Bold, colourful, exquisite: The Tibor Collection of Chinese Export Art

Senior Specialist in Chinese Export Art Becky MacGuire takes us inside the Tibor Collection, which was amassed over some 40 years. This veritable trove will be sold in a series of auctions throughout 2019, starting on 10 April in New York

All works of art embody their histories, in what they depict, the way they were made, how they’ve been used, or the hands through which they’ve passed. In the category of Chinese Export Art, this is true on nearly every count. Each piece affirms a history and a pattern of collecting that foreshadow the dynamic, global nature of art, design, and connoisseurship today.

Chinese Export porcelain is porcelain ware that was made in China specifically for export to the Western world,’ explains Senior Specialist in Chinese Export Art, Becky MacGuire. ‘In Europe, we only had clay pottery until about the 1710s or 1720s. Nobody knew how to make true, hard-paste, fine-white porcelain. Only the Chinese, who had been making it for hundreds of years.’

Europeans were astounded by Chinese porcelain, and it became a coveted luxury item. Chinese porcelain first appeared on the market as early as the 14th century, MacGuire says, then increasingly in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries as navigation improved, trade with China accelerated, and Europeans sailed to Asia ‘with the purpose of bringing back shiploads of Chinese goods’.

The nature of the artworks and objects they brought back shifted over the course of these centuries, too, as Chinese craftsmen sought to capitalise on this new interest in their work, and European companies and connoisseurs realised they could commission pieces that aligned with their own tastes. What resulted was a fascinating synthesis of East and West.

An unusual very large blue-ground jar and cover, 18th century. 24⅝ in (62.5 cm) high. Estimate $10,000-15,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

An unusual very large blue-ground jar and cover, 18th century. 24⅝ in (62.5 cm) high. Estimate: $10,000-15,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection: A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A pair of famille rose roosters, Qianlong period (1736-1795). 14½ in (36.8 cm) high. Estimate $30,000-50,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A pair of famille rose roosters, Qianlong period (1736-1795). 14½ in (36.8 cm) high. Estimate: $30,000-50,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection: A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The Tibor Collection has strengths in nearly every category of Chinese Export porcelain, from armorial motifs to famille rose  and famille verte  patterning, to whimsical serving vessels and figures. Yet it takes its title from its particular strength in extra-large, richly decorated vases — called tibores  by their Hispanic buyers and admirers.

A large pair of famille rose laughing boys, Qianlong period (1736-1795). 14 in (35.5 cm) high. Estimate $20,000-30,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A large pair of famille rose laughing boys, Qianlong period (1736-1795). 14 in (35.5 cm) high. Estimate: $20,000-30,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection: A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The term also speaks to the Latin origins of this collection, which was amassed over some 40 years. Not only is it strong in Chinese Export porcelain that was made at the very height of the China Trade Period, it’s also strong in work that was made specifically  for those who were living and thriving in Spain and the Spanish territories in North and Central America, then referred to as ‘New Spain’.

‘The Spanish were in the Americas from about 1520 to 1820,’ MacGuire says. ‘For the wealthy and the aristocracy that ruled in the Viceroyalty there was a fantastic life to be led, and certainly a love of Chinese luxury goods was a very exalted part of the taste of the New Spain period.’

A large pair of cranes, Qianlong period (1736-1795). Each 16½ in (41.9 cm) high. Estimate $30,000-50,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A large pair of cranes, Qianlong period (1736-1795). Each 16½ in (41.9 cm) high. Estimate: $30,000-50,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection: A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Hispanic tastes in this material tended towards the big, the bold and the colourful, as evidenced throughout the Tibor Collection. Highlights include 5ft-high ‘soldier vases’ lavishly enamelled with images of exotic flora and auspicious carp; cranes and roosters sculpted masterfully from talon to beak; tibores  made for chocolate; tibores  made for decoration; tibores  made for royalty, too — select soldier vases in the collection were originally commissioned for King Philip V of Spain.

A pair of Rose-Imari ‘Soldier’ vases and covers, YongzhengEarly Qialong period, circa 1735. 52 in (132.1 cm). Estimate $175,00-275,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A pair of Rose-Imari ‘Soldier’ vases and covers, Yongzheng/Early Qialong period, circa 1735. 52 in (132.1 cm). Estimate: $175,00-275,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection: A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The Tibor Collection is rich in fantastical tableware as well — things for serving, things for show, and, most dramatically, a series of bird and fish tureens that puffed out steam when put to use.

A rare large tiger and foxhunting bowl, Qianlong period, circa 1785. 16 in (40.6 cm) diameter. Estimate $15,000-25,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A rare large tiger and foxhunting bowl, Qianlong period, circa 1785. 16 in (40.6 cm) diameter. Estimate: $15,000-25,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection: A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Yet it’s a subtler piece that might, in itself, convey much of this history in capsule form: a rare punchbowl from the Qianlong period, circa 1785. ‘On the outside we have a Chinese tiger hunt,’ MacGuire says, ‘with some hunters on horseback, others spearing this poor tiger that’s just met his fate. And on the inside we have a European fox hunt.

A massive pair of geese, late 18thearly 19th century. 22¼ in (56.5 cm) high the taller. Estimate $40,000-60,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A massive pair of geese, late 18th/early 19th century. 22¼ in (56.5 cm) high the taller. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. Offered in The Tibor Collection: A Noble Eye for Chinese Export on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

‘For the Chinese enameller, foxhunting would have been completely unknown. He would have been given prints to copy to show him how the hunters dressed, what the hunting horn looked like, what a fox looked like.’

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What resulted was ‘an extremely rare combination of European and Chinese subject decoration,’ adds the specialist. ‘It’s extraordinary that this communication happened in this way in the 18th century. And I think it embodies Chinese Export completely, right here in this one piece.’