not large, which adds to its enormous appeal.

Soapstone rectangular seal

Lot 939, "A Rare Imperial Dated Variegated Red and Biff Shoushan Soapstone Rectangular Seal," Dated to the Middle Spring Month of the Renshen Year, Corresponding to 1752, and Of The Period."

A personal favorite is Lot 805,"A Rare Shell-Pink Soapstone Wine Cup," 1 15/16 inches in diameter, with Eight Daoist Immortals standing on a band of clouds, "representing five mythical and three historical individuals with magical powers, which can be used to intercede on behalf of mortals" (Christie's catalog for this sale). The estimate for Lot 805 is $10,000 to 12,000. It sold for $18,750.

Soapstone wine cup

Lot 805, "A Rare Small Shell-Pink Soapstone Wine Cup," 18th to 19th Century, 1 15/16 inches in diameter.

The objects and paintings in this sale are directly related to writing or painting, which may have something to do with the unprecedented attention this collection received from collectors, bidders and enthusiasts. Some objects are purely inspirational, others practical. What they have in common is that they are all gorgeously designed, exquisitely wrought, most of them from precious material, but also including bamboo, buffalo horn and glass. It must have been a sublime experience to live with this collection, and a special treat to be able to view it this season.

For Robert Blumenfield, collecting began young:

"I was always interested in art as a result of growing up and going to school in cosmopolitan cities in the United States and Europe, and being surrounded by museums and cultural activities - for example, I took the children's art program at The Brooklyn Museum. So it was a natural progression from the usual schoolboy collecting to begin collecting Western Art, mainly European furniture and paintings. However, I had no knowledge or experience of Asian art until I happened to visit an antique shop in lower Manhattan with m mother, where a pair of bronze vases caught my eye. I bought them on the spot because of their beauty, not knowing what they were or where they came from. They turned out to be Meiji period Japanese and were the first pieces of Asian art I acquired. They also marked the beginning of what became my lifelong quest to seek out, study, understand, appreciate and where possible collect the finest examples of Asian art." (Courtesy Christie's catalogue for this sale, from excerpts from an interview with Robert Blumenfeld conducted by Robert Piccus and published in Orientations in 2000, volume 31, number 6).


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