Bold, colourful, exquisite: the Tibor Collection of Chinese Export art

Specialist Becky MacGuire takes us inside the Tibor Collection, amassed over the course of 40 years and built around the extra-large, richly decorated vases known as tibores

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 Becky MacGuire, a senior specialist in Chinese Export Art. ‘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’.

A massive famille rose jar and cover, Yongzheng period (1723-35). 35½ in (90.1 cm) high. Estimate $20,000-30,000. Offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring Property from the Tibor Collection, 7-20 January, Online

A massive famille rose jar and cover, Yongzheng period (1723-35). 35½ in (90.1 cm) high. Estimate: $20,000-30,000. Offered in Chinese Export Art Featuring Property from the Tibor Collection, 7-20 January, Online

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.

The Tibor Collection excels 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.

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. A love of Chinese luxury goods was certainly a very exalted part of the taste of the New Spain period.’

Hispanic tastes 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; and tibores  made for royalty — select soldier vases in the collection were originally commissioned for King Philip V of Spain.

The Tibor Collection is rich in fantastical tableware as well — pieces for serving things in, pieces 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. Sold for $40,000 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. Sold for $40,000 on 10 April 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A portion of the Tibor Collection was previously sold at Christie’s, and further pieces are being offered in January 2021. A lot from the April 2019 sale conveys much of the history of Chinese Export art 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.

‘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.’