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
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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