Exquisite Chinese jade, porcelain and snuff bottles are highlights of the private collection of a globe-trotting family
Camille de Foresta was expecting to be valuing mostly 18th-century furniture, with a smattering of Chinese artworks, when she walked into a grand residence overlooking the French Riviera. Instead, the Christie’s Asian Art Senior Specialist discovered one of the most significant and spectacular private collections of objects she had ever encountered. ‘I was shocked,’ says De Foresta. ‘Chinese art collections are rare in Europe. We know about those already in museums, or collections we have sold before, but here was an entirely new discovery.’
In a corridor, De Foresta found a huge collection of Chinese snuff bottles, and the grand salon was lined with cabinets full of exceptional jade and porcelain. ‘They were perfect carvings and perfect colours,’ she says. ‘Uniform, and with no faults in the stone. The best period for jade is the Qing dynasty under the Qianlong reign (1736-1795), and many of the pieces were from that period.’
De Foresta had been asked to value the collection of a family descended from Russian Jews, pieces from which will be auctioned by Christie’s Paris on 13 and 14 December in the sale From Beijing to Versailles: the V.W.S. Collection. The auction also includes fine 18th-century French furniture and a selection of haute-couture pieces. The family wishes to remain anonymous.
In the early years of the 20th century they had fled persecution in Tsarist Russia and ended up in Harbin, northern China, a cosmopolitan city that was expanding rapidly. They founded a successful business but by the 1920s were forced to flee again after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, this time for Shanghai, where they again found commercial success. Later they emigrated to Hong Kong, and then Northern America, before finally settling in Europe. The artworks they collected along the way have remained with the family throughout.
Ivy Chan, a London-based Asian art scholar and consultant who Christie’s called on to examine the collection, says viewing the pieces for the first time gave her ‘fresh eyes’, and that they offer new insight into one of the most dynamic periods of Chinese jade production.
‘We haven't seen this collection before,’ says Chan. ‘Jade historians and researchers look at the same famous objects in museums or private hands for evidence. To see this collection was exciting because we had new examples to draw on, with decorations and forms that had not been seen before. It’s new evidence from a good private source with a fascinating history. That’s thrilling in itself, but the quality of the carvings is so high it adds more excitement to the sale.’
She says stand-out pieces include a white-jade Qianlong-period marriage bowl. It was carved with auspicious symbols from a single jade boulder and is just 8cm high – an extraordinary example of the carver’s skill. Such vessels were given as gifts at weddings to express the wish for a happy union. This one is special, says Chan, because of its elaborate interior. ‘It is hollowed out, with a reticulated section showing a character representing “double happiness”.’
Chan’s second star piece is a lidded bowl, again carved from a single white jade boulder in the same period, a classical shape with an elaborate finial adorned with a ‘longevity’ character. ‘This would have probably been a birthday gift,’ she says. ‘Perhaps for an elderly relative. The wish for longevity in Chinese culture is still a popular blessing. Its beauty lies in the purity of the stone, the semi-translucency,’ she adds. ‘It’s almost impossible to capture on camera, but when you hold it, you can appreciate that.’
Chan says the collection reflects the flourishing of 18th-century jade carving under the patronage of the Qianlong court. ‘It was an exceptional period – there was unprecedented access to the greatest sources of nephrite jade.’
China’s reverence for the stone can be traced back to the country’s earliest history, but in the mid-1700s carvings became particularly exquisite, in colours ranging from near-translucent white to yellows, greens, browns, greys and black. This exceptional period of craftsmanship was driven by three factors, says Chan. The first was the successful military campaigns of the 1750s that enabled the Chinese empire to gain access to superior sources of jade in the Khotan region (in modern-day Xinjiang), characterised by big boulders of even colour.
Then there was the Qianlong Emperor’s enthusiasm. ‘The emperor himself was obsessed. He wrote about 800 poems referring to jade. He might praise a beautiful piece, or criticise the carving for not being as elegant as he had hoped.’ Some imperial records suggest the emperor even selected the raw jade for the most skilled craftsmen to carve.
The third force was practical rather than romantic. ‘Jade is really resilient and very difficult to carve,’ says Chan. ‘Before this period they used abrasive sand, but under the Qianlong court the use of steel saws allowed carvers to make inventive, decorative and elaborate forms more easily.’
Another significant part of the collection is snuff bottles, often produced in jade, enamel on glass and carved overlay glass. Clare Chu, another Asian art historian commissioned by Christie’s, says the bottles are a specialist interest, meaning this collection is a rare find. ‘There are other collections of snuff bottles with some of this quality, but not with provenance going back to the 1930s.’
Chu points to the skill involved in creating a pair of imperial white jade bottles with lapis lazuli stoppers in the classic shape of Chinese officials’ hats. ‘I could immediately see that the bottles were exactly the same dimensions and carved from the same piece of stone.’ She has seen bottles ornamented with lapis lazuli in museums, but most examples in private hands are with gilded blue enamel stoppers. ‘Outside the national museums in Taipei and Beijing you would not find bottles like this.’
Fine Chinese porcelain also features in the sale. A pair of yellow-glazed porcelain bowls in a startlingly bright shade stand out. ‘Yellow was the imperial colour of the Qing dynasty,’ says Chu.
The family collected with real purpose. So treasured were their pieces that in the mid-20th century the family hired Daniel Pasgrimaud, a leading Parisian interior decorator, to create a Chinese mise-en-scène for their French Riviera residence.
The centrepiece was a black lacquered screen with 12 leaves, a Qing dynasty piece made between 1662 and 1722, which sat in the drawing room. It depicts a palace scene of pavilions, terraces, willows and pines, with courtiers at leisure and work. For Pasgrimaud, it was the piece that unified his decor scheme, bringing exquisite Chinese craftsmanship into a very French domestic setting, says De Foresta.
The intricate staging remains in their home, and was commissioned to remind the family of its peripatetic history and to reflect the delicate colours of jade, glass and porcelain: yellows from pale to rich custard; spinach greens to celadon, pearlescent white and gold.
‘The collecting gene runs through the generations,’ says Chu. ‘I often see collectors whose children are not remotely interested, so it’s quite rare to have descendants who are equally fascinated. It’s possible that this is one of the last early 20th-century collections of its kind.’