"A living, breathing collection": Interview with Ellen Hotung on her father's wide array of chef-d'oeuvres

During October and December 2022, Sotheby’s Hong Kong and London will hold auctions of the late Sir Joseph Hotung Collection. A scion of a prominent Hong Kong family, he was a distinguished art collector and philanthropist. As a trustee of the British Museum, he donated many antiques and sponsored the refurbishment of exhibition halls named after him – where Queen Elizabeth II came to its inauguration in 2017.

Featuring more than 400 works, the sale will offer a wide range of oeuvres – Chinese art and furniture, Old Masters and Impressionist paintings, as well as European furniture and silverware. In Hong Kong, a 13th to 14th century blue-and-white 'fish' jar leads the sale and is estimated at around US$2.5 to 3.1 million dollars. In London, French painter Edgar Degas’ Portrait of Eugene Manet, heads the sale and is estimated at around US$4.6 to 7 million) dollars.

The Value talked to Ellen – Sir Joseph’s daughter – to find out about a more intimate side to her father and his art collection.

Buddhist sculptures and Chinese works of art were displayed at Sir Joseph's London home

Before checking out Ellen's responses, let us take look at her father's role as an avid art collector and generous philanthropist – where he invested in various cultural institutions. 

For example, in 1992, Sir Joseph funded the establishment of the British Museum’s The Joseph E. Hotung Gallery of Oriental Antiquities, and later donated a large collection of Chinese art. Then, in 1993, he was knighted by the Queen. After its first refurbishment in 1992, the British Museum's Room 33 called Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia was again revamped in 2017. It was officially re-opened and Queen Elizabeth II came to the inauguration ceremony in person.

At the British Museum, visitors can check out nearly 1,700 pieces from Sir David's Chinese ceramics collection. Originally housed at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; many pieces were at stake due to financial difficulties. Fortunately, Sir Joseph provided funds for new galleries to display at the British Museum. In 2009, the galleries opened and are part of the Sir Joseph Hotung Centre for Ceramic Studies, which includes facilities to use the collection for teaching and research.

During the final stages of his life, Sir Joseph bequeathed different works of art – such as Chinese blue-and-white porcelains, jades and bronzes – to the British Museum. Collectively, these donations were one of its most generous donations ever received by the museum.

Degas' Portrait of Eugene Manet was housed in Sir Joseph Hotung's home (top centre)

In 2017, the British Museum's Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia officially re-opened, and Queen Elizabeth II was accompanied with Sir Joseph Hotung 

Growing up, how was it like living in the residence where these art treasures were kept?

Growing up our home in Hong Kong was filled with beautiful things and elegantly furnished. I always recognised that my father had refined taste. Though it was not until I began visiting museums and studying art in school that I realised many of the works decorating our walls were by world renowned artists.

I was a teenager when he first began to collect archaic jades. In the evenings, we would sit together in his library and open the small paper packages he had purchased that day containing beautiful centuries old works of art. He particularly loved mythical jade animals, so it was always especially fun when we would unwrap one.

Blue and White ‘Fish’ Jar, Guan | Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2022; The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung Sale | Estimate: HK$20,000,000 – 25,000,000 

Gilt Bronze Seated Figure of Avalokiteshvara | Created during the 11th-12th century | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2022; The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung Sale | Estimate: HK$15,000,000 – 20,000,000

Amongst this collection, which artwork is the most meaningful to you? Why?

It was always exciting when a new painting or artwork came to live in our home. I remember vividly when the Frans Hals painting was acquired. It was positioned in a place of honour in the library where we would congregate most evenings for a glass of wine before dinner. The subject in the painting has such an affable nature depicted in his expression and repose. It was as though he was a family friend participating in the evening’s conversation. He has always been a favourite of mine.

Frans Hals and Studio's Portrait of a Man, three-quarter in length | Oil on canvas | Sotheby's London, 2022; The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung Sale | Estimate: £600,000 – 800,000

Edgar Degas' Portrait of Eugene Manet (1874) | Oil on paper laid down on board | Sotheby's London, 2022; The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung Sale | Estimate: £4,000,000 – 6,000,000

Which artwork did your father treasure the most?

All the works being sold at Sotheby’s formed the backdrop to my father’s life at home. Nothing in the auction was tucked away in an attic or basement. Everything was on display and assembled in a very natural and beautifully curated way.

He was always moving things around the house to look at, and to hold – it was very much a living, breathing collection that was very dear to him. Every single piece spoke to him in some way. With regards to most treasured, I do know that he particularly loved the Degas portrait that hung in his living room for many years. He won that at auction in New York, following a bidding battle, so there was a real feeling of celebration.

Jades such as this archaic cong (square tube) was part of Sir Joseph Hotung's Collection and now housed the British Museum 

Alongside the cong, this exquisitely designed 18th-century Chinese brushpot can be found at the British Museum 

Throughout his life, Sir Joseph interweaved between East-West cultures. Was this mixture of identities reflected in his collection?

Without a doubt my father’s heritage played a big role in his love of Chinese art. His passion for collecting only began in the 1970s when his plane was delayed in San Francisco. He wandered into an art gallery and impulsively purchased a lovely pair of jade bowls. He was captivated by the beauty of these translucent, perfectly shaped, identical twin objects.

As with everything that interested him, he began to extensively research and study Chinese jades. My father always used a magnifying glass when looking at intricately carved pieces. He very much admired the craftsmanship and would comment on the hours it must have taken to painstakingly carve these incredible pieces. He would marvel at how advanced the Chinese were compared to other cultures. I think he was just in awe of these artists and what they were able to achieve.

Edouard Vuillard's Les Messieurs en noir (Gentlemen in Black, circa 1895-1899) | Oil on board | Sotheby's London, 2022; The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung Sale | Estimate: £2,000,000 – 3,000,000

Edouard Vuillard's Au Divan Japonais (At the Divan Japonais, circa 1890-1891) | Sotheby's London, 2022; The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung Sale | Estimate: £1,500,000 – 2,000,000

Could you share his tips for collecting?

He always looked for strong works of art, those of the highest quality and workmanship. He would never buy an object that he did not examine personally. It was his number one rule when it came to collecting and he would stress it repeatedly. A piece had to strike a chord with him and if it did then he did his best to acquire it.  However, he was not casual about money in fact you could say that he was careful. Some people just have an eye for recognizing quality artwork – he was a natural.

We were taught by my father that art did not belong to any one person, rather we are stewards, and our role is to ensure that the objects in our possession live on for the next generation and beyond.

Chinese Buddhist works are displayed at the British Museum's Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia

Struck by their power and strength, the late collector collected many Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) blue-and-white porcelain wares – such as this 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' Jar

Alongside his personal collection, Sir Joseph also actively assists many museums in organizing their collections. As such, did he share these experiences with you? If so, which ones?

The art left to the British Museum includes those jades currently on display in the jade gallery as well as 15 blue and whites that comprised the heart of his porcelain collection. It was very important that the collections be left intact and displayed as a whole. My father felt that having great Chinese art on display in the British Museum would encourage people to travel to Hong Kong and China and around the world to see where the art was created. It was his hope that they would meet people different from themselves and explore their cultures.

Having served as the first chairman of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, Sir Joseph helped grow the arts and culture field in a city renowned for commerce

Having been a supporter of educational and arts institutions, how important of a role did art play in his life?

Art and education went hand in hand for my father and both were equally important. My father supported the arts because he believed it was the universal language of education. He said that art cuts across the boundaries of language, culture, history, and ethnicity. However, he would not support the arts if he did not believe in education. He often stated that it is not important who your forebears are or were but who you are and what you can do. He would say that you could lose all your money, but you cannot lose your skills.

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s
Sale: Hotung | The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung
Auction Dates and Time:

  • Hong Kong | 8 – 9 October 2022 
  • London | 7 – 8 December