A journey into China's historical past through religious art from the Rousset collection

Chinese works of art are often admired for its elegance and sophistication. But more than beauty, these treasures provide an open window into a glorious past of a culture, allowing us to explore and understand our own history. 

On 25 and 26 October, Bonhams Cornette de Saint Cyr will present an auction dedicated to the outstanding Rousset Family private collection, led by a museum-quality wood figure of a Bodhisattva from the Jin dynasty. 

On the occasion, let us delve into the renowned French collection and take a glimpse at the golden age of China's sacred history through religious art. 

Jean-Pierre Rousset's apartment

Robert Rousset

A thousand words are not enough to tell the story of such big names as Robert and Jean-Pierre Rousset. But the mere fact that they are donors to Musée Guimet and Musée Cernuschi, leading museums of Asian art in Paris, stands as a testament to the quality of their collections. 

In fact, the Roussets has always had strong ties with Musée Guimet. Visitors to the museum would be able to take the measure of Robert's visionary character and sharp eye through the permanent exhibit of his personal collection of Chinese funerary figures – which was also the subject of a book published in 1997 by the Musée Guimet, Compagnons d'Éternité.

The Rousset family's interest in Asian art originated with Louis Rousset (1878-1929). At the beginning of the 20th century, he started trading in Far Eastern art and opened a gallery on the Rue des Arquebusiers in Paris. It was not until 1918, with the eldest son Robert, that the family business became increasingly professional and international.

Jean-Pierre Rousset

In 1920, a visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing sparked Robert's lifelong passion for Asian art. Already equipped with a keen eye, wishing to continue his distant travels in Asia and with a growing passion for trading in works of art, he decided to make it his profession.

He later acquired the gallery of Compagnie de la Chine et des Indes, and moved it to the prestigious and historic address of 39, avenue de Friedland, a stone's throw from the Arc de Triomphe. Organised on four floors, the Compagnie de la Chine et des Indes became a reference gallery for Asian art in the world, just like the C.T. Loo gallery.

With no children of his own, Robert took under his wing his nephew Jean-Pierre, and began grooming him to take over the gallery. He loved to wander with Jean-Pierre through the gallery's exhibition rooms and storerooms, telling stories about each piece while cultivating his eye. Jean-Pierre was also sent by his uncle to train with the great expert in Asian art and close friend, Michel Beurdeley, whose numerous publications are still reference books today.

When uncle Robert passed away, his private collection was divided between Jean-Pierre and his sister. Anne-Marie's part was sold with great success after her death in 2019, Jean-Pierre’s is to be auctioned at Bonhams Cornette de Saint Cyr this month.

Lot 53 | An important wood figure of a Bodhisattva
Jin Dynasty (1115 - 1234 AD)
Height: 82 cm

  • Robert Rousset (1901-1982), Paris, prior to 1935
  • Jean-Pierre Rousset (1936-2021), Paris

Estimate: €1,000,000 - 1,500,000

Standing at 82 cm tall, the grand statue exquisitely portrays the Bodhisattva Guanyin, known in Sanskrit as Avalokitesvara – a deity who has attained enlightenment but decides to delay personal salvation until all sentient beings are saved. 

Venerated in Indian Buddhism as the embodiment of the Compassion of the Buddha, it is believed to be capable of hearing all mankind, striving endlessly to help those offering prayers and transforming at will.

The figure’s tenderness and approachability is represented through the half-open eyes and gentle smile. Rendering serene in meditation, it is powerfully poised with the right leg crossed in front of the left in vajrasana. The right hand rests on its knee with palm upwards in avakashamudra, a gesture of leisure; while the right hand, though broken, is probably held before the chest in shunimudra, the seal of patience.

Grandeur aside, such an impressive sculpture also bears witness to a time when Buddhism flourished amidst an unstable period of chaos and war under the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115-1234).

A relatively short ruling dynasty, Jin has been largely neglected in history, while in fact what the Jurchens – a nomadic stepped people – accomplished was unparalleled. In less than 15 years, they overran the whole of north China by defeating the Khitans and Chinese, the two most powerful empires in East Asia.

But as Jurchens burst into Chinese history, their new dynasty faced many problems of state building and governing. Without system of ancient dignitaries and established traditions of state government, the Jin social order was highly volatile, and there was considerable difficulty in keeping the Jurchen tribal units from fighting among themselves when ruling a multi-ethnic empire.

It was during these troubled times that Buddhism thrived. The Jurchen were highly conscious of the fact that Buddhism was not a native Chinese religion, especially when its influence waned due to the revival of Neo-Confucianism during Song dynasty (960 – 1279). In order to maintain stability and served the interests of the state, Buddhism was greatly encouraged and supported by the Jin rulers, as evident by surviving examples of Buddhist figures.

Wooden Buddhist sculptures as such were initially created for Buddhist temples in north China, where many were as extensive and magnificent as palaces. The deeply carved drapery and the heavy ornamentation on figures of this size, coupled with the preserved pigments, hint at the original sumptuousness and overwhelming visual effect that awaited temple visitors.

Not only embracing the tradition of Buddhist art, the Jurchens further developed their own unique style, revealing a deep level of influence from the artistic style of the Indian Gupta empire (320-647), which itself was imbued with resonances of the Greek Hellenistic tradition.

The form and the graceful folds of the robes are distinctly Hellenistic in their adherence to the contours of a realistically conceived body as they cascade down. The treatment of the body, particularly the exposed chest, do not stem from Chinese traditions, where little of the naked body was ever depicted, but pay homage to the external influences being introduced into China.

A wooden figure of Avalokiteshvara in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland

A similar example sold at Christie's Paris in 2021 for €2.9 million

Other large scale wood sculptures from the Jin dynasty, mostly of Guanyin, are preserved in important museum collections. One famous example is a figure of Avalokiteshvara in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland. It shares several distinct stylistic features with the present bodhisattva, especially the treatment of the face, softly carved with fleshy modelling, skilful rendering of naturalistic details.

The closest example to the present lot, however, is a wood figure of Guanyin sold at Christie’s Paris last year for €2.9 million. The two share the same height, facial features and postures.

Lot 32 | A rare and large stone head of a Bodhisattva
Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 AD)
Height: 43.5 cm

  • Loo & Cie, Art Ancien de Chine, Paris
  • Robert Rousset, Paris (1901-1981); acquired from the above on 21 February 1924
  • Jean-Pierre Rousset, Paris (1936-2021)

Estimate: €200,000 - 300,000

It is said that history repeats itself. A thousand year before Jurchen Jin dynasty, China had once plunged into another 300 years of prolonged turmoil. States were at constant war with one another for land and political control – and north China was fragmented into a series of short-lived dynastic states.

Against this backdrop, Buddhism flourished during the Northern Qi period (550-577) and became a source of comfort and guidance for Chinese. Just as the Jin dynasty, copious financial resources were devoted to Buddhism, with several shrines being constructed under the emperor's personal auspices.

Following the dissemination of foreign ideas, Buddhist art experienced a glorious moment at the time, where the sculptures combined powerful and sensuous modelling with subtlety of expression. These features were likely to have derived from the contemporary Indian style of the Gupta period, which was highly regarded by the Qi aristocracy for its exotic traits.

The present lot

A similar exampe preserved in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C

Elegantly proportioned and carved, the present head is a testament to the high standards achieved in Buddhist portraiture during the period. The benevolent expression, conveyed by gently downcast eyes and tender smile of this majestic head, indicate that it represents Guanyin.

In Buddhist faith, images of deities served as important foci of worship and promoted significant devotional acts, which contributed to the devotee's personal growth towards spiritual liberation.

Similar examples from Northern Qi period could be found across major museums, including the Museum of Art, San Diego; Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C; and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

Lot 238 | A stone figure of a bodhisattva
Northern Zhou/Sui Dynasty (557-581 AD/589-618 AD)
Height: 54.3 cm

  • Robert Rousset, Paris (1901-1981), according to a family note, acquired from Tchou Teh Hoo, Beijing, 10 January 1925
  • Jean-Pierre Rousset, Paris (1936-2021)

Estimate: €50,000 - 80,000

The Northern Qi dynasty, however, lasted merely for 27 years before it was conquered by Northern Zhou (557 - 581). The long period of division and pervasive turbulence eventually came to an end with the emergence of Sui dynasty in 589, when they utilised the patronism of Buddhism to unify China. 

Characterised by regal countenance and adornment, the present figure bridges the aesthetic style of Northern Zhou and Sui dynasties, with craftsmen merging the artistic achievements of the preceding quarter century. Its opulent decoration and rich jewels, for instance, was influenced by the Northern Zhou style.

Also depicting Guanyin, the stone figure saw the deity carry in her left hand a vase, a 'pure water bottle', one of the eight symbols of good fortune. The vase was believed to contain pure water capable of relieving suffering. The right hand probably once held a willow branch used to sprinkle the divine water.

Sculptures from this period are rare and related examples are preserved in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C and The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

A similar example preserved in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C

Lot 62 | A painting of a court lady and lady-attendant
Probably Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) or earlier
135 x 56 cm

  • Robert Rousset, Paris (1901-1981), acquired prior to 1935
  • Jean-Pierre Rousset, Paris (1936-2021)

Estimate: €20,000 - 30,000

While the main character seems like an ordinary Court lady at first glance, a closer look reveals her identity as a deity – this time not of Buddhism, but Daoism instead.

On her elaborate headdress are seven delicately-adorned phoenix, indicating she is likely to be Bixia Yuanjun, the primordial sovereign of the dawn clouds, or Lady of Mount Tai – an eminent deity regarded as a northern Daoist equivalent to the Buddhist Guanyin, whose cult was robust in southern China.

Considered the most important of China’s five sacred mountains, Mount Tai had been associated with renewal and was a chief ceremonial centre where emperor would carry out official state rituals to ensure a dynasty’s fortunes. In Daoism, Bixia Yuanjun is believed to be the daughter of the god of Mount Tai, and is therefore held in high regard, being venerated as goddess of childbirth and protector of women and children.

Further attesting her as a deity or connected to Daoism are the details of the clothes. Her exquisite robes are decorated with a Daoist Immortal carrying a staff from which hangs a double-gourd containing an elixir, and facing a crane and tortoise, symbols of longevity.

Lot 8 | A rare and important archaic bronze ritual vessel and cover, fang hu
Mid-Western Zhou Dynasty (circa 10th-9th century BC)
Height: 59 cm

  • Robert Rousset, Paris (1901-1981); illustrated in Robert Rousset's Paris apartment photograph, circa 1950s
  • Jean-Pierre Rousset, Paris (1936-2021)

Estimate: €120,000 - 180,000

Since Shang (circa 16th-11th century BC), the earliest archaeologically recorded dynasty in Chinese history, Chinese believed in an afterlife and worship of ancestors and heavenly spirits played an essential role in their lives. At the time, bronze vessels would be used during sacrificial ceremonies to offer food and wine to ancestors to obtain their protection.

As with preceding dynasties, ritual bronze vessels were of vital importance in Zhou (1045-221 BC) society. Only the most powerful families of the time, however, were allowed to possess bronze vessels due to the extensive manufacturing costs. As such, they became also a symbol of power and wealth.

The present bronze vessel was photographed at Robert Rousset's apartment

A similar example in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C

A wine container with elaborate decorative design, the present fang hu attests to the lavish bronze culture of ancient China.

The rectangular neck is adorned with a band of stylised bird set to each side with elephant-head handles, while the body saw four disconnected parts of taotie masks between a band of serpentine designs and waves – all combined give it a spectacular sense of dynamic motion.

A Chinese mythological beast, taotie is a common motif on Shang and Zhou bronzes. Legend has it that taotie is a voracious eater who never gets satisfied – therefore it is cast with a pair of raised eyes but sometimes no jaw area, serving as a reminder for the nobility not to spend extravagantly.  

By the Western Zhou dynasty, birds and phoenix patterns had gradually replaced the popularity of taotie design, suggesting the use of bronze vessels were no longer limited to rites, but also for wedding and major state affairs.

Lot 68 | An important and exceptionally rare imperial tianqi and qiangjin 'Thirty-two-Dragons' lacquered guqin table
Late Ming Dynasty (first half 17th century)
101.2 x 73.5 x 34.3 cm

  • Adolphe (1843-1915) and Edgar Worch (1880-1972)
  • Galeries Georges Petit, Paris, 'Sequestre Worch' 29 March 1922, lot 344
  • Robert Rousset, Paris (1901-1981)
  • Jean-Pierre Rousset, Paris (1936-2021)

Estimate: €400,000 - 600,000

Across China's history, equally as important as a ritual is music. Since the Zhou dynasty, music played a key role in religious and court rituals. Among all instruments, guqin, translated as ancient lute, is regarded as the most prestigious, boasting a history of thousands of years.

Chinese lore holds it that guqin first came into being as a long single-string zither invented during the late third millennium BC by legendary hero Fuxi. In the hands of Emperor Shun (2294-2184 BC), guqin began to have five strings to represent the five basic elements of the universe – metal, wood, water, fire and earth. 

As it became standardized later, there is still a multitude of cosmological insights and cultural meanings embodied in the structure of guqin: for instance, the slightly convex upper sound board represents heaven, the flat bottom base symbolizes earth.

By the Warring States period (circa 475 - 221 BC), Confucius, considered the paragon of Chinese sages, had elevated guqin playing to a higher spiritual and intellectual level. Also a master of guqin himself, he believed a decent nobleman and scholar should be able to play it, as it was a way to nurture moral character and wisdom. 

Painting depicting an emperor playing guqin, preserved in the Palace Museum in Beijing

Created during Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644), the present guqin table was decorated with thirty-two five-clawed dragons – symbolic of the emperor, demonstrating its importance as an imperial pedigree. 

Perhaps the most significant admirer of the guqin during the late Ming dynasty was the Chongzhen emperor (1627-1644). The emperor was said to be an extremely accomplished guqin musician and could play more than thirty pieces, with his favourite song being 'Autumn in the Han Palace'.  It could be that the present table was made for the Chongzhen emperor's enjoyment.

Collected Statutes of the Ming Dynasty – a five-volume collection of regulations and procedures of the dynasty – records that during ceremonial occasions, the ensemble that played Court ritual music had ten guqin in their orchestra. 

Interestingly, the records mention they should each be placed on lacquered tables. It is possible that the present lot belonged to a set that was used at Court for ritual purposes.

The only other example, preserved in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C

The present guqin table

What adds to the present guqin table is its rarity. Only one other example is known, which is preserved in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C and almost certainly part of the same of set or pair as the present lot.

The Freer Gallery guqin table appears to be near identical to the present table in all aspects except for being red-ground lacquered whereas this one is black-ground lacquered.

This lot was previously in the collection of Adolphe (1843-1915) and Edgar Worch (1880-1972). In the early 20th century Edgar worked for his uncle Adolphe, who was an established German dealer in Chinese art in Paris since 1888. During the First World War, the business in Paris was confiscated by the French government. When the War was over, Worch started his own business in Berlin, dealing in Chinese ceramics.

Lot 237 | A huanghuali recessed-leg table, qiaotouan
17th/18th century
178 x 83 x 40.5 cm

  • Jean-Pierre Rousset, Paris (1936-2021), acquired in the 1980's

Estimate: €50,000 - 80,000

In the wake of pandemic, Ming (1368-1644) furniture made of huanghuali wood has been highly-prized and coveted among collectors, where many sparked enthusiastic bidding to sold far beyond estimates at auctions.

Take the Hong Kong spring sales in 2020 as an example, among the top ten lots of Chinese works of art, Ming-style furniture made of huanghuali accounted for three of them. The first runner-up went to a recessed-leg table, having sold for over HK$60 million; while the fifth place was secured by an official’s hat armchair, which fetched nearly HK$20 million.

A recessed-leg table is known as qiaotouan in Chinese, characterized by a rectangular top terminating in everted flanges on the shorter ends. In households of the late Ming and Qing dynasties, tables as such with impressive proportions demonstrated the high status and wealth of their owners. It was used for placing objects such as fantastic rocks, seasonal flowers, or miniature tray-landscapes.

Lot 51 | A pair of huanghuali ‘southern official hat’ armchairs, nanguanmaoyi
17th/18th century
104 x 56 x 43.5 cm

  • Jean-Pierre Rousset, Paris (1936-2021), acquired in the 1980's

Estimate: €50,000 - 80,000

Southern official’s hat armchair, on the other hand, acquired its fame due to its resemblance to the government official headgear. In Chinese culture, it has been regarded as a symbol of elite status and power.

Each armchair has four protruding heads: two found in the backrest chair and a pair at the front with the left and right armrests. These types of chairs are mostly arranged in pairs, which reflects to the principle of symmetry in Chinese interior design. In the Ming and Qing prints, the official's hat armchairs were mostly placed on the side of the dining table – in front of the desk in the study room, or in the reception room for guests to use.

Auction Details:

Auction House: Bonhams Cornette de Saint Cyr
Sale: The Robert and Jean-Pierre Rousset Collection of Asian Art
Viewings: 17 - 25 October
Sale Date: 25 - 26 October
Address: Bonhams Cornette de Saint Cyr, 6 avenue Hoche, 75008 Paris
Enquiries: Claire Tang|+33 (0) 188 800 014