Yuan Chinese blue-and-white ‘fish’ dish from late Sir Joseph Hotung Collection to head HK sale

On 8 October, Sotheby’s Hong Kong will hold a string of auctions of the late Sir Joseph Hotung Collection.

An heir of a distinguished Hong Kong family, he was an eminent 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.

Leading the first section’s evening sale is a 13th- to 14th-century blue-and-white 'fish' dish from the Mongol Empire. It is estimated between HK$30 and 50 million (around US$3.8 to 6.3 million) dollars.

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 

The late Sir Joseph Hotung (1930-2021) was revered in the art world for both his jade collection and philanthropy. He embarked on a lifelong collector’s journey following the chance purchase of a pair of Qing dynasty jade bowls in the late 1970s.

During the decades that ensued, he assembled a large family of artworks from different periods and places – including a wide array of Chinese paintings and works of art – demonstrating not only his eclectic interests, but also a discerning taste.

Lot 13 | Moulded Blue and White Barbed ‘Fish’ Charger

Created during Yuan dynasty (1279-1368)
Diameter: 47.8 cm

  • Sotheby’s New York, 9th September 1987, lot 256 and cover
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London
  • Collection of T.T. Tsui, Jingguantang Collection, Hong Kong
  • Christie’s Hong Kong, 29th April 2002, Lot 607

Estimate: HK$30,000,000 – 50,000,000

This dish’s previous owner, Tsui Tsin-tong was a prominent Hong Kong businessman. He assembled the Jingguantang Collection – a major collection of Chinese works of art, which in the 1990s was exhibited in his own museum, Tsui Museum of Art, formerly located in the old Bank of China building in Hong Kong.

He also made donations to museums around the world – most notably the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Art Institute of Chicago, Royal Ontario Museum, National Gallery of Australia, Shanghai Museum and University Museum and Art Gallery of the University of Hong Kong.

Blue-and-white porcelains in Sir Joseph's study 

Meticulously depicted, this dish is unique even among this rare group of relief-moulded dishes of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Not only is its relief decoration crisp and detailed, but the popular fish design here is also rendered in an individual manner that knows few close comparisons. It is a masterpiece that combines the best and rarest Yuan blue-and-white styles.

The moulded peony scroll is unusually lush and was generously planned that the artisans reduced it again slightly before painting the centre – cutting into some of the leaves to create a circular space for the fish painting. Each peony petal is intricately represented with frilly edges, and petals and leaves with pronounced veining, different from the anhua (‘hidden decoration’) – known from contemporary white wares, although probably similarly created through impression of the design on a mould into a layer of white slip. The impression of the lace-like white flowers is well-defined and complex, however, that some details may have been added by hand in form of trailed slip.

A detail that visually increases the depth of design are the two overlapping leaves that are outlined in blue. Even the background against which the flowers are raised was not simply covered with a blue wash, but carefully painted with a striated, scalloped wave pattern. This design’s sophisticated organisation, coupled with the amount of individual manual labour required for its completion, are remarkable.

Lot 6 | Blue and White ‘Fish’ Jar, Guan

Created during Yuan dynasty (1279-1368)
Width: 35.3 cm

  • A European private collection
  • Christie’s London, 11th July 2006, Lot 111 and back cover (Sold: £2,136,000)
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London, 2006

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 – 25,000,000

‘The Pleasures of Fishes’ is the title of a handscroll painting by Zhou Dongqing, a ‘fish painter’ active during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) – almost six metres long, dated in accordance with 1291, and today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Zhou was a native of Jiangxi and his paintings were most likely well-known to the porcelain painters of Jingdezhen.

Fish paintings were, however, not simply exceptional exercises of the brush; among China’s literati they were also revered because they carried a deeper meaning. The genre was held in great esteem for its Daoist association, with fish being considered the manifestation of spiritual freedom, one of the eternal ideals of China’s intellectuals. During the Yuan dynasty, the topic was taken over by scholar painters. For the literati-officials loyalist to the deposed Song dynasty, this sentiment must have evoked bitter-sweet associations with their own freedom from the constraints of a government position, under the Mongol-ruled dynasty.

Zhou Dongqing's The Pleasures of Fishes (1291) | Handscroll, ink and colour on paper | Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

Fish among water plants represent one of the most powerful designs of Yuan blue-and-white porcelain. On this present jar, the porcelain painter responsible for the scene admirably rendered the serene state of four fat fishes – grouped in pairs, silently floating through water plants and at ease in their surroundings. Even without the historic philosophical reading of this motif, the scene emanates an air of peace and contentment, transferring the viewer to the idyllic scenery of a lake in the Jiangnan region of south-eastern China. Its still surface is covered with large green lotus leaves, their ravishing white and pink flowers, as well as clear waters teeming with golden-orange and silvery-blue fish.

Lot 10 | Gilt Bronze Seated Figure of Avalokiteshvara, Acuoye Guanyin | Dali Kingdom

Created during 11th to 12th century
Height: 37.8 cm | Overall: 41.9 cm

  • Collection of Peng Kai-dong, alias Nitta Muneichi (1912-2006), the Nitta Group Collection
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 26th April 1998, Lot 606
  • R.H. Ellsworth Ltd, New York, 30th July 1998

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 – 20,000,000

This present figure comes from the collection of Nitta Muneichi (1912-2006), who was born in Taipei as Peng Kai-dong. He later left for Japan as an adolescent and took on a Japanese name. He became a successful businessman with a company covering a wide range of different industries – such as retailing, jewellery, restaurants, galleries, and property management. After World War Two, he opened an antique shop in Tokyo and he began collecting Buddhist bronzes in 1950, which eventually became his main collecting interest.

A legendary art collector, Nitta donated many Buddhist artworks to prestigious museums – such as the National Palace Museum, Taipei; Tokyo National Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. On top of that, he had even ‘beaten’ The Louvre as well as the British Museum in auctions.

Shakyamuni Buddha, gilt bronze (477 CE) | Height: 40.3 cm | National Palace Museum, Taipei

Nitta Muneichi

Gilt bronze Buddhist figures such as the present Avalokiteshvara sculpture hold a unique place in the development of Chinese Buddhist sculptures. They are remarkable due to their distinctive style, grace, serenity and their sheer size. Acuoye bodhisattvas – such as this present one – are mostly depicted as standing figures. A seated sculpture, however, is rare and the present Guanyin appeals with its gentle, feminine facial features.

Oeuvres of this type can be attributed to southwestern China, today’s Yunnan province – a region that was ruled under the Nanzhao (750-902) and later Dali (937-1253) kingdoms. During the 9th century CE, Buddhism was established as state religion and the religion was facing multiple challenges to flourish in China’s heartland in the next few centuries.

As found in this sculpture, Yunnanese gilt-bronze bodhisattva figures are distinctive through their physical characteristics of a slender built with prominent shoulders, hands held in gestures of teaching (vitarka mudra) and wish-granting (varada mudra). Alongside these depictions, they are also adorned with bejewelled necklace, armlets and single bracelet, simple dhoti, and high coiffure with an Amitabha Buddha figure in front, which identifies them as representations of Avalokiteshvara. This style appears to have been developed at least by the 10th century.

Other highlight lots:

Lot 11 | Huanghuali Folding Horseshoe Back Armchair, Jiaoyi

Created during late Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
71.2 x 67.2 x 102.8 cm

  • La Compagnie de la Chine et des Indes, Paris, 10th September 1968
  • Collection of Arthur M. Sackler, 1968-96
  • Collection of Else Sackler, 1996-2001
  • Collection of Dr Elizabeth A. Sackler, 2001
  • Christie's New York, 20th September 2001, Lot 254 and cover
  • Nicholas Grindley, London, 2001

Estimate: HK$10,000,000 – 15,000,000

Lot 5 | Carved Large Cinnabar Lacquer ‘Peony’ Box and Cover

Seal mark and of the Yongle period (1402-1424)
Diameter: 31.5 cm | Overall: 9 cm

  • Christie's Hong Kong, 30th April 2001, Lot 637 and back cover (HK$12,145,000)

Estimate: HK$8,000,000 – 12,000,000

Lot 14 | Huanghuali Painting Table  

Created during the Kangxi period (1661-1722)
171 x 89.5 x 86.5 cm

  • R.H. Ellsworth Ltd, New York, 12th June 1982

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 – 8,000,000

Lot 1 | Bronze Male Chimera, Bixie

Created during Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE)
Length: 27 cm | Height: 18 cm

  • L. Wannieck, Paris, 1924 or earlier
  • Collection of Baron Adolphe Stoclet (1871-1949), Brussels, 1934 or earlier
  • Collection of Madame Raymonde Feron-Stoclet (1897-1963), Brussels, and thence by descent
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London, 25th March 2003

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 – 8,000,000 

Lot 20 | Silver Inlaid Bronze Corner Piece 

Created during Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period 
Height: 11 cm 

  • Paul Mallon (1884-1975), New York and Paris, 22nd December 1920
  • Collection of Baron Adolphe Stoclet (1871-1949), Brussels
  • Collection of Madame Raymonde Feron-Stoclet (1897-1963), Brussels, and thence by descent
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London, 25th March 2003

Estimate: HK$5,000,000 – 7,000,000

Lot 12 | Junyao Purple and Blue Glazed Tripod Narcissus Bowl

Created during early Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Width: 20.7 cm

  • The Canton Collection, Hong Kong
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 17th November 1975, Lot 4
  • Sotheby's London, 10th December 1991, Lot 136
  • Yin Chuan Tang Ltd, Hong Kong, 10th November 1994

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 – 6,000,000

Lot 8 | Limestone Seated Figure of a Buddhist Lion 

Created during Tang dynasty (618-907 CE)
Height: 34 cm 

  • Collection of George Eumorfopoulos (1863-1939), label
  • Collection of Montague Meyer, label
  • Sotheby's New York, 4th December 1985, Lot 62

Estimate: HK$2,000,000 – 3,000,000 

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Hotung | The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung: Part 1 | Evening
Date and Time: 8 October 2022 | 7:30pm (Hong Kong local time)
Number of lots: 28