Archaic jade carvings from the world’s greatest collections
Christie’s has offered sublime examples of archaic jade carvings from the world’s greatest collections, amassed by the likes of Dr Arthur M. Sackler. An online sale from 14-21 February now offers a variety of pieces from the Mrs Elizabeth Attridge Collection
The ancient Chinese considered jade the most precious of all materials, prizing it more than gold, silver or bronze. Sophisticated jade and lapidary production techniques had already been mastered by the Neolithic era, and the love of jade, which some anthropologists consider a defining characteristic of Chinese culture, has endured until the present day.
Earliest jades came in the form of ritual implements (such as bi discs and cong tubes), articles of personal adornment, small carvings, and various types of blades. The latter were used as weapons in Neolithic times because jade is a very hard stone, but probably served more as badges of office and emblems of rank.
Christie’s has been privileged to handle some of the most distinguished collections of archaic jades, and has achieved outstanding results.
The Sackler Collections
Dr. Arthur M. Sackler was one of America’s foremost art collectors, whose interests spanned Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Pre-Columbian art. His interests also encompassed European ceramics, sculpture, paintings and drawings, from the medieval to the modern periods.
Among his philanthropic ventures are The Sackler Wing at The Metropolitan Museum, New York; The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery — a Smithsonian Institution museum for Asian and Near Eastern Art in Washington, D.C.; the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard; and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Beijing.
In December 1994, Important Works of Art from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections sold in New York and realised an impressive $4.9 million. This was followed by another landmark New York sale in March 2009, Fine Chinese Art from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection, which was the first in a series of further sales.
The above bird-form finial/insignia is remarkable for the quality of the carving, the thinness of the jade and the translucent quality of the stone. Finials or insignias such as this exquisite example were used for personal adornment, possibly as part of a headdress. The perforations in the stone suggest that the bird would have been affixed to stand upright.
The bangle above has sides carved in low relief, with a continuous pattern of J-shaped scrolls alternately combined with either striated or scale pattern scrolls. The work achieved an outstanding price because of the lustrous quality of the yellow-toned stone and the exceptional carving.
The collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth
Few have made as great a contribution to the study and appreciation of Asian art in the West as the collector, dealer and scholar Robert Hatfield Ellsworth. Embracing ancient bronzes and Ming furniture, fine jade, modern Chinese painting, and Himalayan, Indian and Southeast Asian works of art, Ellsworth’s knowledge reached every facet of the Asian art historical canon. He was also a respected and passionate collector of English furniture, silver and European decorative arts. The seven consecutive days of sales of his collection in March 2015 achieved an exceptional $134 million.
The stone traditionally prized as jade in China, and which had become the standard by Shang times, is also know as nephrite, a translucent stone that occurs in colours that range from white to green, grey, and even black. Shang jades vary in hue but typically are sea-green or bluish green, like the above example.
The blade-type most commonly encountered among Shang jades is the ge dagger-axe. A pole weapon, the ge comprised a jade blade attached perpendicularly to a wooden shaft, the blade’s tang typically fitted through a slot at the end of the shaft, and the blade secured to the pole with a thong looped through the circular opening at the base of the tang.
Tradition holds that the huang, a flat arc of jade like the one pictured above, originated in the Neolithic period and was one of six ritual jades. The huang is associated with the north. By the Late Eastern Zhou dynasty (5th-4th century B.C.), however, the huang had been appropriated as an article of personal adornment, typically incorporated into pendants that were strung with jade beads and other ornaments and suspended from the waist or shoulders.
Such pendants served as symbols of virtuous men and as emblems of rank. Apart from the symbolism of the jade and the beauty of the stone, the ancient Chinese appreciated the tinkling sound the jades made as they touched each other when the wearer moved.
Taste in the Late Eastern Zhou had come to embrace light colours, so that most jades of that era are pale greenish white or even white, like the above huang, and often boast splashes of medium or dark brown.
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The Dongxi Collection
In 2016, Christie’s New York presented Dongxi Studio — Important Chinese Jade and Hardstone Carvings from a Distinguished Private Collection, featuring a number of exceptional and very rare archaic jade carvings, as well as a fine selection of later jade carvings from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
A major highlight from the collection was the above pendant, dating to the 9th-8th century B.C. The thin, flat plaque is finely carved to resemble a crouching humanoid figure shown in profile. The head has a distinctive profile and long, upswept hair that forms a backward-facing, S-shaped dragon. Pendants of this type with humanoid and dragon motif, and of curved outline, are extremely rare. This pendant was probably part of a larger and more elaborate headdress, and would have been affixed to stand upright.
The Yangdetang Collection
The Yangdetang Collection was owned by Dr. Yang Chün-hsiung,
a renowned archaic jade connoisseur in Taiwan. He focused
on collecting jades produced between the Neolithic and Han
periods, covering almost 6,000 years from the late Xinglongwa
Culture to the Eastern Han Dynasty (circa 5500 B.C. to A.D.
220). Many of his jades are of great academic importance
and were exhibited by the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
The phenomenal white-glove sale of Chinese Archaic Jades from The Yangdetang Collection was
held at Christie’s Hong Kong in November 2017, followed by
Part II in November 2018, reaching an outstanding
combined total in excess of HK$216 million.
One of the top pieces in the collection is the very rare ornament pictured above from the late Hongshan culture (circa 3500-3000 BC). It is
intricately carved and pierced in the form of an animal mask,
detailed with arched brows, circular eyes, horns and curved, protruding ears.
The Attridge Collection
From 14-21 February 2019, Christie’s London will present the Mrs Elizabeth Attridge Collection
of Early Jades in an online sale, encompassing both affordable decorative pieces as well as rare and historically
important examples of Chinese art.
The British collector regularly frequented sales at Christie’s South Kensington in the 1980s and ’90s, where she was attracted by the aesthetic of Chinese jade craftsmanship and developed a particular fondness for Neolithic jades. Over time she built up a formidable collection which was representative of the depth and variety of Chinese jade carvings throughout the ages.
A circular disk with a circular perforation in the centre, the bi was said to have symbolised the sun. Its exact function, and that of the other ritual objects, is unknown since these ancient cultures have left no textual evidence or documentation. The earliest bi discs, including this example, were left undecorated and were prized for their material.
The bi disc is one of the six ritual jades: bi (representing the heavens), cong (tubes, representing the earth), gui (ceremonial flat blades and axes, representing the east), zhang (ceremonial flat blades and axes, representing the south), hu (a vessel, representing the west), and huang (a flat arc of jade, representing the north). Of these ritual jades, the bi is perhaps the most important and one of the most enduring forms found in Chinese art.
The exquisite carving on this pendant demonstrates the great skill of the carver, who cleverly utilises the two different colours of the natural stone — cream and russet brown — to depict two young dragons writhing on top of an oval pendant. Also known as the ‘chicken heart’ pendant, this shape was one of the earlier known forms of Chinese archaic jade, which were later imitated throughout the centuries.