Christie's New York
By Michele Leight
The James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection is the jewel in the crown of Christie's Indian and Southeast Asian Art sale this spring, which garnered great interest and admiration from visitors in previews in Christie's galleries. This vibrant collection radiates with the enthusiasm of its owners, who have a strong affinity for the ancient cultures and traditions of India, Southeast Asia and the Himalayan region, reflected in this sale that includes choice works of art in all price ranges.
The auction has 120 museum-quality works from the distinguished collection of long-time patrons of the Art Institute of Chicago include iconic pieces that were also exhibited at the Art Institute, where James Alsdorf served as Chairman from 1975 to 1978, and where Marilynn Alsdorf contniues to serve on various committees. Over some years, part of their collection was donated to the Art Institute and part given on long-term loan. The superb "A Gilt Bronze Figure of Indra," from Nepal, (Lot 80, estimate $250,000 to $350,000), illustrated with Ganesha at the top of this story, and other works from the collection were the subject of a special exhibition and publication in 1997, and were reinstalled in 2008 in gallery space designed by Renzo Piano.
The auction total was $4,486,438. Hugo Weihe, International Director of Asian Art and Specialist Head of Indian and Southeast Asian Art in New York, said that "we saw clients from all over the world and new clients from various other categories come together to embrace the legacy built by James and Marilynn Alsdorf," adding that "Museum quality works with an illustrious history were much sought after, and the 10th Century Sandstone figure of Ganesha set a new record for a sculpture of this much-beloved deity, achieving $932,500. We are delighted to have introduced the Alsdorfs' vision to both new and seasoned collectors."
Lot 118, conch shell with gilt copper and enamel champlevé mount, Tibeto-Chinese, Qianlong, 8 1/2 inches high
The top lot of the sale was Lot 118, a rare Tibeto-Chinese, Qianlong, conch shell with gilt copper and enamel champlevé that sold for $1,202,500 to an Asian private collector including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article. It had an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000.
"My husband and I were captivated by the beauty of Indian and Southeast Asian art, and by the vision it embodies of a life in which the human and divine are unselfconsciously intermingled. We looked for objects to delight our eyes and souls, rather than objects that embodied particular ritual practices or exemplified specific religious texts" (Marilynn Alsdorf, "A Collecting Odyssey: Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art from the James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection," Pratapaditya Pal, published 1997, from Christie's catalogue for this sale)
Among many evocative photographs of the Alsdorfs in Southeast Asia, there is a joyful one of them riding on an elephant in Jaipur, a treat that can still be had today at some of the finest forts and fabled cities in India and Southeast Asia. Riding on any elephant to see anything is the most wonderful experience, and it is reflected in the happy faces of the Alsdorfs. Pachiderms are high maintenance when there is no river nearby for them to bathe in, a weary but devoted mahout once told me. Arranging a bath in land-locked fort towns where water is scarce is particularly challenging, he said.
But such mundane, earthly problems would never concern good-natured Ganesha.
Lot 45, (estimate $100,000 to $150,000), "A Stone Figure of Ganesha," illustrated above, is one of several fine examples of the playful god on offer in this sale, depicted wearing a flamboyant headdress. Another beautiful, and diminutive rendition of the god that is 3 7/8 inches high is Lot 38, "A Sandstone Figure of Ganesha," from the 4th century, and has a very reasonable estimate of $1,500 to $2,500. There are several others in all price ranges that join an all star cast of Ganeshas in this prized collection. Lot 45 sold for $326,500. Lot 38 sold for $1,375.
Ganesha, with his fantastical elephant head, is also embraced by other religions, as noted in Christie's catalogue for this sale:
"Although primarily a Hindu diety, Ganesha is also part of Buddhism and Jainism. In India Jains place Ganesha in doorways of temples and propitiate him at the beginning of ceremonies to remove obstacles."
A remover of obstacles is a deity you always want on your side.
An especially animated and joyful Ganesha is from the 10th century (Uttar Pradesh) and one of the highlights of the James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection. In the photo above it stands behind Sandhya Jain Patel, Christie's Specialist, Southeast Asian Art. Probably the most popular diety in India, and visible in every nook and cranny across the sub-continent from shops and bazaars to fine hotels, museums and temples, it was moving to see visitors in Christie's galleries follow the ancient custom of placing coins at the base of all the Ganeshas, and especially this one. I added my coin. Lot 42, "A Sandstone Figure of Ganesha," is as winsome an interpretation of the god as it gets, and has an estimate $250,000 to $350,000. It has been on loan to The Art Institute of Chicago since 1999 (lucky viewers!) and reflects Marilynn Alsdorf's passion for Ganesha, with many represented in this sale. Christie's catalogue for this sale notes:
"Ganesha, the lovable and mischievous elephant-headed god from the Hindu pantheon, is widely revered as the Lord of Beginnings and the Lord of Obstacles. His rotund belly is not only appropriate to his pachydermic nature, but also reinforces his identity as a symbol of abundance. As a paragon of wisdom, he broke off his own tusk and fashioned it into a pen to record the Mahabaharata as the great safe Vyasa recited it. When he dances, he echoes his father Shiva, but with child-like form and a joyful manner befitting his role as leader of Shiva's followers."
It sold for $932,500.
Shown above in the foreground in Christie's galleries are three beautiful sculptures from The James and Marilynn Allsdorf Collection: (at left) Lot 100, "A Granite Figure of Vishnu," from South India, Tamilnadu, 11th Century, 28 3/4 inches high, has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000; (center) Lot 71, "A Granite Figure of Kali," South India, Tamilnadu, Madurai Region, 10th century, 28 3/4 inches, has an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000; (at right) Lot 92, "A Stone Figure of Kubera, " from Indonesia, Central Java, 9th Century, has an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. Lots 100, 71 and 92 passed.
Lot 19, "A Bronze Bust of Buddha," is from Thailand and was created in the 8th-9th century, his fingers - were all present - would have shown the thumb and forefinger joined at the tips forming a circle representing both perfection and eternity: "As expressed by Jean Boisselier in 'The Heritage of Thai Sculpture,' 1975, 'The school of Dvaravati may stand alongside the great Buddhist artistic traditions of India, so enduring were its innovations and so persuasive its influence on most of the art of Southeast Asia'" (Christie's catalogue for this sale.) Lot 19 has an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000. It passed.
Not illustrated, and incredibly beautiful are several noteworthy lots, including Lot 96, "A Pair of Sandstone Arms of Vishnu," Khmer, Pre-Angkor Period, 7th Century, that has an estimate of $6,000 to $8,000. It sold for $5,250. Lot 121, "A Set of Gold Damascened Iron Door Fittings" from Tibet, dates from the 15th century, and would be a fantastic addition to any home. The estimate for them is $10,000 to $15,000. It sold for $47,500. There are fine works of art from across Southeast Asia, including Thailand. Sadly it is not possible to include them all.
The beautiful stone "devis" shown above, Lot 65, are depicted holding hands, representing the union of the earthly and the divine. Goddesses and devis abound in this collection, a manifestation of "the feminine divine" and the veneration of the female goddess by Hindus and Buddhists that is so evident in India, and Southeast Asia. There are goddesses literally everywhere! Lot 65 has an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $17,500. Lot 75, a silver-ground Thangka of Bajrasattva Heruka and Vajragarvi from Tibet, 18-19th Century, 29 3/8 by 19 3/4 inches, sold for $6,875.
The Alsdorff's first visit to India was in 1968 and "included a meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which had been arranged by the French Minister of Cultural Affairs, Andre Malraux, close friend of the Gandharan and Khmer art dealer Robert Rousset. They had met Rousset in Paris in 1955 and acquired their first piece from him. Other encounters included the famed Asian art dealer C.T. Loo, as well as Pierre Matisse who introduced them to Alverto Giacometti, reflecting other interests of their collecting. Among the European museums they would repeatedly visit without fail were the Musée Guimet, as well as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. as to constantly educate and refresh their eyes" (Christie's catalogue for this sale).
On the shelf illustrated above are three wood, painted, Tibetan mandalas from the 19th century, each with estimates of $6,000 to $8,000, from The James and Marilynn Collection. The other works of art will be offered at Christie's Indian and Southeast Asian Art sale, at 2 pm, which is reviewed separately.
Many of the works of art illustrated here and on offer in this sale have been on loan to The Art Insitute of Chicago for decades, a testimony to the generosity or spirit of the Alsdorfs. Without generous collectors and patrons that lend their works to museums and institutions, great art and artifacts like those illustrated here would be hidden from public view.
Commenting on the incredible variety and range of Asian art and artifacts on offer at Christie's Asian Art Week this season, Mr. Weihe, Christie's International Director Asian Art, said:
"This is the largest sale we have ever put together for Asian Art Week, and it is also one of the best." Mr. Weihe said that the pre-sale estimate for the series of sales was in the region of $65 million, "but of course we hope to do better" he added with a smile.
What is astonishing is the democratic range in prices for superb works of art this season, reflecting a welcome trend that is likely to encourage new buyers to the salesrooms, who - at last - can begin to imagine having collections of their own.