From Dynasty to the Republic: The H.H. Kung Collection, forged in a time of unrest, once again performs strongly at auction

 

Usually in art collections, the focus is drawn to big-name artists whose work is adored by untold numbers of people. However, sometimes the collectors they originate from can tell an interesting story. This is much the case with the Kung Hsiang-Hsi family collection presented by Christie’s Hong Kong in the spring of 2024, as it was built with immense family wealth and put together when the country was beset by war and civil strife.  

Kung Hsiang-Hsi and his wife Soong Ai-Ling were economic and political powerhouses in Republican China. Kung, otherwise known in the West as H.H. Kung, was possibly the richest man in China during his lifetime, and helped guide the Republic into economic modernity. His wife was from a political dynasty comparable to the Kennedys who were tied by marriage to people such as Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai Shek. 

The collection Kung and Soong assembled is worthy of their vast privilege, wealth, and prestige. It includes a variety of pieces by modern masters who dedicated their work to the couple, timeless jewelry pieces, and even works crafted by the Qing Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799).

Unsurprisingly the collection has sold incredibly well and accurately represents the quality of the work the couple amassed. This spring the 24 lots that were sold between the contemporary and classical sales all found buyers. Furthermore, 18 of those lots sold above their high estimate, with many by considerable margins. Thus, who was this family that managed to acquire such fine works and how did their background enable a collection that is revered even today?


H.H. Kung Family Collection | Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) | Calligraphic Couplet in Clerical Script, each scroll 333.5 x 34 cm | Sold: HK$5,544,000 (around US$709,000) Christie’s Hong Kong, 2024| Sold for 9 times the low estimate 


H.H. Kung as Nationalist China’s Minister of Industry and Commerce in 1929. Source: Oberlin College Archives

Considered possibly the richest man of his era in China, H.H. Kung was born into wealth, as his family was affluent and engaged in various business dealings. Kung himself was born in 1880 in the twilight years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and was able to secure for himself a Westernized education both in China and abroad. 

After studying in a mission school and the North China Union College Kung went to America.  In the States, he first studied at Oberlin College, Ohio before going on to study at Yale University in Connecticut. At Yale, he’d earn his master’s in economics, before returning to China making his knowledge of modern development useful to local warlords following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912.

Eventually, Kung would be involved in establishing the Ming Hsien a network of Christian schools across China. It would be here that he met Soong Ai-Ling whom Kung would marry in 1914.

H.H. Kung Family Collection | Fu Baoshi (104-1965) | Song of the Pipa Player (1945), 113 x 66 cm | Sold: HK$204,850,000 (around US$26 million) Christie’s Hong Kong, 2017 | Sold twice with Christie's with the second time as a standalone special sale. 

No quote better illustrates the Soong sisters and their marriages better than how Mao Zedong described them, “One loved money, one loved power, one loved her country.” Of the three Soong Ai-Ling was the one who craved wealth.

Like the Kennedys, Roosevelts, or Mitfords they were a multi-generational political dynasty who held great political power in various positions across China at the time, as one of the big four families of the Republic. Their brother T.V. Soong was a notable KMT minister while the three sisters would marry various key KMT figures.

Besides Soong Ai-Ling, the middle sister: Soong Ching-Ling would marry KMT founder and the pioneer of Chinese Republicanism Dr. Sun Yat Sen. The youngest sister Soong Mei-Ling would marry the future president of the Republic of China, and later Taiwan, Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek. To highlight their fame to those not familiar, inter-familial drama and relationships have often been portrayed and sensationalized in both television and movies.

Soong Ai-Ling and H.H. Kung


H.H. Kung Family Collection | Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) | Lotus Pond (20th Century), 95 x 179.5 cm | Sold: HK$20,840,000 (around US$2.62 million) Christie’s Hong Kong, 2015 | The work sold for nearly 14 times its low estimate

Kung was not only a KMT inner party member through marriage, as he was already an early supporter of Sung Yat-Sen and his republican movement. When the KMT became the ruling power in China he was entrusted with various positions of ministerial power.

In Chiang’s government, Kung occupied various important positions such as Minister of Finance (1933-1944), Governor of the Central Bank of China (1933-1944), and Premier of the Republic of China (1938-1944). 

Kung would also function as a diplomat, with him representing China in an official capacity to both Germany and the United States. Later in his career, the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) broke out and during this chaos, Kung’s power within the KMT grew.


Wendell Wilkie, Soong Mei-Ling, H.H. Kung, and Soong Ai-Ling, pictured here together in 1942 in Henan Province. Source: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries


H.H. Kung Family Collection | Zhang Shuqi (1900-1957) | Doves and Flowers, 66 x 132 cm | Sold: HK$5,080,000 (around US$650,000) Christie’s Hong Kong, 2015 | Sold for nearly 17 times its high estimate

It was possibly during this era that the Kung family collection found its origins. One of Kung’s great fascinations seemed to be with the patronage of the arts as seen with the artwork sold in the modern art sale that was dedicated specifically to him.

Parts of the collection contained art from Kung’s time. Paintings by people such as Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) and Lin Fingmian (1900-1991) have been sold with Christie’s showcasing how in touch he was with the style of his time and his patronage of then-modern artists.

It should also be noted that Kung’s time in the West may have exposed him to more Westernized ideas in art such as abstraction, and so while those he patronized in art were ultimately Chinese there are Western sensibilities baked into what art he added to his collection.

H.H. Kung Family Collection | Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) | Two Villagers, 64.5 x 33.5 cm | Sold: HK$126,000 (around US$15,000) Christie’s Hong Kong, 2024 | Sold for double the low estimate

However, this focus on modernity and the West did not numb Kung to the artistry of the past. The highest-selling piece from the collection this year is a pair of calligraphy scrolls written by the Qianlong Emperor, the former ruler of the Qing Dynasty. This fascination with the Qing didn’t end there as the top-selling ceramics piece from 2015 was a vase also from the Qianlong era.

H.H. Kung Family Collection | Ru-Type Glazed Cong-Form Vase | Qianlong six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1736-1795)| Sold: HK$6,040,000 (around US$773,000) Christie’s Hong Kong, 2015 | Sold for 10 times the low estimate

Finally, the couple also appeared to like fine jewelry as well, as a jade ring from the collection in 2015 sold incredibly well with Christie’s jewelry department. What astounds experts, aside from the jade’s quality, is how timeless the piece is. Its style and design have not been aged by evolving tastes over the years.


H.H. Kung Family Collection | A Jadeite and Diamond Ring | Octagonal Emerald Green Jadeite Plaque, single-cut diamond shoulders, 18k white gold | Sold: HK$18,040,000 (around US$2.3 million) Christie’s Hong Kong, 2015 | Sold for 27times the low estimate

As the Japanese invasion of China ended and the KMT’s position in China became untenable with the civil war Kung didn’t go to Taiwan with Chiang and other key officials. Instead, Kung retired to the United States. In America, Kung and Soong Ai-Ling would live in New York State with Kung passing away in 1967 and Soong in 1973. The couple had four children.

When Kung and Soong left for America they brought their immense wealth with them, which included their vast painting collection, which has been sold at Christie’s on several occasions.

H.H. Kung Family Collection | Huang Shen (1687-1772) | Bird and Lotus, 67.3 x 137.2 cm | Sold: HK$50,400 (around US$6,400) Christie’s Hong Kong, 2024

The 2024 sale was the third time items from the Kung family collection were sold by Christie’s with there being sales in both 2015 and 2017 of their work. In 2015 Kung family paintings, jewels, and ceramics were sold with 96% of all Kung family items being auctioned off. The 2015 sale also saw the combined total of all Kung family items reaching HK$185.4 million (around US$24 million) five times the presale estimate.

In 2017 Christie’s held a special sale for one specific work from the H.H. Kung family collection. This was The Song of the Pipa Player by Fu Baoshi (1904-1965), sold at Christie’s Hong Kong An Ode to the Past- Fu Baoshi’s The Song of the Pipa Player Previously from the collection of H.H. K’ung on the 28th of November 2017. 

This one work, which had an entire sale devoted to it was first sold by Christie’s directly from the H.H. Kung collection in 2010. Even then it was an esteemed piece that broke the record for the most expensive Fu Boashi painting sold at that point, going for HK$70,100,000 (around US$9 million).

The follow-up sale seven years later saw the painting hit an all-time high going for HK$204,850,000 (around US$26 million) in a display of the eye for Chinese art that H.H. Kung and Soong Ai-Ling had and their ability to source such an exquisite work.


H.H. Kung Family Collection | Yu Youren (1879-1964) | Five-character Calligraphic Couplet in Running Script, each scroll 167.5 x 38.7 cm | Sold: HK$1,134,000 (around US$145,000) Christie’s Hong Kong, 2024| Specially dedicated to H.H. Kung by the painter, and sold for around 5.5 times its low estimate

Now seven years since the last sale, another collection of H.H. Kung works has gone through Christie’s with their 2024 spring sale. In a testament to the quality of the collection that the Kung family amassed through their wealth, all 24 lots made available were sold and 75% surpassed high estimates.

The appearance of more of these works onto the general market is of major benefit to both the art and history community, as these privately held works enter the public eye to enjoy. They also showcase a side of the H.H. Kung legacy not normally understood by historians, and the legacy of works of art taken out of Mainland China during the chaos that was the early 20th century.

H.H. Kung Family Collection | Shi Xuyun (?-1959) | Calligraphy in Regular Script, 100.5 x 54 cm | Sold: HK$882,000 (around US$113,000) Christie’s Hong Kong, 2024| Specially dedicated to H.H. Kung by the painter, and sold for 88 times its low estimate