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A Connoisseur's Vision: Property from the Xu Hanqing Collection

Christie's New York

Sale No. 2529

September 15, 2011, 10 AM

"Poems in cursive script by Zhu Xi

Lot 817, "Poems in Cursive Script," by Zhu Xi, (1130-1200), Handscroll, ink on paper, signed by the artist, five colophons, including one each by Yu Zhuo (Yuan dynasty), Ye Heng (Yuan dynasty), Cheng Yangquan (1299-1354), and two of Ye Gonghui (1355-1435?), with a total of thirteen seals, Qi Junzao (1793-1866) inscribed a biography of Zhu Xi, with two seals, eighteen collectors' seals, including four of Xu Hanqing (1882-1961), 13 1/3 by 400 inches

By Michele Leight

"A Connoisseur's Vision: Property from the Xu Hanqing Collection" is a reflection of its owner, who somehow managed to balance his private and accomplished public life perfectly. The elite group of 150 objects in this sale of important Chines works of art include ancient Chinese paintings, rare calligraphy, exquisite jades, an assortment of highly desirable seals and sophisticated scholar's objects from the single-owner collection of Xu Hanquing, whose artistic name was Xu Fubing.

The sale of A Connoisseur’s Vision: Property from the Xu Hanqing Collection achieved $13,137,625, and was 84% sold by lot and by value. The top lot of the sale was Zhu Xi’s "Poems in Cursive Script," hand scroll, ink on paper, realizing $1,762,500, followed by Lot 933, "An Unusual Jade Carving of a Melon," 18th century, which sold for $1,426,500 (estimate $100,000 to $150,000). In third place was Lot 905, "A Superbly Carved and Important Large Oval Bamboo Brush Pot," early 17th century, which sold for $842,500 (estimate $300,000 to $500,000).

Michael Bass, Co-Head of Department, Chinese Works of Art, New York and Elizabeth Hammer, Specialist, Chinese Paintings, commented: “We were delighted with the enthusiastic reception of this remarkable collection and the strong results achieved across the broad range of materials. This was a tribute to the connoisseurship of the collector. The strong paintings results were led by the Zhu Xi calligraphic scroll, which realized $1.76 million. Exceptional prices were also achieved for works of art, particularly among jades and tianhuang carvings.”

Xu Hanquing was a banker by profession, but also an accomplished calligrapher, with a passion for the traditional arts, a collector, and an art historian and an expert in inscriptions and textual research. Born in Shangdong province in 1882, Hanqing was an official in the Ministry of Justice and the Inspection Committee of the Quing Central Bank's Jinan branch in the last years of the Quing Dynasty. After the establishment of the Republic of China, he became Director of the Shanghai Association of Banks after the Sino-Japanese War, and was extremely successful in finance, textile manufacturing and warehouse trade, among other interests. In addition to being a successful banker, he was also renowned as a great collector in early 20th century China. The treasure trove of Chinese paintings, rubbings of Chinese calligraphy, jades and other unique scholars objects in this collection is accompanied by rare coins and currency, reflecting Xu Hanqing's background in finance.

Lot 817, "Poems in Cursive Script," by Zhu Xi (1130-1200) is remarkable in several ways: it has somehow survived centuries of political turmoil, (it is, after all, made of paper), dynastic wars, and natural disasters - namely drought, which is what this poem is really about. In serious drought, fires are commonplace, and paper is especially vulnerable. Fortunately, most scholars take good care of the precious things they collect, and Zhu Xi, who composed this poem, was extremely careful. Elizabeth Hammer, Christie's Specialist Chinese Paintings, unrolled the scroll to show the beautiful calligraphy and described its fascinating history. Christie's catalogue for this sale includes the story of the circumstances of this poem's creation, and its descent through many centuries to the collector Xu Huanqing:

"The poem in this scroll, 'A Poem Dedicated to Friends at a Mountain Gathering during My Illness in Fall,' is included in the seventh volume of the anthology Hui'an Scholar Zhu Wen Gong Literary Collection, and the original title is A Poem Dedicated to Huang Zihou, Liu Pingfu, and other Friends at a Mountain Gathering during My Illness in Fall. The poem is five-character prose with thirty rhymes and totals a hundred and fifty words. In the present scroll, the first nine sentences and three additional characters (forty-eight characters in total) are missing, with only thirty sentences and two additional characters remaining (a hundred and two characters in total). At the end of the preface of the poem, Zhu Xi again signed "This poem is dedicated to Shu Zhong and other friends" with the signature reading Hui Weng. (Unfortunately, this dedication is missing from the anthology.) Three Yuan dynasty poets, Yu Zhuo, Ye Heng, and Cheng Yangquan, added colophons following the poem. This scroll by Zhu Xi was given to his pupil Ye Hesun and his family. During the Xuantong and Chenghua periods in the Ming dynasty, the seventh generation descendant Ye Gonghui inscribed the scroll twice and described the provenance of the scroll. Finally in the sixth year of Xianfeng (1856), Qi Junzao affirmed the historical context of this scroll by Zhu Xi, confirming the poem was written in the seventh year of the Chunxi era in the Song dynasty (1180) when Zhu Xi was fifty-one years old."

"This scroll by Zhu Xi was given to his pupil Ye Hesun and his family. During the Xuantong and Chenghua periods in the Ming dynasty, the seventh generation descendant Ye Gonghui inscribed the scroll twice and described the provenance of the scroll. Finally in the sixth year of Xianfeng (1856), Qi Junzao affirmed the historical context of this scroll by Zhu Xi, confirming the poem was written in the seventh year of the Chunxi era in the Song dynasty (1180) when Zhu Xi was fifty-one years old...More specifically, Yu Zhuo wrote, "Hui Weng (Zhu Xi) regards Shu Zhong as his favorite student, therefore Shu Zhong understands that the reason Zhu Xi is ill is mostly because of his concern for the drought." These three sentences rhythm well with Zhu Xi's inscription at the end of the poem, "This poem is dedicated to my friends, in particular to Shu Zhong, who traveled all the way out here."

"Ye Heng stated, 'Entrusted with responsibility of drought-relief by the imperal court, Zhu Xi is concerned with the public's sufferings while he himself is still sick... the osmanthus blossom is falling.' It echoes the eighth sentence in Zhu Xi's poem, saying 'the imperial court is deeply concerned with the drought illness in fall and the osmanthus tree is in its late blossom'...Cheng Yangquan added, 'The Demon of Drought comes for no reason. Just as sickness never goes away.' These two sentences again reflect the poem by Zhu Xi, 'I was in illness in the fall, and my illness became worse because of the drought.'"

"At the end of his poem, Zhu Xi recorded that 'Shu Zhong visited and asked for my writing.' Shu Zhong was a favorite pupil of Zhu Xi. Also, according to the anthology of Zhu Xi's poetry, the friends mentioned at the end of this poem are Huang Zihou, Liu Pingfu and other friends from the valley. Finally, this work was owned by the legendary calligraphy master Ye Hesun, who was the primary pupil in Zhu Xi's later life. Ye's seventh generation descendant Ye Gonghui (1355-1435) commented on his ancestor's vast collection of Zhu Xi's calligraphy and his devotion to Zhu Xi's writing. Most of the collection has been lost except for this scroll. This scroll was passed down within the Ye family for many generations, from Ye Hesun to Ye Gonghui's great-great-grandfather Feidun Wen, to great-grandfather Nanxuan Wen, to grandfather Keyi Wen, and finally to his father Risi Chushi. In 1468, wuzi year in the Chenghua period, Ye Gonghui composed another colophon, confirming the poem was written in the seventh year of the Chunxi period in the Song dynasty (1180), when the Jiangnan area was hit by serious drought."

Authenticity is a concern in Chinese paintings and calligraphy because "copying" from a master is very common, in fact it is absolutely required of a pupil, and prized when the copying is good, but this work is well-supported as being genuine:

"The calligraphy style and the paper's appearance support this artwork's authenticity. The work retains the influence of Mi Fu and Song Gaozong. Although the work is in large cursive style, it shares much resemblance with the calligraphy in regular style found in Zhu Xi's 'Singing in the South of the City' in the Beijing National Palace Museum. Specifically, thirty-three characters can be compared to identify the similarities between both masterpieces,"notes Christie's catalogue for this sale.

Good things can come out of bad stuff as they say. Although it was created in troubling times, this poem is remarkable for its beautiful calligraphy and for its history of survival. Lot 817, "Poems in Cursive Script," a handscroll in ink on paper, signed by the artist Zhu Xi (1130-1200), has an estimate of $1,500,000 to 1,800,000. It sold for $1,762,500, the top lot of this sale.

Michael Bass with bamboo brush pot    Bamboo brush pot 

Michael Bass, Christie's Co-Head of Department, Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art with Lot 905, "A Superbly Carved and Important Large Oval Bamboo Brush Pot," Early 17th Century, 7 1/4 inches high

 
Humble material does not prevent something from becoming a wonderful work of art. Lot 905, "A superbly Carved and Important Large Oval Bamboo Brush Pot," was carved in the early 17th century, and it packs a mightly punch even though it is only 7 1/4 inches high. What is immediately apparent is how beautiful and deep the carving is, depicting a detailed scene of scholars and attendants in a densely forested retreat of many types of trees, rocks, and a stone bridge that spans a rushing stream. Christie's catalogue for this sale notes: "One of the rock faces is inscribed with a five-character inscription, Wuqu Tang Ying hua (painted by Tang Ying from Wuqu), and two seals, Zhu and Zhizheng, with hardwood rim and base, the base inscribed with a seal, Yijin Zhai cang (Yijin Zhai collection)...The inscription on the brush pot suggests that the scene depicted is based on a painting by Tang Ying (1470-1523), a scholar, painter, calligrapher, and poet of the Ming dynasty whose life story has become a part of popular lore. Even though he was born during the Ming dynasty, many of his paintings (especially paintings of people) exhibit stylistic elements of pre-Tang to Song date. He is one of the elite 'Four Masters of the Ming Dynasty', which also includes Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and Qiu Ying (ca. 1495-1552). Tang was also a talented poet, and is known as one of the 'Four Literary Masters of the Wuzhong Region.'"

The two seals, Zhu and Zhizheng, belong to a Ming-period bamboo carver of the Jiading School, who was probably active during the first half of the 17th century. Jiading bamboo carving was invented by Zhu Zhizheng's grandfather, Zhu He, during the Zhengde and Jiajing periods (1506-1566) of the Ming dynasty. Zhu He merged calligraphy and painting into bamboo carving - characterized by openwork carving and deep carving - and he made bamboo carving an independent visual art form, which was considered innovative at the time. Zhu He's son, Zhu Ying, and his grandson, Zhu Zhizheng, inherited the carving skills of their fathers, but made improvements on them, each becoming more skilled than his predecessor. It is a sign of a great teacher when a student surpasses him or her. The three generations established the basic characteristics associated with Jiading bamboo carving, and are referred to as the 'Three Zhus'. Christie's catalogue for this sale notes: "Similar depth and intricacy of carving can be seen on a brush pot carved with a hunting scene, dated to the early Qing dynasty, illustrated in The Palace Museum Collection of Elite Carvings, Beijing, 2002, p. 53, no. 24, which, like the present brush pot, has a wood rim and base."

That all this can be achieved on a work of art 7 1/4 inches high is mind blowing. When asked why such elaborate work was done on bamboo, Michael Bass, Christie's Co-Head of Department, Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art said:

"I like that scholars take humble material and elevate it. Everyday materials are transformed into masterpieces."

Bamboo might be humble, but this work of art has noble provenance. It is from Yijin Zhai, the name of the studio belonging to emperor Qianlong's eleventh son, Yong Xing (1752-1823).

Lot 905 has an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. It sold for $842,500.

Tianhuang Rectangular Seal

Lot 893, "A Rare Small Tianhuang Rectangular Seal, Late Ming/Early Quing Dynasty," 16th to 17th century, 1 3/8 inches high

A personal favorite is Lot 893, "A Rare Small Tianhuang Rectangular Seal, Late Ming/Early Quing Dynasty," 16th to 17th century. The photograph above does not do justic to the intricacy of the carving, but it gives some idea of the small scale and gorgeous color of this spectacular and unusual seal:

"Of yellowish caramel color, the seal knop finely carved as a crouching mythical beast with backward-turned head, the mouth slightly open exposing the teeth, with fine hair markings on the brows, beard, mane and center of the back where they frame the long slender crest that trails gracefully back from between the small ears, one half of the bifurcated tail curled up on the right rear haunch while the other is curled forward under the left rear leg, the seal face carved with the phrase, xi xin jiong qiu yue ('my cleansed heart is like the autumn moon')," notes Christie's catalogue for this sale.

"My cleansed heart is like the autumn moon" is a nice touch. An inscription on the box reads: "Tianhuang seal, number 2, best quality from the Ming quarry, Chunzhai collection."

Lot 893 has an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $458,500.

Another beautiful seal in this sale is Lot 922, "An Unusual Small Yellow Jade Figure of a Recumbent Hen," Ming/Early Quing Dynasty, "Shown seated with legs tucked under the body and head facing forward, the head and feathers finely detailed, the softly polished stone of yellow color with added russet coloring, 2 inches," notes Christie's catalogue for this sale. Lot 922 has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $544,500.

Small and gorgeous objects d'art abound in this sale, the fruit of painstaking, brilliant, workmanship. Pale caramel in color, Lot 932, "A Rare Tianhuant Or Shoushan Gaoshandong Soapstone Oval Seal," Xangxi Period (1662-1722), depicts a finely carved elephant, with a foreigner by it side wearing a jacket and pantaloons. It measures 1 inches. Lot 932 has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $434,500.

Measureing a mere 3 3/8 inches, and extremely delicate and beautiful, Lot 933, "An Unusual Jade Carving of a Melon," circa 18th century, lay nestled in its silk satin lined box, in a glass case. It was not possible to get a good photograph of it, sadly: "Well carved from white stone as a lobed melon borne on a leafy, flowering vine that trails down one side and bears a smaller melon of enhanced green color, the leaves picked out in brown and russet, as is a butterfly below the small melon," notes Christie's catalogue for this sale. Lot 932 has an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $1,426,500.

Yet another animal - this one imaginary - is the subject of Lot 888, "An Unusual Pale Yellow Jade Figure of a Mythical Beast," circa 17th century or earlier, that has an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $722,500.

"Pines in the Mountains," attributed to Wang Meng

Lot 820, "Pines in the Mountains," Wang Meng (Attributed to, 1308-1385), Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper, Inscribed and signed by the artist, with two seals, Inscribed by Zhang Yu (1283-1350) with a poem, with one seal, Fifteen collectors' seals, including two of Pei Jingfu (1854-1924), one of Pan Zunqi (1808-1893), one of Sun Zhengzhi (late Qing dynasty), and two of Xu Hanqing (1882-1961), Title slips by Zhang Zuyi (1849-1917) and Hu Zhen (1817-1862), Outer title slip by Xu Hanqing (1883-?), with two seals, 48 3/4 by 22 1/4 inches

Detail of Lot 820

Detail, Lot 820, "Pines in the Mountains"

Lot 820, "Pines in the Mountains," with accompanying detail, both illustrated above, is an exquisite work, with a complex history as far as attribution, but it does not affect the beauty of the scroll itself. Christie's catalogue for this sale notes:


"The scroll Dedicated to Tanzhai Landscape by Wang Meng has been recorded six times in publications from the Ming, Qing, and modern periods...The calligraphy and the painting are both highly exceptional, representing the highest level of Wang Meng and deserves to be called a matchless piece...The scroll includes a poem by Zhang Yu. Zhang Yu died in 1348 when Wang Meng was only forty-one years old. Although the work lacks a specific date, Zhang's poem confirms the work was completed in Wang Meng's mid-career...As the records of this painting are quite inconsistent, the painting is designated here as attributed to in order to invite people with more knowledge to render further insight."

Lot 820 has an estimate of $600,000 to $700,000. It sold for $722,500.

It seems appropriate that a review of the collection of a scholar should end with a beautiful old scroll, Lot 821, "Scholar Reading in a Landscape," attributed to Liu Jue, "dated a summer day in the third year of the Chenghua era (1467)." It measures 44 7/8 by 18 3/4 inches, and has an estimate of $130,000 to $150,000. It sold for $290,500.

The catalogue for this sale includes invaluable text about the collector, describing his copious notes and documentation about his beloved collection. Personal documentation by collectors often enhances the value of the object described, the following being a prime example:

"The inside of the case containing the white jade vine melon (lot 933) is written in ink with: "Collected as treasure by Chunweng (Xu referring to himself) in the first lunal month of the xinwei year (1931)." The seal mark reads "Xu Fubing hao Hanquing beizi Chunzha zhencang" (Collected as treasure by Xu Fubing, styled Hanqing and Chunzhai."

As previously mentioned, this particular little "treasure," Lot 932 had an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It sold for $1,426,500.


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