Left to right George Walter Vincent Smith and his wife Belle Townsley Smith in their home; a large white jade carving of Shoulao and deer, Qianlong-Jiaqing period (1736-1820). 27.2 cm high. Estimate

Conceived in a New York curio shop — G.W.V. Smith’s lifelong passion for Chinese cloisonné ware and jades

A collection that started with a single vase became one of America’s finest assemblages of Asian art, encompassing more than 5,000 pieces. Now a dozen of its treasures are coming to auction at Christie’s in Hong Kong

One day in the early 1850s, G.W.V. Smith wandered into a curio shop in Manhattan, somewhere south of Hell’s Kitchen. He was in his early twenties, and beginning to make a name for himself in the import business. A colourful object in the shop drew his attention. It was a cloisonné vase from China. ‘After an examination,’ wrote the Springfield Republican  decades later, ‘he bought it.’

No one knows what prompted that impulse buy. At work, Smith was dealing with fine foreign fabrics, so maybe it was the workmanship and intricate patterning that caught his eye. And he knew his star was rising, so perhaps he felt he owed himself a small reward.

Whatever lay behind it, that purchase was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with Chinese works of art. The young Mr. Smith’s gift to himself spawned one of the great American collections of Asian decorative arts, leading eventually to the foundation of the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, one of the first private museums in America and the world.

‘When Mr. Smith sees something so rare and fine that he knows he will lose it forever unless he seizes the moment of opportunity, he is apt to yield’ — newspaper article from 1889

A small number of works from the museum’s vast collection are now coming to auction in the Imperial Glories from the Springfield Museums Collection sale on 30 November.

‘There are 12 pieces in the sale,’ says Chi Fan Tsang, Christie’s head of Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art in Hong Kong. ‘Seven of them are glorious examples of cloisonné enamelware; five are white jade carvings. All of them were acquired by Smith himself over his long collecting career.’

Among the jade pieces is a statue of Shoulao, the aged star god of longevity. His translucent beard and robe form a series of folds and pleats that look like ripples in milk. ‘And the figure is unusually tall,’ says Tsang. ‘The original boulder must have been the size of a large cushion. No one will have known what the jade was like — or even what colour it was — until the skin of the rock was pared away in the imperial atelier.’

So this piece, like every jade sculpture, began as a hopeful experiment. ‘If a stone contains flaws, that is a big problem. In this case, a natural fissure has been masterfully worked into the design below the hem of the god’s garment. The artist who made this statue knew exactly what he was doing.’

A magnificent imperial cloisonné-enamel ‘taotie’ hu-form vase, Yongzheng-Qianlong period (1722-1795). 25⅜ in (64.7 cm) high. Estimate HK$3,000,000-5,000,000. Offered in Imperial Glories from the Springfield Museums Collection on 30 November 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A magnificent imperial cloisonné-enamel ‘taotiehu-form vase, Yongzheng-Qianlong period (1722-1795). 25⅜ in (64.7 cm) high. Estimate: HK$3,000,000-5,000,000. Offered in Imperial Glories from the Springfield Museums Collection on 30 November 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

The most striking of the cloisonné pieces in the sale is a pear-shaped vessel known as a hu. It is not the vase that Smith bought on a whim that day in Manhattan, but it could be seen as its natural successor: a fabulously ornate and accomplished object sure to appeal to the mature connoisseur that Smith became. ‘Cloisonné ware was always his favourite,’ says Tsang, ‘and this piece is an absolutely extraordinary achievement for the 18th century.’

A detail of the stylised face on the hu vase
A detail of the stylised face on the hu vase

The stylised face on the hu  vase is the ancient depiction of a taotie — ‘a hungry beast’. And that seems appropriate since, by the time Smith bought it in comfortable middle age, he had been feeding his own voracious appetite for Chinese ceramics for 30 years. 

‘Mr. Smith never goes to New York without registering a vow that he will not be tempted to buy anything more,’ says a newspaper article from 1889. ‘And yet when he sees something so rare and fine that he knows he will lose it forever unless he seizes the moment of opportunity, he is apt to yield.’

Chinese cloisonné was Smith’s dearest love, but his taste was always eclectic. He bought widely but astutely, applying the same shrewd approach that made him a wealthy and successful businessman. His sphere of interests embraced books and bronzes, suits of Japanese armour, manuscripts and American landscapes, silverware and weaponry. His wife Belle, meanwhile, amassed a sizeable and historically important collection of French and Spanish lace. They both had the collecting bug: it sustained them throughout their married life.

Smith himself served as curator of the vast collection that was his life’s work, and went to see it every day until his death in 1923. The museum was, in effect, an annexe of his home

Photographs of the Smiths’ home in Springfield reveal a degree of clutter that goes far beyond the busy late-Victorian norm. The collection comprised more than 5,000 separate objects. Framed pictures rest against the legs of occasional tables; pots crowd the mantelpiece like rush-hour commuters on a station platform; everywhere there are overstuffed glass-fronted cabinets.

George Walter Vincent Smith and his wife Belle Townsley Smith in their home
George Walter Vincent Smith and his wife Belle Townsley Smith in their home

There came a point in the early 1890s when the couple decided to donate their collection to the city in which they had settled, to decant it all into a large, purpose-built museum. Their motive was entirely philanthropic: they wanted their life’s passion to be enjoyed and admired by the American public.

‘It is the masses we desire to reach,’ wrote Smith, ‘who have neither time nor inclination to study, who visit museums as a pastime and yet are susceptible, under favourable conditions, to art influences that will make for better or happier lives.’

When their Italianate-style art museum opened in 1896, the Smiths moved into a house a few steps away, so as to be close to their treasures. From the start, Smith himself served as curator of the vast collection that was his life’s work, and went to see it every day until his death in 1923. The museum was, in effect, an annexe of his home, a display case writ large.

Exterior of the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, established in 1896, and housed in a building modelled after an Italian palazzo
Exterior of the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, established in 1896, and housed in a building modelled after an Italian palazzo

Strangely, though he travelled widely in search of treasures, Smith never went to China. Everything was acquired from dealers in the US and Europe. We don’t know why he chose not to go to the source of his cloisonné obsession. He had, after all, made enough money to retire at the age of 35, so he possessed the means and the opportunity.

‘That is quite a mystery to me,’ says Tsang. ‘I am not sure what his thinking was. Maybe it felt daunting to sail so far from home.’ His letters and personal papers might have provided a clue, but at his request they were all burned. ‘I wish nothing said or known outside as to my acts, movements or life,’ he said.

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So the only way to know what he felt about his collection is to examine the collection itself. The common theme seems to be total awe in the presence of individual artisanship — which is understandable for an industrialist in the first age of mass production. And there is also Smith’s lifelong insistence that each piece be beautiful above all — an attitude to collecting that is as pure as white jade. 

‘The keynote of this collection,’ he said, ‘was intended to be, and is, beauty — beauty and repose, beauty of form.’