Christie’s Notches US$17.8m Evening Sale with Prized Irving Collection, Led by US$2.89m Jade Washer

The highly anticipated sale of the Irving collection was held at Christie’s in New York on 20 March. The sale pulled off an extraordinary result, realising a total of US$17,894,750. As expected, many lots were sold for prices far exceeding the estimates.

The only setback that ruined the sale’s white-glove performance was, surprisingly, the leading gilt-bronze figure of a multi-armed guanyin, Dali Kingdom, estimated at US$4m-6m, being bought-in. While another top lot, a bronze standing figure of an Acuoye Guanyin, was sold for a price below its low estimate.

The leading gilt-bronze figure of a multi-armed guanyin, Dali Kingdom, estimated at US$4m-6m, failed to sell

The success of the evening sale could be attributed to three factors. The high reputation of the Irvings among collectors has boosted buyers’ confidence. And it was further enhanced by the illustrious provenance since many lots were acquired from legendary antiques dealers such as Alice Boney, Robert H. Ellsworth, and Spink & Son etc. Moreover, these works of art have been kept in the Irving collection since the 70s-90s. It is the first time they went up to auction after being in the private collection for decades.

Florence and the late Herbert Irving were long-time New York City philanthropists

The Fifth Avenue apartment that Florence and Herbert Irving lived

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.

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

The evening sale offered a total of 26 pieces with a sum of estimate over US$10m. Other parts of the collection will be spread across a day sale on 21 March with offerings of lacquer, jade, bronze and ink, as well as an online sale dedicated to contemporary clay.

A mottled pale greenish-white and russet jade rectangular pillow, Ming dynasty (1368-1644) or later was sold for US$60,000

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

The first lot of the sale, a mottled pale greenish-white and russet jade rectangular pillow, was the first substantive piece of Asian art the Irvings collected from the celebrated Asian art dealer Alice Boney, who introduced them to Oriental art. Alice Boney was a preeminent 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 bidding started at US$9,500 and the jade pillow was hammered down at US$48,000, 48 times its low estimate of US$10,000. It was sold for US$60,000 with premium included to a gentleman in the room.

A rare greenish-white jade ‘twin fish’ washer from the Qianlong period was sold for US$2.89m

The base is inscribed with a forty-character imperial poem

The following six lots were all Qianlong jade pieces, among which was a rare greenish-white jade ‘twin fish’ washer, inscribed on the base with a forty-character imperial poem. Next to the inscription are two square seals - one has the characters in gold on the pale jade ground and the other, in reverse, has the characters reserved against a gilt ground. The two seals may be read as: “Son of Heaven at Seventy” (古稀天子) and “Still Diligent Every Day” (猶日孜孜).

It is the largest of three known Qianlong jade washers of this form with two archaic-style fish carved on the interior. The current example is the largest with a diameter of 25.4 cm and five low, neatly carved feet. The fish carved on these washers have been deliberately rendered in archaistic style, with the two fish carved side by side in high relief, and slightly under-cut, in a more formal style than is commonly seen on other jade pieces.

Read more: A Jade ‘Twin Fish’ Washer Shows How the Qianlong Emperor Takes Pride in Himself

Opened at US$600,000, the price soared to US$1.5m after 13 bid increments. The bidding battle was then narrowed down to a duel between a gentleman in the room and Ada Ong, Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, Taipei, who was bidding on behalf of her client. The auctioneer put the hammer down at US$2.4m and sold the jade washer for US$2.89m to Ong’s telephone bidder. The buyer is believed to be an important low-profile collector from mainland China who has been keeping a low profile.

Lacquer works of art also elicited strong interest from bidders. For instance, a red lacquer mallet-form vase from Ming dynasty, 15th-16th century, started at US$150,000. It was hammered down at US$780,000 and sold for US$950,000. The vase is a fine example of the centuries-old tradition in the Chinese applied arts of artisans working in one medium looking to other media and periods for inspiration. In the case of the present vase, a Song-Yuan dynasty Longquan celadon shape, the “mallet” vase, has been appropriated for the medium of carved lacquer.

A rare and finely carved red lacquer Mallet-form vase, Ming dynasty, 15th-16th century, was sold for US$951,000

A rare and finely carved red lacquer Daoist scripture box and cover was sold for US$1,035,000

Another notable lacquer lot was a Daoist scripture box and cover, estimated at US$150,000-250,000. The auctioneer started the bidding at US$85,000 and the price went steadily up to US$170,000. A gentleman in the room took everyone by surprise by raising the next increment by more than US$300,000 to US$500,000. Yet, it didn’t scare off other bidders and they further pushed the price up to US$580,000.

The room bidder decided to use the same strategy again by increasing the next bid to US$800,000, a move that followed by a round of applause in the room. The auctioneer brought the hammer down at US$850,000 and sold the box for US$1.03m, a winning bid by the gentleman.

A rare and finely carved red lacquer Daoist scripture box and cover

A rare and finely carved red lacquer Daoist scripture box and cover

The box appears to depict Wenchang, the Daoist god of Literature and Culture, seated holding a hu tablet on a throne at the top. The assembly includes gods dressed as officials holding hu tablets, intermixed with other gods holding discs of the Twelve Animals of the Zodiac, some figures with dragon, bird or animal heads, guardian figures and a central figure of Marshal Wang (Wang Yuanshuai) standing on a flaming wheel.

Moving on to the two leading Buddhist figures from Dali Kingdom (Yunnan, China), 11-12th century. Due to the short history of the Dali Kingdom, which lasted for 315 years only, Dali sculptures are rare. Many of them are now lost due to the invasion in the Dali Kingdom by the Mongols. Some were yet to be unearthed after being buried by the Dali people during the conquest.

*Read more: A Glimpse Into History of the Dali Kingdom in China Through Buddhist Sculptures

A gilt-bronze figure of a multi-armed guanyin from Dali Kingdom

A gilt-bronze figure of a multi-armed guanyin from Dali Kingdom

It is therefore extremely rare to find Dali sculptures in a well-preserved condition. A number of examples are now kept in the collection of major museums around the world or in private hands.

These two Buddhist figures from the Irving collection were previously owned by prominent dealers Alice Boney and Robert H. Ellsworth respectively. Given the rarity and the impeccable provenance, the auction house had placed the highest estimates on these two lots. Yet, the results of both had regrettably fell short of expectation.

A gilt-bronze standing figure of an Acuoye Guanyin was sold for US$1.93m

Giuseppe Eskenazi, the Godfather of Chinese Art, is the new owner

A gilt-bronze standing figure of an Acuoye Guanyin, estimated at US$2m-3m, opened at a conservative price at US$700,000. It was hammered down at US$1.6m due to the lack of enthusiasm from bidders. It was sold for US$1.93m to Giuseppe Eskenazi, one of the world’s most esteemed dealers of Chinese Art. Whereas a gilt-bronze figure of a multi-armed guanyin, estimated at US$4m-6m, was bought-in after receiving only three bid increments.

A rare bronze figure of Shiva Nataraja, South India, Tamil Nadu, Chola period, 13th century

Four lots from the ending part capped off the sale on a strong note with remarkable results. A bronze figure of Shiva Nataraja, South India, Tamil Nadu, Chola period, 13th century, was sold for US$1.03m against its low estimate of US$100,000.

The present figure depicts the deity Shiva in his most dynamic form, that of the Nataraja, or ‘lord of the dance.” Standing with one leg raised and his arms extended around him, Shiva performs the ritual tandava dance, which in its entirety symbolizes the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe.

Fu Baoshi’s Lithe Like a Crane, Leisurely Like a Seagull was sold for US$1.815m

Fu Baoshi

Fu Baoshi’s Lithe Like a Crane, Leisurely Like a Seagull, carried an estimate of US$800,000. It was hammered down at US$1.5m and sold for US$1.81m to a gentleman in the room. The painting depicts Shao Sengmi (c. 1593-1642), one of the nine painters praised in Wu Weiye’s (1609-1672) poem titled “Song of the Nine Friends of Painting”.

Another highlight was a white jade “luohan” boulder from the Qianlong period (1736-1795), estimated at US$200,000. It was hammered down at US$900,000 and sold to a telephone bidder for US$1.09m (with premium included). The present boulder belongs to a group of jade carvings that first appeared in the late Ming to early Qing dynasties, depicting luohan (disciples of Buddha known as arhats in Sanskrit) within a mountainous grotto setting.

The only porcelain work of art offered at the sale, a small ge-type five-loved bottle vase with Yongzheng six-character seal mark, was sold for US$915,000, more than 10 times its estimate of US$80,000.

The glaze on the present vase is based on that of Song-dynasty Ge ware, one of the ‘five famous wares of the Song dynasty’. Song-dynasty wares were highly admired by the Yongzheng emperor, a keen antiquarian who collected and studied material from earlier dynasties. The vase displays the sensitivity of the Yongzheng-period potters to the original Song-dynasty prototypes, by the use of a dark brown slip on the foot rim to conceal the underlying white porcelain body in imitation of the dark brownish-grey body associated with Song Ge wares.

Top three lots

An Important and Extremely Rare Imperially Inscribed Greenish-White Jade ''Twin Fish'' Washer
China, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Incised Four-character Mark and of the Period, Dated by Inscription to the Cyclical Bingwu Year, Corresponding to 1786

Lot no.: 806
Diameter: 25.4cm

  • Sotheby Parke Bernet, Hong Kong, 28-29 November 1979, lot 405.
  • Ashkenazie & Co., San Francisco, 1982.
  • The Irving Collection, no. 392.

Estimate: US$1,000,000 - 1,500,000
Hammer price: US$2,400,000
Price realised: US$2,895,000

A Rare Gilt-bronze Standing Figure of an Acuoye Guanyin
China, Yunnan, Dali Kingdom, 12th Century

Lot no.: 813
Height: 45.7cm

  • Private Collection, United States, acquired in Tokyo in 1946.
  • The property of a gentleman; Christie’s New York, 6 November 1980, lot 209.
  • Robert H. Ellsworth, New York.
  • The Irving Collection, no. 1949.

Estimate: US$2,000,000 - 3,000,000
Hammer price: US$1,600,000
Price realised: US$1,935,000

Fu Baoshi (China, 1904-1965). Lithe Like a Crane, Leisurely Like a Seagull
Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and color on paper

Lot no.: 817
Height: 45.2 x 67.8cm

  • Eastern Pacific Co., Hong Kong, 1988.
  • The Irving Collection, no. 1638.

Estimate: US$800,000 - 1,200,000
Hammer price: US$1,500,000
Price realised: US$1,815,000

Auction summary

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Lacquer, Jade, Bronze, Ink: The Irving Collection Evening Sale
Auction date: 20 March 2019
Lots offered: 26
Sold: 25
Unsold: 1
Sold by lots: 96%
Sale total: US$17,894,750