Prized Collection From the Irvings to Be Offered at Christie’s Asia Week in New York

Florence and the late Herbert Irving, the co-founder of the food services giant Sysco Corporation, had been keen on Asian art. Like many great collectors, they liked to share the delectation of their acquisitions. They donated over US$100m and more than 1,300 objects to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nevertheless, the couple kept many of their favourite pieces for their Manhattan apartment. Their highly prized collection of Asian artefacts will come up for sale at Christie’s in March during the New York Asia Week.

The Fifth Avenue apartment that Florence and Herbert Irving lived

Long-time New York City philanthropists, The Irving family had two major philanthropic interests: cancer research and Asian art. They donated more than US$1 billion in total to institutions such as the Met, and Columbia University and NewYork-Presbyterian. Their modest upbringing always reminded them of the importance of sharing their later success with the less fortunate.

Herbert and Florence were born in Brooklyn, in 1917 and 1920 respectively. Herbert Irving’s mother died when he was just thirteen years old, leaving him to be raised by his aunts in the Bronx. Florence Irving described her own father as “a gambler and an entrepreneur” “I went to school one day in a chauffeured car,” she recalled of her family’s tenuous circumstances, “and the next day didn’t have enough money to take the trolley.”

Florence & Herbert Irving

Herbert Irving studied Economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School by the age of sixteen. He paid for his education by working jobs throughout the year, including as a summertime waiter. A fellow server introduced Mr. Irving to his sister, Florence Rapoport, a student at New York University who would become Mr. Irving’s beloved wife and partner in art, family, and philanthropy for over seventy-five years.

They married in 1941 and Mr. Irving soon enlisted in the United States Army, and in 1943 joined the conflict in Europe. After returning from active service in the Second World War, Herbert went on to found Global Frozen Foods, a New York-based firm that catered to the nation’s growing demand for frozen produce and foodstuffs.

An Important and Extremely Rare Imperially Inscribed Greenish-White Jade ''Twin Fish'' Washer. Qing dynasty, Qianlong|Estimate: US$1m-1.5m

A Yellowish-Green Jade Ruyi Scepter. Qing dynasty, 18th-centuryEstimate: US$120,000-180,000

Florence and Herbert Irving donated over 1,300 works of art to the Met

With fellow food service businessmen, Mr. Irving formed the Sysco Corporation, which evolved into the world’s largest distributor of food products. He stepped down as vice chairman in 1992 and remained on Sysco’s board for two more years. On 3 October 2016, Mr. Irving died on at his home in Manhattan at the age of 98.

A Silver- And Copper-Inlaid Bronze Figure of a Buddha. Western Tibet, 11th-12th Century|US$100,000-150,000

A Large Spinach-Green Jade Tripod Censer and Cover. Qing dynasty. 18th Century|US$50,000-70,000

Sysco is a food service giant in distributing food products

Robert H. Ellsworth (left) and Alice Boney (centre)

The Irvings developed an interest in Asian art during a life-changing trip to Japan in 1967. They met the celebrated Asian art dealer Alice Boney, who introduced them to Oriental art. Boney sold the Irvings their first substantive Asian work of art and helped them grow their collection.

Alice Boney was a prominent dealer in Asian art and particularly Japanese art. She taught a younger generation of dealers and collectors and museum professionals a great deal. One of her famous students is Robert H. Ellsworth, an American art dealer of Asian paintings and furniture from the Ming dynasty.  

The two buddhist figures formerly belonged to the collection of Alice Boney and Robert H. Ellsworth

A Highly Important and Extremely Rare Gilt-Bronze Figure of A Multi-Armed Guanyin China, Yunnan, Dali Kingdom|US$4m-6m

A Rare Gilt-Bronze Standing Figure of An Acuoye Guanyin. China, Yunnan, Dali Kingdom, 12Th Century|US$2m-3m

Among those items offered at the upcoming sales, two Buddhist figures from Dali Kingdom were previously owned by Alice Boney and Robert H. Ellsworth. One is a gilt-bronze figure of a multi-armed Guanyin from Dali Kingdom, 11th-12th century, carrying an estimate of US$4m-6m. Another one is a rare gilt-bronze standing figure of an Acuoye Guanyin, also from Dali Kingdom, 11th-12th century, estimated at US$2m-3m.

Fu Baoshi. Lithe Like a Crane, Leisurely Like a Seagull|US$800,000-1.2m

The prized collection from the Irving family will be offered across three sales at Christie’s. Other highlights of the sales include a greenish-white jade “twin fish'' washer from the Qianlong period and paintings by masters like Fu Baoshi and Wu Guanzhong.

Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Address: 20 Rockefeller Center, New York

  • Lacquer, Jade, Bronze, Ink: The Irving Collection Evening Sale|20 March 2019, 7pm
  • Lacquer, Jade, Bronze, Ink: The Irving Collection Day Sale|21 March 2019, 10am, 2pm
  • Contemporary Clay: Yixing Pottery from the Irving Collection|19-26 March 2019 (online sale)

Viewings: 14 - 20 March 2019