JADE FROM LAKE BAIKAL, SIBERIA
Carved from extraordinarily large pieces of high quality stone, these four plaques epitomize the classic spinach jade found deep in the mountains of Siberia. Jade has been prized in China since the beginning of time, carved into treasured works of art from as early as the Neolithic period. Considered the most precious material in China, jade was endowed with spiritual properties, the character for its name also meaning “precious” or “treasure”, its lustrous brilliance represents purity, its hardness intelligence and virtue, its internal flecks loyalty and its color loyalty. Its combination of brightness and substance signify heaven and earth.
Native stores of jade were mined in China, in the Yangtze and other rivers, in Khotan, Henan, and the Takklaman desert. But by Qing Dynasty times these domestic sources were largely depleted, and the Chinese turned increasingly to imported stone, mainly jadeite from Burma and spinach jade from the Lake Baikal region of Siberia. The existence of nephrite jade in Siberia had been known since early in the 19th century, but it was not until the 1890s that important discoveries were made in a remote area in the Sayan Mountains east of Lake Baikal, as a result of a Russian Government expedition under von Jaczewski. Huge boulders and large veins of the Siberian spinach green nephrite with its characteristic grey flecks can still be found in the rushing rivers and craggy mountainsides of the region. Famed for its rich coloring, Lake Baikal jade was prized by the Russian Imperial court as it was by the Chinese. The tomb of Alexander III (d. 1894) was made of Siberian jade. Throughout the 19th Century Russian Tsars made diplomatic gifts of magnificent works of art made from Russian hardstones, for instance two celebrated malachite vases in Windsor Castle, presented to George IV by Tsar Alexander I in 1827 and to Queen Victoria by Tsar Nicholas I in 1839. The famed jeweler Carl Peter Fabergé, jeweler and goldsmith to the Tsars, made precious objects in Siberian jade in the late 19th and very early 20th century. The Imperial Lapidary Works outside Moscow also kept stores of large Siberian jade boulders with which to fashion their jeweled treasures.
The present set of plaques was published by Christie’s in Review of the Season, 1962-1963, with this caption: “The uncarved jade for these panels was reputed to have been in the Imperial vaults of the Russian Tzars and was given to the Emperor Ch’ien Lung towards the end of the 18th century.” While modern scholarship tells us this dating is impossible, it is certainly possible that the boulder used to carve these monumental plaques came from the Imperial stores of Russia and that it was a gift to the Chinese Imperial family. What experts today agree on is that these plaques are stunning examples of Siberian jade, unusually large pieces of the desirable stone that have been beautifully and skillfully carved in China early in the 20th century with a charming, appealing, classic subject.
PROVENANCE OF THE FOUR SEASONS PLAQUES
Modern scholarship and connoisseurship has illuminated much about Chinese art that was not fully understood until the late 20th century, including much about the decades of tremendous upheaval as the Qing dynasty lost control of China. Many important works of art that emerged from China in the decades preceding World War II came accompanied by romantic legends and mysterious connections to the Imperial household, especially as China’s Qing elite formed a diaspora through the capitals of the Western world.
THE MA FAMILY
The Ma family was one of the eight major families of the Qing dynasty, the only families allowed to intermarry with the Chinese Imperial family. The patriarch of the Ma family escaped China with a planeload of family members and servants just prior to the 1949 Communist takeover. While there are no extant documents of a Ma Ting-Sien from this era, it is quite possible that a Ma family member left China with important works like these plaques. A very similar set of four large Chinese jade plaques, also exceptionally well-carved from brilliant spinach green stone, was offered from the 'Mah family collection' (an alternate spelling) at Christie’s in New York in 1987, also bearing a Qianlong mark in gilt along the side of Summer.
PRINCESS DER LING
Princess Der Ling was the daughter of an important Chinese family who became a favored lady-in-waiting to the Empress Cixi. The self-styled princess had been educated in Paris and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where she died in 1944. In 1907 she had married the American photographer who took the only surviving photographs of Cixi and her retinue (now in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art). It is quite possible that Der Ling left the Forbidden City with works of art like jade carvings; she also had close ties with the other major families of late Qing China.
The San Francisco World’s Fair of 1939-40 was known as the Pageant of the Pacific, meant to showcase goods made from the countries surrounding the Pacific Ocean. China, however, impoverished by war and its chaos, did not participate. In its absence, San Francisco’s Chinese community raised the funds for a large exhibition area on the grounds, including temples and gardens and exhibition halls. Princess Der Ling exhibited her treasures in a pavilion at the Fair, perhaps including these plaques.
COUNT PRIMOR ALSOCERNANTONI, LOUIS VON CSEH
The 1963 Christie’s London sale was of a collection formed by Louis von Cseh, with the seller of record another regular client of Christie’s, an American who dealt in high end Chinese works of art, particularly jade and other hardstones. This American had close ties with Chinese elite who had fled the Communists. In fact, his son remembers visits to the Long Island estate of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, from whom his father would buy works of art. The 36-acre Locust Valley property had been bought in 1953 by H.H. Kung, important banker and husband to another Soong sister. Louis von Cseh was involved with both Old Master paintings and Chinese hardstones. However, his path was not entirely straight and narrow. Louis von Cseh (whose title cannot be identified) was convicted on counts of grand larceny and forgery and began a sentence of two to four years in 1960. It is possible that he sold the jade collection in 1963 as a means of raising funds on his release. However, jade from the von Cseh collection bears no taint of this unsavory past. A number of pieces from the collection have reappeared on the market in recent years, with enormously successful results, including pieces sold at Christie’s New York and Hong Kong, for example a Qianlong Imperial brushwasher from the collection of Alan and Simone Hartman sold 27 November 2007 (HKD 8,727,500).