Prospective purchasers are advised that several countries prohibit the importation of property containing materials from endangered species, including but not limited to coral, ivory and tortoiseshell. Accordingly, prospective purchasers should familiarize themselves with relevant customs regulations prior to bidding if they intend to import this lot into another country.
Hotel des Ventes, D'Argenteuil, Paris, 1996.
Robert H. Blumenfield
Christie's would like to express their gratitude to Elizabeth Knight of Orientations, to Robert Piccus, and to Robert H. Blumenfield himself for permission to reproduce excerpts from the interview with Robert Blumenfield conducted by Robert Piccus and published in Orientations in 2000, volume 31, number 6.
Orientations: Over the years you have established a reputation as one of the most enthusiastic and committed collectors of Chinese art. How did this passionate interest develop?
Robert H. Blumenfield: I was always interested in art as a result of growing up and going to school in cosmopolitan cities in the United States and Europe, and being surrounded by museums and cultural activities - for example, I took the children's art programme at the Brooklyn Museum. So it was a natural progression from the usual 'schoolboy collecting' to begin collecting Western Art, mainly European furniture and paintings. However, I had no knowledge or experience of Asian art until I happened to visit an antique shop in lower Manhattan with my mother, where a pair of bronze vases caught my eye. I bought them on the spot because of their beauty, not knowing what they were or where they came from. They turned out to be Meiji period Japanese and were the first pieces of Asian art I acquired. They also marked the beginning of what became my lifelong quest to seek out, study, understand, appreciate, and where possible collect the finest available examples of Asian art.
The more I looked at the vases, the more I liked them and the more I was driven to find out as much as possible of their provenance and what inspired their creator. I read as much as I could about Japanese art. Eventually I found them very ornate and sold them at auction. From Japanese art it was a small step to the vast expanse of Chinese art, and I found myself totally absorbed in finding out about the Chinese, their art and culture. From this small beginning grew a determination to concentrate all my collecting efforts on discovering and acquiring Chinese art, which is more in keeping with my personal taste.
That was over twenty years ago, and I am every bit as captivated today as I was then, still learning and still able to appreciate the beauty Chinese scholars and craftsmen were able to create in so many ways over the past several thousand years.
O: Given your broad interest, which areas of collecting have you found most appealing?
RHB: I have concentrated on specific areas, starting with export porcelain. I was fortunate to meet and become friends with the leading London dealer in that area, David Sanctuary Howard, who was instrumental in stimulating my interest and guiding me to the finest pieces. As a result, I was able to build up a fine collection with just a few years of serious effort. It was the first of many relationships with leading dealers around the world. These have been enormously helpful in forming my collection, and were also crucial to the development of my philosophy of collecting!
O: When did you become interested in blanc-de-chine?
RHB: Approximately twenty years ago I saw my first object when I visited a New York gallery: it was a Guanyin figure, which I admired but was not for sale. I went to a lecture on blanc-de-chine the following night at The New School of Social Research. This stoked my interest, and on my return to Los Angeles I found my first piece at a Sotheby's auction. Following this introduction, it became an all-encompassing passion, with the result that over the years I have bought every interesting piece I have seen on the market, both at auction and from dealers who knew about my interest. [Additional note: in 2002 Robert Blumenfield published the results of his own research into the subject in Blanc de Chine - the Great Porcelain of Dehua.]
O: Your collection of scholar's objects is well known, and you have lent a significant number of pieces to LACMA. What have been your experiences in building the collection?
RHB: That fateful visit to the New York gallery also resulted in my purchase of a bamboo brush pot depicting seven scholars in a bamboo grove. This was my first example of a scholar's object, which whetted my interest in such pieces. What I saw in this object was an attractive material, bamboo, which had been finely carved to depict a subject famous in Chinese literati history. I was fascinated with the myriad objects of the scholar's studio. From then on, scholar's taste became my taste! My collection had an excellent start and subsequently I became the 'mysterious collector'. It wasn't until an English dealer visited my home that I was discovered! After that, objects were offered all the time by the English trade.
In the 1978 Bonham's London sale, much of the collection of W.W. Winkworth, who was one of the great English collectors during the golden era of the 20s and 30s, was sold. Again, thanks to good relationships, I received a call from David Howard telling me of the sale. On seeing the catalogue, I knew the scholar's objects were excellent and asked David to buy as many as possible for me. There was a lot of competition at the time because 'works of art' was a popular collecting interest being promoted by a few London dealers. However, we were able to get virtually all the good pieces.
This inspired me, and I attended the symposium organized in Hong Kong to coincide with the Oriental Ceramic Society's exhibition 'Arts from the Scholar's Studio', held in 1986. It was the first serious exhibition on the subject, and I was able to meet fellow collectors, scholars and several of the dealers who subsequently became my main suppliers.
O: What special significance do the objects have for you?
RHB: From the beginning, I have been building a large collection which focuses on scholar's taste. This definition applies to virtually any object a scholar would use or have in his studio for reflection or inspiration. Typically, but not always, I am speaking of carved objects in a variety of materials including wood, bamboo, rhinoceros horn, jade, lacquer, soapstone, ivory, amber, porcelain and bronze. For me, the finest of these artworks represent the ideal of the generally anonymous craftsman creating objects of beauty for the quiet enjoyment of the gentlemen literati in their scholarly pursuits.
O: Do you have advice or recommendations for anyone thinking of building a collection?
RHB: First, it helps to have a great eye - I don't believe you can acquire this. It's a gift, no less than great taste. I believe all the best collectors have this and I hope I do! My best suggestion would be to encourage collectors at any financial level to be serious about collecting and buy the best they can afford, even if it is just one object. Of course it would be nonsense to say money is not important, but it would be equally nonsensical to think money is everything in collecting.
The obvious advice is to learn as much as possible from literature, museums, meeting fellow collectors, attending exhibitions and reading catalogues. Whatever area you choose, I fervently believe my basic three principles of collecting - relationships, knowledge and aggressiveness - are fundamental to success in any serious effort to build a meaningful collection as opposed to acquiring a few souvenirs. In my case, I find myself constantly looking for pieces that are 'special gems' - those that stand away from the ordinary and fit the old standard of beauty, rarity and condition.
For the Enjoyment of Scholars
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director, Asian Art
Among the joys to be found in the pieces from the collection of Robert Blumenfield are the insights that they provide into the world of the Chinese gentleman literatus, be he a scholar-official, a recluse, or an emperor. The items in this catalogue - some large and imposing, others small and exquisite - offer a view into the scholar's life, showing his appreciation of fine craftsmanship, the materials he valued, the decorative themes that reflected his interests, and the types of object that he would have kept in his study. Many of these objects were directly related to the act of writing or painting, others were purely inspirational, while some were simply practical but were, nevertheless, required to be made of precious materials and to be aesthetically pleasing.
The two paintings in the collection offer an introduction to some of the ideas that inform other items in the catalogue. The handscroll depicting Wang Shizhen [Lot 848] depicts the writer and poet dressed as a Buddhist monk, in reference to links between his poetic theory and the central ideas of Chan Buddhism. This theme is emphasised by the title of the painting, but other references to the subject's life can be seen in, for example, the blossoming wisteria, which surrounds his head. In addition to his literary attainments, Wang Shizhen was a successful official, whose career culminated in his appointment as president of the Board of Censors in 1698 and of the Board of Punishments in 1699. The vine and purple flowers of the wisteria refer to the purple sash and cord used for fastening an official seal. Two references to a Daoist wish for long life are also included in the painting - a crane and a pine tree. Thus Confucian official, Buddhist and Daoist elements are all represented. Even though he is shown in the modest garb of a Buddhist monk, Wang Shizhen is, nevertheless, depicted with finely bound books, in keeping with his reputation as a bibliophile, and what appears to be an elegant, lacquer-handled, fly whisk. A fly whisk would have been an essential accoutrement for a gentleman in the summer months, and a beautifully carved imperial ivory fly whisk handle is included in the current catalogue [Lot 905].
The other painting from the Blumenfield collection also offers insights into the literati's world. This hanging scroll is a portrait of the scholar-official Qiao Lai, who is shown relaxing with his books in the prow of a boat, while a servant prepares refreshments further aft [Lot 897]. The boat is floating on a river with blossoming peach trees on either bank. This provides a reminder of how important landscape and, more particularly, gardens were to the 17th century Chinese literatus; indeed, after his departure from official life, Qiao Lai not only gave his energies to literature, but to restoring gardens. The specific reference in the peach trees is to the poet Tao Yuanming (AD 365-427) and his famous work entitled Peach Blossom Spring. As Craig Clunas has noted, Tao Yuanming was an extremely important influence on many scholar-gentlemen of the 16th and 17th centuries.(1) References to Tao Yuanming and his poems can be seen in several of the items from the Blumenfield collection, including two fine rhinoceros horn cups. One of these cups shows Tao Yuanming himself, dressed as a fisherman seated beside a wine jar and holding in his hand a spray of chrysanthemums [Lot 849]. Thus three aspects of the poet's character are depicted. The modest clothing suggests the bucolic idyll so beloved of the literati; the wine jar suggests the inspiration which so many of China's poets found in wine; while the chrysanthemum identifies Tao, since he was particularly fond of this flower and included references to it in a number of his poems. Another rhinoceros horn cup in the collection, while not depicting Tao Yuanming himself, probably refers to his famous literary work Peach Blossom Spring [Lot 847]. A precis of this story is given in the catalogue note accompanying the cup, but its essence involves a fisherman who accidentally discovers an ideal world at Peach Blossom Spring, but later cannot find his way back. Hence the fisherman's clothing in which Tao Yuanming appears on the first cup [Lot 849], refers to this story as well as to a romanticised view of those who spend their days on the river.
Chinese scholars traditionally demonstrated great interest in certain types of antiques, and this was reflected in the items they collected and used. One of the pieces in the Blumenfield collection that reflects continued scholarly interest in antiques from Song times is the tile-shaped inkstone [Lot 878]. In addition to commendation seals, this inkstone is inscribed with the name of the famous Song dynasty statesman, poet, calligrapher and painter, Su Shi (AD 1037-1101), and with a date equivalent to AD 1100. This is a reference to the tile purportedly from the Bronze Bird Terrace in the palace of the ancient city of Ye, which was turned into an inkstone and was acquired by the Song dynasty calligrapher Huang Tingjian (1045-1105). Huang's friend Su Shi then wrote a laudatory poem on it. This started the fashion for Bronze Bird Terrace tile inkstones, which continued into the Qing dynasty. However, few could claim antiquity earlier than the Ming dynasty.(2) Six such inkstones were included in the catalogue of the Qianlong emperor's inkstone collection. Scholarly interest in antiques was also reflected in objects fashioned from various different media, which took their shape, decoration, or both, from ancient bronzes. Several of the rhinoceros horn cups in the sale were inspired by this interest in archaic bronze. The four-legged cup [Lot 882] takes its form from bronze yi vessels, while its thread-relief decoration is based on archaistic dragons. The main decorative band on the large rhinoceros horn cup [Lot 894] is even more closely based upon ancient bronze design, since it not only includes taotie masks, but also the leiwen squared-spiral background favored in Shang times.
Auspicious symbols were greatly favored as decoration on objects made for the literati, as can be seen on the exquisite songhua inkstone with four-character Qianlong mark [Lot 912], which is decorated on the cover with longevity symbols in the form of crane and pine tree and on the interior with lingzhhi fungus. This inkstone still has its original box, which bears a label stating that it is an imperially commissioned songhua inkstone. The box is covered with silk brocade on the outside and yellow silk on the interior, similar to that seen inside many of the imperial boxes in the exhibition from the Palace Museum, Beijing, Qing Legacies - The Sumptuous Art of Imperial Packaging, the Museu de Arte de Macau in 2000.(3) Another elegant inkstone decorated with an auspicious symbol is Lot 803, which bears a design of a suspended qing chiming stone, one of the Eight Treasures, which provides a rebus for 'celebration' and 'auspicious happiness'.
Ink stones were among the so-called 'Four Treasures' of the Chinese scholar, the others being brush, ink and paper. For the fastidious scholar, all of these had to be of the finest quality. Two finely decorated imperial ink cakes from the Qianlong reign are included in this catalogue [Lot 930]. Such ink cakes were greatly valued, as can be seen from the elaborate boxes made for imperial ink cakes preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing.(4) The Blumenfield collection also includes a number of brushes with handles of various media. A well-carved red lacquer brush handle and cover is Lot 925. Another with ivory and horn handle, very similar to one preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei,(5) bears an inscription which can be translated as 'made under the supervision of the Hall of Great Forbearance' [Lot 926].
In addition to the Four Treasures, many other elegant accoutrements were necessary to the Chinese scholar in his literary and artistic pursuits. Some of the most varied items are brush pots, of which the Blumenfield collection includes rare and important examples. Three very different approaches to decoration can be seen on a porcelain brush pot with lacquer and mother-of-pearl decoration [Lot 954], an inscribed huanghuali brush pot with inlaid decoration in various semi precious media [Lot 830], and an ivory brush pot with deeply carved decoration [Lot 854]. The porcelain brush pot is a very rare surviving example of a vessel made using the difficult technique of applying black lacquer to porcelain and then adding an exceptionally fine landscape in inlaid mother-of-pearl reflecting the scholarly interest in landscape painting. The huanghuali brush pot is decorated using a technique known as bai bao qian or 'hundred treasures inlay' to create a colourful, but painterly, composition full of auspicious allusions. The ivory brush pot is extremely skilfully carved with a complex composition depicting figures from the Daoist pantheon. Daoist immortals approaching the Guanghan Palace swathed in clouds also appear on a particularly fine imperial ivory bowl, appropriately decorated in a style reminiscent of scholarly ink painting [Lot 846]. Both Daoist deities and Daoist symbols are popular subjects for decoration on scholars' objects, since many of the scholars for whom they were made were former officials who had retired to pursue their literary interests. It was said of a Chinese gentleman that he was a Confucian in his career, a Daoist in retirement, and a Buddhist when approaching death. In fact many Chinese literati found no difficulty in accepting these three belief systems and they are represented not only in the form of sculptural figures of various deities, but in representations on objects such as the very rare imperially inscribed Qianlong zitan table screen with inlaid ivory depicting nine Buddhist uohan [Lot 870].
The remarkable zitan table screen [Lot 841] combines great rarity with great auspiciousness. Set into this screen is a wonderfully glossy example of Gandoderma lucidum: the lingzhi fungus, also known as the fungus of immortality. Two of the most abiding concerns of the majority of Chinese gentlemen were long life and progeny, so it is not surprising to find that the decoration on many of the items made for the scholar relates to these themes. While table screens appear to have been largely for inspirational purposes, water pots were of practical use to a scholar writing and painting with brush and ink. Many water pots were highly decorative as well as carrying auspicious wishes. The very fine ivory water pot in the shape of a peach from the Blumenfield collection [Lot 903], is a case in point. The peach, which is associated with Shoulao, the Star God of Longevity, is also associated with the magical peaches from the garden of Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, which conferred immortality on anyone who ate them. The charming ivory double water pot from the collection in the form of a lily bulb and persimmon [Lot 913], combined with a wasp and ruyi sceptre conveys the wish, 'may one hundred things be as you wish'.
Some of the most beautifully carved ivory pieces made for the scholar, were items ostensibly for use, but in practice probably restricted to display. While wrist rests would undoubtedly have been useful for someone writing with a Chinese brush, the exceptionally fine ivory wrist rest from the Blumenfield collection, carved on the interior with lotus and bamboo and on the exterior with geese [Lot 824], would probably have been displayed, rather than used, so that both convex and concave sides could be fully appreciated. The same is probably true of the exquisite little Qianlong ivory tray in the shape of a double gourd with delicate, coloured, leaves and scrolling vines [Lot 804]. It is likely that this tray would have been deemed far too delicate and precious for use, and it is interesting to note that there is a very similar double gourd shaped tray preserved in the Palace collection, which shows very little sign of serious use.(6)
An interesting decorative piece that also serves as a reminder of practical considerations is the small elegant ivory, square-sectioned, vase with stand [Lot 901]. This slender vase has quite a high centre of gravity and so has been given a stand with a hole in the top through which the lower part of the vase may be inserted. The form of the whole vase may still be appreciated, but it is more stable. This was a frequent device used to stabilise tall vessels in northern China, and similar stands can be seen in many 18th century court paintings, including Emperor Qianlong watching the Peacock in its Pride, in which a meiping vase on a table behind the emperor has been inserted into such a stand.(7) Lastly, not all the items enjoyed by the scholar were related to his literary pursuits or his taste for decoration. Some were designed as practical items for the scholar's comfort and health, albeit that no expensive was spared in their manufacture. Among these practical items were massagers, and two are included in this catalogue [Lot 929]. Both are made of expensive materials - one has ivory rollers and a hongmu handle, while the other has ivory and wumu rollers, and a decorative tassel with jade and hardstones is attached to the handle. In China massage has traditionally been seen as a way of promoting health and of treating and preventing diseases. Massagers with rollers and handles could be applied either by the person themselves or by a servant, and were made with rollers of different shapes for use on different parts of the body. The Palace collection still contains a significant number of massagers with rollers of various valuable materials.(8)
The Blumenfield collection thus contains interesting and beautiful items reflecting all aspects of the life of a Chinese gentleman-scholar: academic, aesthetic, aspirational, and designed for good health.
(1)Craig Clunas, Fruitful Sites - Garden Culture in Ming Dynasty China, London, 1996.
(2)Noted by James C. Y. Watt in the chapter 'The Antique-Elegant', Possessing the Past - Treasures from the National Palace, Taipei New York, 1996, p. 539.
(3)Qing Legacies - The Sumptuous Art of Imperial Packaging, Macau, 2000.
(4)See Qing Legacies - The Sumptuous Art of Imperial Packaging, op cit., pp. 96-99 and 104.
(5)Masterpieces of Chinese Writing Materials in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1971, pl. 5, right.
(6)Illustrated in Ming Qing shinei chenshe, Beijing, 2004, p. 120, pl. 113.
(7)The painting is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 14 Paintings by Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 192-5, no. 42.
(8)See Wan Yi, Wang Shuqing and Lu Yanzhen in Daily Life in the Forbidden City, translated by R. Scott and E. Shipley, Harmondsworth and New York, 1985, pp. 200-201, no.294.