Spinach-Green Jade 'Dragon' Washer from the Met Fetches US$1.3m at Sotheby's, Over Ten Times Its Low Estimate

A selection of Chinese works of art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was offered in a dedicated sale at Sotheby's New York. Entitled Chinese Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Florence and Herbert Irving Gift, the sale achieved a sale total of US$8.3m, far exceeding its presale estimate between US$2.6m-3.8m. This sale featured 127 lots of Chines works of art originally gifted by philanthropists and renowned Asian art collectors Florence and Herbert Irving to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The offerings include exquisite Imperial Qianlong period jades, brushpots, paintings and objects for the scholar’s studio.

Before we move on to the sale result, let's get to know more about the illustrious provenance of the collection, an important factors that contributed to the success of the sale. Florence and Herbert Irving, the co-founder of the food services giant Sysco Corporation, were avid collectors in Asian art. Long-time New York City philanthropists, The Irvings developed a close relationship with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they held an important exhibition of their lacquer collection.

In March 2015, they donated 1,275 Asian works of art to the Met. The donation encompasses all of the major cultures of East and South Asia and virtually every medium explored by Asian craftsmen over five millennia. Part of the gifts, including those duplicate pieces, was offered at the current sale. The full proceeds of the sales will go into an Irving acquisition fund to be used by the Met’s Department of Asian Art to continue the Irving legacy.

Leading the sale was a massive spinach-green jade 'dragon' washer from the Qing dynasty, which was sold for US$1.34m, more than ten times its low estimate US$100,000. The basin, sometimes referred to as the ‘Du Mountain basin', is the earliest known jade carving of this monumental scale. The jade 'dragon' washer is carved to the exterior with a pair of dragons striding toward the rim to contest a 'Flaming Pearl', each dragon with bulging eyes. The interior is hollowed and incised at the well with a forty-eight-character poem composed by the Qianlong Emperor in the jichou year, corresponding to 1769, followed by two carved seals. The washer elicited intense bidding among telephone and room bidders. The price continued to soar and crossed the US$1m benchmark. The auctioneer put the hammer down at US$1.1m and sold it to the telephone client represented by Carrie Li, Senior Specialist of Chinese Works of Art Department.

The second top lot of the sale also took everyone by surprise. Estimated at US$80,000-120,000, an apple-green jadeite 'landscape' table screen, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period was sold for US$1.08m after premium. The table screen is carved to one side in relief with a riverscape, the water flowing diagonally from the upper right side and broadening toward the lower left corner, sailboats and fishing skiffs plying rippling waters. It is a pair to another table screen (image below) formerly in the collections of R.C. Bruce, H.M. Queen Marie of Yugoslavia, and Sir John Woolf. Both screens are possibly showing two different views of West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, the capital city of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). The pair to this piece appears to depict Solitary Mountain (Gushan), an island in the West Lake connected to land through a series of bridges, while the present example may depict the tall Leifeng pagoda in the distance, and the Jingci temple at the foot of Nanping Hill. 

The bidding started at US$50,000 and went all the way up. It was hammered down to a room bidder for US$880,000 and sold for US$1.076m after premium.

Ranking in the third place is a celadon russet jade ‘quail and millet’ boulder, Qing dynasty, Yongzheng/Qianlong period, which carried an estimate between US$150,000-250,000. This piece is a remarkable example of a jade mountain carving (yushan) that every detail of the design from birds and sprays of millet which give the impression of being modelled entirely in the round, to flowing water in the foreground and overhanging rocks.

Quails, in China called anchun, are highly auspicious, since ‘an’ is a homophone of the word for peace. Depictions of quails among ears of millet are symbolic of abundance and express the wish for peace year after year (suisui ping’an). The boulder was hammered down at US$650,000, a price far supassing its estimate, and sold for US$800,000 after premium.

Though a number of lots were hammered down for prices beyond their estimate, the cover lot of the sale – a spinach-green jade 'immorals' brushspot, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, was not one of them. Estimated at US$500,000-700,000, the brushpot boasts an attractive provenance that it was formely in the renowned Fonthill collection owned by English collector Alfred Morrison. The brushpot was hammered down at US$300,000 and sold for US$375,000 to an online bidder.

Top three lots

A Massive Inscribed Spinach-green Jade 'Dragon' Washer
Qing Dynasty

Lot no.: 20
Width: 21.2cm

  • Collection of Sir Isaac (1897-1991) and Lady Wolfson.
  • Sotheby's London, 8th June 1982, lot 311.
  • Collection of Florence (1920-2018) and Herbert (1917-2016) Irving, no. 402.

Estimate: US$100,000-150,000
Hammer price: US$1,100,000
Price realised: US$1,340,000

An Exceptionally Rare Apple-green Jadeite 'Landscape' Table Screen
Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period

Lot no.: 10
Width: 21.2cm

  • Collection of Sir Isaac (1897-1991) and Lady Wolfson.
  • Sotheby's London, 8th June 1982, lot 311.
  • Collection of Florence (1920-2018) and Herbert (1917-2016) Irving, no. 402.

Estimate: US$80,000-120,000
Hammer price: US$880,000
Price realised: US$1,076,000

A Rare Celadon and Russet Jade 'Quail and Millet' Boulder
Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng / Qianlong Period

Lot no.: 7
Length: 15.5cm

  • Christie’s London, 8th April 1978, lot 148.
  • Collection of Floyd and Josephine Segel.
  • Spink & Son, London, 8th April 1986.
  • Collection of Florence (1920-2018) and Herbert (1917-2016) Irving, no. 454.

Estimate: US$150,000-250,000
Hammer price: US$650,000
Price realised: US$800,000

Auction details:

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Chinese Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Florence and Herbert Irving Gift
Date: 10 September 2019|10am
Lots offered: 127
Sold: 116
Sold by lot: 91.3%
Sale total: US$8,274,875