Sotheby’s realises US$10.5 million with white glove sale of esteemed Chinese Collection

During this season’s Asia Week New York, Sotheby's A Journey Through China’s History: The Dr Wou Kiuan Collection Part I Sale saw remarkable results.

Son of a prominent statesman during early 20th century China, Dr. Wou’s Collection includes a comprehensive range of materials – such as bronzes, jades and sculptures.

Amongst the 147 lots offered, all were auctioned with no-reserve and estimates ranged from several thousands to nearly a million dollars. In the end, the auction house pulled off a white glove sale – amassing a sale total of US$10.5 million dollars. Many lots surpassed expectations, where their hammer prices were multiple times of their estimates – the highest was nearly 53 times when the hammer was dropped.

A 18th century Chinese Imperial jade boulder was the sale’s most expensive lot – it was sold at US$1.07 million dollars, with buyer’s premium.

Dr. Wou Kiuan
Before introducing the lots, who was Dr. Wou Kiuan?

Son of a prominent statesman during early 20th century China, Wou Kiuan went to study law in France aged 20 and later became a diplomat. Fascinated by Chinese art, he amassed a holistic collection of more than 1,000 pieces during the mid-1950s to the late 1960s. The works were acquired from some of the most distinguished collectors of the early 20th century – such as Sir Percival David and Alfred Morrison.

In 1968 and eager to promote Chinese art and culture, Dr. Wou set up a private museum in southern England in honour of his father, Wou Lienpai. Over the years, the Museum was a destination for academics and collectors.

Lot 24 Imperially Inscribed Pale Green Jade ‘Luohan’ Boulder

Created during the Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 31.9 cm

  • Collection of Madame Austin
  • Maître Etienne Ader, Commissaire Priseur, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 12th March 1962, Lot 105
  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-1997)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1968-present, Coll. No. M.7.16

Estimate: US$400,000 – 600,000

Hammer Price: US$850,000

Sold: US$1,071,000

The auctioneer started the bidding at US$200,000 dollars. After more than 10 bids, the hammer was dropped at US$850,000 dollars – more than double of its low estimate. In the end, it was sold for US$1.07 million dollars, with buyer’s premium. The winning bid was by an online buyer with paddle number 232.

This jade boulder is remarkable for its Luohan carving –set against the backdrop of a rough stone grotto, its large overall size and for its Imperial inscription. It represents a three-dimensional, sculptural version of circa 9th to 10 century CE painting which impressed the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795).

In 1757, during one of his Southern inspection tours, the Qianlong Emperor visited the Shengyin Temple in Hangzhou, eastern China, where he admired a set of paintings depicting the Sixteen Luohans. These paintings were created by 9th to 10th century Chan Buddhist Master, Guanxiu.

Rubbing from the Sixteen Luohan stone stele (1764)|Harvard Library
As a devotee of Buddhism, the Emperor recorded that he saw the masterpieces of Guanxiu and studied their content. According to the Master’s interpretation of their sequence, he reordered and reattributed the paintings. The Emperor also commissioned reproductions of the images with their new inscriptions in various media – including stone engravings, jade carvings and textiles.

The Shengyin Temple was destroyed and the original set of Guanxiu’s Luohan paintings appears to be lost. But their basic style is preserved in the engravings commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, of which rubbings exist.

Referring to a stone carving (now in the Fine Arts Library, Special Collections, Harvard University), the source of the shape of this jade boulder can be understood. The two Arhats are similar in shape – both seated and supported on a staff. According to the Imperial poem, this is the seventh Luohan – Venerable Kanakavatsa.

Lot 38 │ Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel and Cover (Fang Yi) │ Anyang

Created during late Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1046 BCE)
Height: 20 cm

  • Collection of Armand Trampitsch (1890-1975), (by repute)
  • Maître Maurice Rheims, Commissaire-Priseur, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 6th/7th June 1956, Lot 105
  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-1997)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1968-present, Coll. No. E.4.12

Estimate: US$400,000 – 600,000

Hammer Price: US$700,000

Sold: US$882,000

The second most expensive lot was the archaic bronze ritual wine vessel. The hammer was dropped at US$700,000 dollars and sold at US$882,000 dollars with buyer’s premium.

This work has a single pictograph de , a clan or personal name cast inside the cover. It appears on a number of other late Shang bronzes – such as a gu in the Palace Museum, Beijing; a ding and a you in the Shanghai Museum.

The large taotie masks covering the main part of the sides – with their bold horns, pointed ears and curled fangs – set a solemn tone. They are repeated on the cover, but turned the other way round – intended to be read from the top, inducing the audience to view the object from another angle and show its three-dimensionality.

The inscription of the word de on this archaic bronze ritual wine vessel

A bronze wine vessel and cover (fang yi│ Excavated from Fu Hao's tomb in Henan, central China │ National Museum of China, Beijing
This present fang yi represents Chinese bronze art at its height – when the Anyang style reached its mature phase. The closest comparisons come from Fu Hao’s tomb, the sole Shang royal tomb discovered at Yinxu – site of the late Shang capital in Anyang, central China.

Fu Hao was a consort of King Wu Ding and a remarkable woman in her own right. She was a military leader in several campaigns and was possibly a priestess. Her tomb, which dates from around 1200 BCE, was furnished with exceptionally fine and rare bronzes.

In 1956, Dr. Wou acquired this piece at the Maitre Maurice Rheims auction house in Paris. This fang yi previously belonged to the prominent French collector, Armand Trampitsch (1890-1975). He had an extensive collection of all major ancient civilisations – such as Chinese bronzes, jades and Buddhist sculptures.

Lot 47 │ Inscribed Gold Inlaid Bronze Tiger Tally (Hufu)

Created during Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) or later
Length: 9.8 cm

  • Collection of Professor D.M.S. Watson (1886-1973)
  • Sotheby's London, 9th October 1965, Lot 29
  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-1997)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1968-present, Coll. No. H.2.13

Estimate: US$40,000 – 60,000

Hammer Price: US$690,000

Sold: US$869,400

The third most expensive lot was this bronze tiger tally. The auctioneer started the auction at US$42,000 dollars. After more than 60 bids, the hammer was dropped at US$690,000 dollars – more than 17 times of its low estimate. In the end, it fetched US$869,400 dollars with buyer’s premium.

Tiger tallies (hufu) were originally produced during the 5th to 3rd century BCE to bestow Imperial authority. Composed of two parts, one was given to the King, whilst the other belonged to his general. A general’s authority was to be activated when a messenger brought the king’s half and combined the pair. It has a twelve-character inscription, which says “tally of authority, the right to be kept by the emperor, the left to be kept at Yangling.”  

The National Museum of China has a Yangling tiger tally, dating from early 3rd century BCE, with the same inscription as this present one.

Yangling Tiger Tally (early 3rd century BCE) | National Museum of China

Lot 1 │ Inscribed Archaic Bronze Ritual Food Vessel Cover

Created during late Western Zhou dynasty (circa 1045-771 BCE)
Diameter: 22.6 cm

  • Collection of His Excellency Hugues Le Gallais (1896-1964)
  • Sotheby's London, 11th November 1958, Lot 80
  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-1997)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1968-present, Coll. No. E.6.4

Estimate: US$4,000 – 6,000

Hammer Price: US$210,000

Sold: US$264,600

During the sale, the lot that raised eyebrows was a bronze gui cover from circa 9th to 8th century BCE. With its estimate and cover similar to one recorded from the 10th to 12 century, it attracted many bids.

The auctioneer started the bidding at US$2,000 dollars. It was hammered at US$210,000 dollars – 52.5 times its low estimate. The winning bid was won by Hang Yin (Specialist in Chinese Art Department, New York), for his client with paddle number L0103. In the end, this work sold for US$260,000 dollars with buyer's premium. 

The present cover's form and inscription closely match the Shi Zhang Fu gui cover illustrated in Xuanhe bogu tulu (Illustrated catalogue of antique treasures from the Xuanhe Hall). Commissioned by the Emperor Huizong (reigned 1100-1126), Xuanhe bogu tulu is the first systematic catalogue of archaic bronzes from an Imperial collection in China's history. Highly influential, the book has been referenced frequently by scholars.

If this is really recorded, then this is the first ever surviving bronze from the Northern Song (10th-12th century) Imperial Chinese Collection appearing in the market.

Shi Zhang Fu gui cover, illustrated in Xuanhe bogu tulu (Illustrated Catalogue of Antique Treasures from the Xuanhe Hall) 

Left: Line drawing illustrated in the Xuanhe bogu tulu, Boruzhai Edition (1588); Right: Photo of the present lot 

(Left to right): Woodblock print of the inscription in the Xuanhe bogu tulu, Boruzhai Edition; Inscription of the present lot; Rubbing of the inscription of the present lot 

There are different interpretations of the second character in the inscription. The Xuanhe bogu tulu records it as zhang , with being the left radical. The more modern publications identify it as chang 立長, with as the left radical. This is probably caused by the slight variation of this character in different versions of the Xuanhe bogu tulu.

The original Xuanhe bogu tulu does not appear to be preserved. The only available versions now are later reprints of the 10th to 12 century edition, and there are usually some discrepancies amongst the different versions. A closer examination of this character on the present cover reveals the left radical is /. It should then read 攴長/攵長, which does not appear to be a previously recognised character.

Other highlight lots: 

Lot 6 Inscribed Archaic Bronze Ritual Food Vessel (Ding)

Created during late Western Zhou dynasty / Early Spring and Autumn period (circa 9th century-7th century BCE)
Width: 36 cm

  • Collection of Fang Huanjing
  • Collection of Fei Nianci (1855-1905)
  • Collection of Liu Tizhi (1879-1962)
  • Christie's London, 6th June 1955, Lot 162
  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-1997)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1968-present, Coll. No. E.7.14

Estimate: US$100,000 – 150,000

Hammer Price: US$450,000

Sold: US$567,000

Lot 11 │ Large Blue and White ‘Lotus Bouquet’ Charger

Created during Yongle period (1402-1424)
Diameter: 40.3 cm

  • Private Collection
  • Christie's London, 5th June 1972, Lot 85
  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-1997)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1972-present, Coll. No. M.7.9

Estimate: US$100,000 – 150,000

Hammer Price: US$360,000

Sold: US$453,600

Lot 33 Green Jade Cong Liangzhu Culture 

Created during Neolithic period (circa 7000-1700 BCE)
Diameter: 5.9 cm

  • Sotheby's London, 11th July 1967, Lot 55
  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-1997)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1968-present, Coll. No. E.3.3

Estimate: US$25,000 – 35,000

Hammer Price: US$210,000

Sold: US$264,600

Lot 63 Attributed to Qiu Ying Boating on the river, Ink and colour on paper, fan

Created during circa 16th century
Width: 29.8 cm

  • Collection of Sir Percival (1892-1964) and Lady David (1914-1995)
  • Sotheby's London, 5th December 1961, Lot 142
  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-1997)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1968-present, Coll. No. M.4.14

Estimate: US$4,000 – 6,000

Hammer Price: US$75,000

Sold: US$94,500

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s New York

Sale: A Journey Through China’s History: The Dr Wou Kiuan Collection Part I

Sale Date: 22 March 2022

Number of lots: 147

Sale Rate: 100%

Sale Total: US$10,577,700