From the Neolithic to the new — the expansive vision of Florence and Herbert Irving

Taking place during Asian Art Week in New York in March 2019, Lacquer • Jade • Bronze • Ink: The Irving Collection will pay tribute to the Brooklyn-born philanthropists who put their ‘heart and soul’ into art

‘Florence and Herbert Irving had two major philanthropic interests,’ says Jonathan Rendell, Deputy Chairman and Head of Sales Curation at Christie’s. ‘The first was for cancer research, and the second was for Asian art.’

According to Rendell, the former received over $1 billion in funding through the New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, while the latter culminated in the Florence and Herbert Irving Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The couple gave the museum over $100 million and more than 1,300 objects, including a very fine selection of lacquer.

In March 2019, the couple’s highly prized collection of Asian artefacts will come up for sale at Christie’s. ‘It really is very special,’ Rendell continues. ‘They travelled extensively and were interested in everything, from the Neolithic to the new.’

A highly important and extremely rare gilt-bronze figure of a multi-armed Guanyin, Dali Kingdom, Yunnan, 11th-12th century. 14⅞ in (38 cm) high. Estimate $4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in Lacquer • Jade • Bronze • Ink The Irving Collection in March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A highly important and extremely rare gilt-bronze figure of a multi-armed Guanyin, Dali Kingdom, Yunnan, 11th-12th century. 14⅞ in (38 cm) high. Estimate: $4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in Lacquer • Jade • Bronze • Ink: The Irving Collection in March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Certainly the Irvings’ curiosity for pan-Asian art was prodigious, with the artefacts they acquired ranging from Neolithic jades, to rare gilt bronzes from the Dali Kingdom, to ink paintings by Modern Chinese artist Fu Baoshi. ‘It is a bit of the best of everything,’ says Rendell.

Fu Baoshi (1904-1965), Scholar at Writing Desk. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 17¾ x 26⅝ in (45.2 x 67.8 cm). Estimate $800,000-1,200,000. Offered in Lacquer • Jade • Bronze • Ink The Irving Collection in March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Fu Baoshi (1904-1965), Scholar at Writing Desk. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 17¾ x 26⅝ in (45.2 x 67.8 cm). Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. Offered in Lacquer • Jade • Bronze • Ink: The Irving Collection in March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The story of how this modest couple from Brooklyn became one of New York’s biggest art donors began in the 1940s, when Herbert’s academic career was cut short by the war. On his return from Europe, he set up a tinned food-distribution company, which eventually became the billion-dollar Sysco Corporation.

Florence and Herbert Irving photographed with pieces from their collection

Florence and Herbert Irving photographed with pieces from their collection

‘It was then, at Florence’s insistence, that they started buying Asian art,’ Rendell explains. ‘When they were poor and first married they used to spend all their time in the Brooklyn Museum of art, where they discovered the Asian galleries.’

A silver and copper-inlaid bronze figure of Buddha Shakyamuni, Western Tibet, 12th-13th century. 12 in (30.5 cm) high. Estimate $100,000-150,000. Offered in Lacquer • Jade • Bronze • Ink The Irving Collection in March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A silver and copper-inlaid bronze figure of Buddha Shakyamuni, Western Tibet, 12th-13th century. 12 in (30.5 cm) high. Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in Lacquer • Jade • Bronze • Ink: The Irving Collection in March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A trip to Japan led them to the indomitable art dealer Alice Boney, who had advised President Hoover on his porcelain collection. ‘The first thing they ever bought from her was an ancient Chinese stone pillow,’ says Rendell. ‘It looks absolutely beautiful but was in fact made for burial rituals.’

‘They put their heart and soul into their collection, and the results are exceptional’ — Christie’s Deputy Chairman Jonathan Rendell

The Irvings met the Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello and the Curator of Asian Art, James Watt, eventually donating much of their art to the museum. ‘That became their public collection,’ says Rendell. ‘What we have for sale at Christie’s is their private collection — the objects they actually lived with in their apartment overlooking the Met.’

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Rendell’s favourite object in the sale is a large imperial pale greenish-white jade deep ‘washer’ (below), which is inscribed with a poem by the Emperor Qianlong (estimate: $1,000,000-1,500,000). ‘Chinese Emperors often looked back over history and had things reproduced in honour of the past, so although the dish looks like an archaic jade, it was in fact made in the 18th century,’ he explains.

A highly important and extremely rare imperially-inscribed greenish white jade ‘Twin Fish’ washer. 10 in (25.4 cm) diameter. Estimate $1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in Lacquer • Jade • Bronze • Ink The Irving Collection in March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A highly important and extremely rare imperially-inscribed greenish white jade ‘Twin Fish’ washer. 10 in (25.4 cm) diameter. Estimate $1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in Lacquer • Jade • Bronze • Ink: The Irving Collection in March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The underside of the washer is inscribed with a poem by the Emperor Qianlong, with a Qianlong four-character mark and of the period, dated by inscription to the cyclical bingwu year, corresponding to 1786

The underside of the washer is inscribed with a poem by the Emperor Qianlong, with a Qianlong four-character mark and of the period, dated by inscription to the cyclical bingwu year, corresponding to 1786

What set the Irvings apart, says Rendell, was their scholarly approach to collecting. ‘They were not society people, they were interested in getting to know the experts who could help them understand the work they loved. They put their heart and soul into it, and the results are exceptional.’