Chinese Art from the Met Collection Gifted by the Irvings to Be Offered at Sotheby’s Asia Week New York

Over 300 Chines works of art originally gifted by philanthropists and renowned Asian art collectors Florence and Herbert Irving to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will be offered as a highlight of Sotheby’s Asia Week sale series in this September.

This single-owner sale, Chinese Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Florence and Herbert Irving Gift, will feature more than 120 exquisite Imperial Qianlong period jades, brushpots, paintings and objects for the scholar’s studio.

Florence and Herbert Irving, the co-founder of the food services giant Sysco Corporation, were avid collectors in Asian art. Long-time New York City philanthropists, The Irvings developed a close relationship with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they held an important exhibition of their lacquer collection.

In March 2015, they donated 1,275 Asian works of art to the Met. The donation encompasses all of the major cultures of East and South Asia and virtually every medium explored by Asian craftsmen over five millennia. Part of the gifts, including those duplicate pieces, will go on sale at Sotheby's and the full proceeds of the sales will go into an Irving acquisition fund, to be used by the Met’s Department of Asian Art to continue the Irving legacy.

The leading lot of the sale is a large spinach-green jade ‘immortals’ brushpot, Qianlong period, estimated to fetch US$500,000-700,000. The jade brushpot was formerly in the Fonthill collection owned by English collector Alfred Morrison, who was best known for his interest in Chinese works of art. Alfred Morrison acquired many fine pieces from Yuanming Yuan (also known as 'Old Summer Palace', a complex of palaces and gardens during the Qing dynasty). Therefore, ‘Fonthill house’ is almost like a synonym for top quality works of art.

The brushpot belongs to a highly refined group of ‘figure-in-landscape’ brush pots, created at the height of the jade production in the Qianlong period (1735-1795). Portraying mythological and historical events, these brush pots are exquisitely carved in green or white jade. The sides carved in high relief with nine immortals in a mountain retreat surrounded by rocky peaks, waterfalls, pines, and other vegetation, one side with six of the men gathered on a balustraded terrace.

To create such an extravagant work of art, a high- quality boulder of substantial proportions would be essential. Such a boulder would not have been easily available before the Qianlong Emperor’s 1759 conquest of the Western Territories (xiyu), which gave him access to jade-rich Khotan. The number of surviving jade pieces of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) from the period before 1759 is, in fact, conspicuously small compared to the immense quantity of jade artefacts produced thereafter.

Also offered at the sale is a celadon russet jade ‘quail and millet’ boulder, Qing dynasty, Yongzheng/Qianlong period, which carries an estimate between US$150,000-250,000. This piece is a remarkable example of a jade mountain carving (yushan) that every detail of the design is carefully executed and the craftsman has successfully captured the different textures of the design elements: from birds and sprays of millet which give the impression of being modelled entirely in the round, to flowing water in the foreground and overhanging rocks.

Quails, in China called anchun, are highly auspicious, since ‘an’ is a homophone of the word for peace. Depictions of quails among ears of millet are symbolic of abundance and express the wish for peace year after year (suisui ping’an).

Another highlight of the sale is a celadon jade ‘luohan’ inscribed boulder, Qing dynasty, estimated at US$100,000-150,000. The piece is carved after the Tang dynasty painter Guanxiu's iconic painting of Abheda, depicting a seated Abheda in solitude with a sutra in hand and a censer burning nearby.

This particular image of Abheda can be traced to the portrait series of the sixteen luohan painted by the Tang dynasty painter-poet-monk, Guanxiu, in 891.

In 1757, the Qianlong Emperor visited the Shengyin Temple during his Southern inspection tour to study the portraits as an act of religious devotion. He was inspired to personally study their contents and have their images proliferated after seeing the masterpieces by Guanxiu.

Painting of the sixteenth luohan by Ding Guanpeng. Collection of National Palace Museum

On the painting of the sixteenth luohan, Abheda, he also added a lengthy colophon describing his process of studying and reattributing each image. Subsequently, the Qianlong Emperor commanded the palace painting master, Ding Guanpeng to copy the paintings and the new inscriptions that he had applied to them. Ding’s copies are now in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Over the decades, the emperor had the images reproduced in additional media, including textiles and jades.

The present boulder closely follows the design of Guanxiu’s portrait and is inscribed with colophons composed by the Qianlong Emperor. This would presumably have been made as part of a set of sixteen pictorial boulders, with the present one perhaps ranking as the most important due to its inclusion of the lengthy third colophon describing the emperor’s contribution to the legacy of Guanxiu’s paintings.

Top five lots

A Finely Carved Large Spinach-green Jade 'immortals' Brushpot
Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period
Lot no.: 15
Height: 16.9 cm

  • Collection of Alfred Morrison (1821-97), Fonthill House, Tisbury, Wiltshire, no. 233.
  • Christie's London, 9th July 1980, lot 105.
  • Donald J. Wineman, New York, 24th August 1981, no. 85.
  • Collection of Florence (1920-2018) and Herbert (1917-2016) Irving, no. 352.

Estimate: US$500,000-700,000

A Rare Celadon and Russet Jade 'Quail and Millet' Boulder
Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng / Qianlong Period
Lot no.: 7
Length: 15.5cm

  • Christie’s London, 8th April 1978, lot 148.
  • Collection of Floyd and Josephine Segel.
  • Spink & Son, London, 8th April 1986.
  • Collection of Florence (1920-2018) and Herbert (1917-2016) Irving, no. 454.

Estimate: US$150,000-250,000

A Celadon Jade 'Luohan' Inscribed Boulder
Qing Dynasty
Lot no.: 17
Height: 24.5cm

  • Collection of Captain Vivian Buckley-Johnson (d. 1968).
  • Mount Trust Collection.
  • Collection of Floyd and Josephine Segel.
  • Spink & Son, London, 4th April 1986.
  • Collection of Florence (1920-2018) and Herbert (1917-2016) Irving, no. 453.

Estimate: US$100,000-150,000

Auction details
Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Chinese Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Florence and Herbert Irving Gift
Date: 10 September 2019|10am