• Important Chinese Ceramics and auction at Christies

    Sale 2731

    Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art

    1 December 2009, Hong Kong

  • Lot 2009


    Price Realised  

    Estimate On Request

    QIANLONG PERIOD (1736-1795)
    Naturalistically modelled as a recumbent horned buffalo with its forelegs and hindlegs neatly tucked under the body, resting its ample belly on an exquisitely carved feathery mat that is elaborately attached to a long length of rope, extending from the underside of the beast to emerge around the neck and threading through its nose, the head of the animal majestically turned to one side of its body, extenuating the undulating dewlap, its nose pointing upwards as if gazing into the far distance
    10 5/8 in. (27 cm.) wide, wood stand

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    The present lot is sold with all the reference books mentioned above.


    Hugo Tutein Nolthenius (1863-1944), one of the most eminent Dutch art collector of the early 20th century
    Willem Tutein Nolthenius, acquired from his uncle Hugo's estate in 1944 for 4,000 Dutch Gilders, and hence by descent

    Pre-Lot Text



    This superb white jade buffalo was formerly in the collection of the famous Dutch industrialist and collector Hugo Tutein Nolthenius (1863-1944). Hugo Tutein Nolthenius was a chemist by training who went into industry and from 1898 to 1920 was Director of the Calvè -Delft fine oil factory in Delft. He was a man of many talents, who enjoyed driving cars, skating and, most significantly, had a passion for art. He was himself an amateur photographer, ceramicist and glass-painter, but was also a patron of the arts and one of the early 20th century's great Dutch collectors.

    Hugo Tutein Nolthenius had grown up in a household which appreciated art, as it had been one of the interests of his banker father. In the early 1880s Hugo attended the Polytechnic School in Delft, and it is likely that he attended the classes given by the professor of decorative arts Adolf le Comte, who was an innovator in the field of ceramics. Later Hugo had his own kiln at his home and experimented with his nephew Harm Kamerlingh Onnes to produce ceramics influenced by those of Asia.

    His interest in art even spilt over into his professional life, and in 1894 Tutein Nolthenius commissioned an advertising poster from the Javanese-Dutch artist Jan Toorop (1858-1928), which advertised 'Delftsche Slaolie' (Delft Salad Oil) for the NOF company. This lithograph, which was printed in a number of colour combinations, is one of the best-known examples of Dutch Art Nouveau. For his own home in Delft Hugo Tutein Nolthenius commissioned stained glass windows from Johan Thorn-Prikker (1868-1932), as well as portraits of himself and his sister and brother. In addition to the works of art he commissioned, Tutein Nolthenius also collected both Chinese works of art, such as the current jade buffalo, and paintings by Dutch artists, including Harm Kamerlingh Onnes (1893-1985), Isaac Israës (1865-1935) and some twelve paintings by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Van Gogh's 1889 Self-Portrait, which is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, was formerly in Tutein Nolthenius' collection. While he was able to follow his own well-informed tastes in his collecting, Tutein Nolthenius was also advised by Hendricus Petrus Bremmer (1871-1956) - artist, collector and one of the most important Dutch art critics of the early 20th century, some of whose classes in the Hague had been attended by Tutein Nolthenius' sister Julie. Bremmer considered the Tuten Nolthenius collection so important that in 1924-25 he gave a series of lectures based upon it.

    Hugo Tutein Nolthenius was generous with his collection, and allowed items from it to go on public exhibition on a number of occasions. The current jade buffalo, for example, was exhibited in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum in 1919 (exhibit no. 12). In 2008 an exhibition Hugo Tutein Nolthenius. Portret van een Delftsch kunstverzamelaar (Hugo Tutein Nolthenius. Portrait of a Delft art collector), was held in Delft to celebrate both the collector and his remarkable collection.

    The buffalo itself was published in 1920 by T. B. Roorda (ed.) in Keur van werken van Oost-Aziatische Kunst in Nederlandsch Bezit, 's-Gravenhage/La Haye, Nijhoff, pl. IV. H.F.E. Visser illustrated the buffalo in Asiatic Art, Holland, 1948, pp. 267-8, pl. 93, no. 179, where its owner is given as W. R. Tutein Nolthenius; and it was also included in the exhibition Oosterse Schatten- 4000 Jaar Aziatische Kunst, at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, in 1954, no. 86. After Hugo Tutein Nolthenius' death in 1944 the buffalo was valued at 2500 Dutch Guilders. At that time, Hugo's nephew Willem purchased the buffalo from the estate for 4,000 Dutch Guilders, and it has passed to the current owners by descent.

    This magnificent jade buffalo is remarkable not only for its size and the excellence of its carving, but for the white jade from which it has been made. While several large green jade buffalo are known, large white jade buffalo are exceedingly rare. This buffalo has another feature that makes it exceedingly rare. In addition to the lead-rope attached to its nostrils and ends neatly coiled beneath the animal, another much more unusual item has been carved on its underside with great skill and attention to detail. This is a small triangular, lattice-strung, beaded cloth from which hangs a large tassel. It seems likely that this cloth is intended to be a ceremonial peytrel, or back cloth. The ties of the beaded triangle have been undone, presumably from around the buffalo's neck, or belly, and the strings lie loosely. The carving appears to suggest that the triangular object was made in the same way as the ceremonial beaded aprons worn by lamaist abbots. The beaded cloth, and the extensive, layered, tassel that is attached to it, have been carved on the underside of the buffalo's body as if they were on the ground and the buffalo was lying on top of them. These accoutrements suggest that the buffalo has just taken part in some important, possibly imperial, ceremony. Bovines are recorded as taking part in certain imperial ceremonies in the Ming and Qing dynasties. One such ceremony took place in Beijing in the third lunar month, when the emperor personally ploughed three furrows within grounds of the Xiannongtan (the Temple of Agriculture) and made sacrifices to the God of Agriculture. This annual imperial ritual, which began in the 15th century, was intended to begin the agricultural year and ensure a good harvest. A 1780s engraving by Isidore Stanislas Helman shows the emperor directing a plough pulled by an ox (illustrated in From Beijing to Versailles - Artistic Relations between China and France, Urban Council Hong Kong, 1997, pp. 248-9, no. 95). The ox, which is depicted as being led by two men dressed in similar 'farming clothes' to those worn by the emperor himself, appears to have a small triangular cloth tied to its back. The possible reference to imperial ritual suggests that the commissioning of the current white jade buffalo may have been of great significance.

    Jade buffalo have traditionally been greatly prized in China. The Asiatic ox or buffalo is one of the twelve horary animals representing Chou, the second of the twelve branches of the Chinese calendrical system. Buffalo are associated with strength, prosperity and tranquillity in China, in part because of their role in farming and the production of food. This attitude is evoked by a Qianlong inscription, dated 1746, which may refer to the ceremony at the Xiannongtan. The inscription appears on a more simply carved brownish-black jade buffalo sold at Christie's London in 2003, and can be translated as reading:
    'Chou is essential to provide food, helping thousands of people to bring in a bountiful harvest every year.'

    It is perhaps not surprising that one of the favourite images of the rural idyll depicted by Chinese painters such as Li Tang (c. AD 1050-after 1130) show a small boy either riding or leading a water buffalo. Li Tang's Herd Boy with Water Buffalo and Calf, Song dynasty 11th-12th century, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, for example, is illustrated by Ann Barrott Wicks (ed.) in Children in Chinese Art, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2002, p. 54, fig. 2.6. Many smaller jade carvings of buffalo include young boys (see James C.Y. Watt, Chinese Jades from Han to Ch'ing, Asia Society, New York, 1980, pp. 65-6, nos. 46-8). Such iconography suggests both sons and a good harvest.

    Buffalo also appear in a famous series known as Gengzhi tu (Pictures of Tilling and Weaving). The original version of this appears to have been by Lou Shou (AD 1090-1162) and was published, as forty-six illustrations accompanied by poems, around AD 1237. A fine woodblock printed version was produced under the imperial auspices of the Kangxi Emperor in AD 1696, known as Yuzhi Gengzhi tu or Peiwenzhai Gengzhi tu. A beautiful series painted in colours on silk was produced in the Yongzheng reign (1723-35) probably by the court artist Chen Mei. This series shows the emperor himself engaged in farming, and in one leaf is shown working with a water buffalo in the fields. This series is today preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing. One of the pictures with water buffalo from the latter series is illustrated in the exhibition catalogue Splendors of a Flourishing Age, Museu de Arte de Macau, 1999, no. 16.

    The romanticised view of the buffalo had resonance for Chan Buddhists and Daoists alike, suggesting retreat into a tranquil rural life, away from the cities and the responsibilities of public office. This tranquil life evoked by the buffalo is eloquently expressed by the famous Song dynasty literatus Su Shi (AD 1037-1101) who was prompted by a painting of boys herding buffalo to write a poem, which includes the lines:

    'Long ago I lived in the country,
    And knew only sheep and buffalo.
    Down the smooth riverbeds [riding] on the buffalo's back,
    Steady as a hundredweight barge,
    A boat that needed no steering, while the banks slipped by,
    I stretched out and read a book: she [the buffalo] didn't care.'

    The buffalo is also associated with Laozi, who is often depicted in paintings riding a buffalo. The titles of paintings, such as that by Zhang Lu (c. 1490- c. 1563) in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated by S. Little in Taoism and the Arts of China, Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 117), are often simply translated as Laozi on an Ox, but unsurprisingly the beast on which the founder of Daoist rides has the swept-back, inward-curving, horns of a buffalo or Asiatic ox.

    The popularity of these creatures also has an ancient source, since the legendary Emperor Yu of the Xia dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BC) is said to have cast an iron ox or buffalo to subdue the floods. This theme was taken up by the Qianlong Emperor (AD 1736-95), when in 1755 he ordered the casting of a large bronze ox and its placement looking out over Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace. On the animal's back is an 80-character essay in seal script, referring to Yu's casting of the iron buffalo to control the floods. Qianlong's bronze animal and the current white jade buffalo share very similar poses, although the bronze creature has its head raised and has neither a leading rope through its nose, nor any ceremonial garb.

    The mythological and practical auspiciousness of buffalo ensured that they were included among animal figures from early times. A small recumbent buffalo carved from steatite was found in the Tang dynasty tomb dated AD 845 at Xinyuancun, Yanshi, in Henan (see Kaogu, 1984, vol. 10, p. 911, fig. 9: 4 and 5). However, depictions of buffalo are much rarer than, for example, horses. Nevertheless, there is a relatively small group of finely carved, large, jade buffalo dating to the period of the late Ming and early Qing dynasty. These buffalo, and some similarly carved horses, may be distinguished from the more usual, smaller, jade animals, not only by their size, but also by the skill with which they were carved.

    Large jade buffalo were clearly greatly treasured by the imperial family, since several of the extant examples are known to have been removed from the Summer Palace in 1860. One of these is the grey-green jade example now in the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung (illustrated by Jessica Rawson in Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, British Museum Press, London, 1995, p. 175, no. 26:19), which was formerly in the collection of The Rt. Hon. Lord Gladwyn, and previous to that in the possession of Colonel Arthur Jebb, who acquired it on the troop ship returning to England from China. Another of these large jade buffalo is in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Illustrated by J. Ayers & J. Rawson in Chinese Jade throughout the ages, Oriental Ceramic Society, London, 1975, p. 120, no. 395). This latter example, formerly belonging to Oscar Raphael, was included in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art held at the Royal Academy in 1935-36, as exhibit 480. The 1935 catalogue of the exhibition repeated the story, now discounted, that the piece had been brought to Beijing by the Yongle Emperor in AD 1422, and that it might be of Han date. According to J. Goette (in Jade Lore (first published in 1937), Ars Ceramica, Ann Arbour, 1976, p. 199, the Raphael/Fitzwilliam jade was purchased in Tianjin, when the foreign troops were leaving China following the Boxer rebellion of 1900, and could therefore be assumed to have come from the Palace. Another fine example, reputedly removed from the Summer Palace in Beijing, was sold in London in April 1953.

    An impressive grey-green jade buffalo, which was formerly in the collection of Somerset de Chair, was included in the exhibition Chinese Jade throughout the ages in 1975, no. 397. The same exhibition included one more of these large Ming dynasty jade buffaloes, exhibit 396, which was lent anonymously. A slightly smaller green jade buffalo, formerly in the collection of Baron Lionel de Rothschild, and previously in the Victor Rothschild Collection, was sold in London in December 1948. A sage green jade buffalo, previously in the Alexander Ionides was sold in London in 1954, while a grey-green jade example formerly the collection of E.W.L. Atterbury, which shares many features of carving with the present example, was sold in London in July 1960. This latter piece was lent by its then owner Mr. N. Tozer to the Oriental Ceramic Society Exhibition of the Arts of the Ming Dynasty, London, 1957, pl. 93, no. 344, and is illustrated, along with another piece belonging to The Hon. Mrs. Marten, in plate 93 of Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, Vol. 30, 1955-57.

    The most recently sold examples of these fine, large jade buffalo, were a green jade creature, formerly in the Bulgari Collection, which was sold at Christie's New York in March 2000 for $486,500; a green jade buffalo with its gilt-bronze stand was sold at Woolley & Wallis, 20 May 2009, lot 388 (sold for GBP3,400,000); and a green jade buffalo from the Estate of Leona Helmsley, which sold for US$421,000 at Christie's New York in 2008. These pieces, together with a small number in museums such as the Chinese Palace Museums, the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; the Royal Ontario Museum; and the Cleveland Museum of Art; are part of a rare group that is characterised by their size, by the naturalness of their forms, and by the extraordinarily fine quality of their carving. The current white jade example is a particularly distinguished member of this group.


    T.B. Roorda (ed.), Keur van werken van Oost-Aziatische Kunst in Nederlandsch Bezit, 's-Gravenhage/La Haye, Nijhoff, 1920, pl. IV
    H.F.E. Visser, Asiatic Art, De Spieghel Publishing co., Holland, 1947, pl. 93, no. 179
    Oosterse Schatten - 4000 Jaar Aziatische Kunst, Amsterdam, 1954, 86


    Stedelijk Museum, The Netherlands, 1919
    Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1954