From the Neolithic to the new — the expansive vision of Florence and Herbert Irving

Jonathan Rendell, the Deputy Chairman and Head of Sales Curation at Christie’s, pays tribute to the Brooklyn-born philanthropists who put their ‘heart and soul’ into art

‘Florence and Herbert Irving had two major philanthropic interests,’ says Jonathan Rendell, Deputy Chairman and Head of Sales Curation at Christie’s. ‘The first was for cancer research, and the second was for Asian art.’

According to Rendell, the former received over $1 billion in funding through the New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, while the latter culminated in the Florence and Herbert Irving Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The couple gave the museum over $100 million and more than 1,300 objects.

A buff sandstone figure of a Yakshi, central India, Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh, 11th century. 34 in (86.4 cm) high. Estimate $200,000-300,000. Offered in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art on 24 September 2020 at Christie’s in New York 

A buff sandstone figure of a Yakshi, central India, Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh, 11th century. 34 in (86.4 cm) high. Estimate: $200,000-300,000. Offered in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art on 24 September 2020 at Christie’s in New York 

A buff sandstone figure of a Yakshi, central India, Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh, 10th century. 33 in (83.8 cm) high. Estimate $120,000-180,000. Offered in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art on 24 September 2020 at Christie’s in New York

A buff sandstone figure of a Yakshi, central India, Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh, 10th century. 33 in (83.8 cm) high. Estimate: $120,000-180,000. Offered in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art on 24 September 2020 at Christie’s in New York

In March 2019, part one of the couple’s highly prized collection of Asian artefacts came up for sale at Christie’s. The day, evening and online auctions raised a combined $31.9 million. 

Now, a second part the Irving Collection is being offered across Christie’s Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art sale and Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale, on 24 and 25 September 2020 respectively.

‘It really is very special,’ Rendell continues. ‘The Irvings travelled extensively and were interested in everything, from the Neolithic to the new.’

Certainly their curiosity for pan-Asian art was prodigious, with the artefacts they acquired ranging from Neolithic and 18th century jades, to rare gilt bronzes from the Dali Kingdom, to ink paintings by Modern Chinese artists such as Fu Baoshi and Lin Fengmian. ‘It is a bit of the best of everything,’ says Rendell.

Fu Baoshi (China, 1904-1965), Lithe like a crane, leisurely like a seagull. 17¾ x 26⅝  in (45.2 x 67.8  cm). Sold for $1,815,000 on 20 March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Fu Baoshi (China, 1904-1965), Lithe like a crane, leisurely like a seagull. 17¾ x 26⅝ in (45.2 x 67.8 cm). Sold for $1,815,000 on 20 March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The story of how this modest couple from Brooklyn became one of New York’s biggest art donors began in the 1940s, when Herbert’s academic career was cut short by the war. On his return from Europe, he set up a tinned food-distribution company, which eventually became the billion-dollar Sysco Corporation.

Florence and Herbert Irving photographed with pieces from their collection

Florence and Herbert Irving photographed with pieces from their collection

‘It was then, at Florence’s insistence, that they started buying Asian art,’ Rendell explains. ‘When they were poor and first married they used to spend all their time in the Brooklyn Museum of art, where they discovered the Asian galleries.’

A silver and copper-inlaid bronze figure of a Buddha, Western Tibet, 11th-12th century. 12¼  in (31  cm) high. Sold for $495,000 on 21 March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A silver and copper-inlaid bronze figure of a Buddha, Western Tibet, 11th-12th century. 12¼ in (31 cm) high. Sold for $495,000 on 21 March 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A trip to Japan led them to the indomitable art dealer Alice Boney, who had advised President Hoover on his porcelain collection. ‘The first thing they ever bought from her was an ancient Chinese stone pillow,’ says Rendell. ‘It looks absolutely beautiful but was in fact made for burial rituals.’

‘They put their heart and soul into their collection, and the results are exceptional’ — Christie’s Deputy Chairman Jonathan Rendell

The Irvings met the Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello and the Curator of Asian Art, James Watt, eventually donating much of their art to the museum. ‘That became their public collection,’ says Rendell. ‘What we have for sale at Christie’s is their private collection — the objects they actually lived with in their apartment overlooking the Met.’

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Rendell’s favourite object from part one of the collection was a large imperial pale greenish-white jade deep ‘washer’ (below left), which is inscribed with a poem by the Emperor Qianlong. ‘Chinese Emperors often looked back over history and had things reproduced in honour of the past, so although the dish looks like an archaic jade, it was in fact made in the 18th century,’ he explains. It sold on 20 March 2019 for $2,895,000 — nearly triple its estimate. 

This September, Rendell is inspired by the layers of meaning in another rare Qianlong period jade carving (below right). It is a large and impressive white jade carving of an elephant attended by boys and carrying a vase of Rohdea japonica on its back. This unusual combination symbolises the wish for peace and a prosperous new year. 

An important and extremely rare imperially inscribed greenish-white jade ‘’twin fish’’ washer, China. Qing Dynasty, 1786. 10 in (25.4 cm) diam. Sold for $2,895,000 on 20 March 2019 at Christie’s in New York
An important and extremely rare imperially inscribed greenish-white jade ‘’twin fish’’ washer, China. Qing Dynasty, 1786. 10 in (25.4 cm) diam. Sold for $2,895,000 on 20 March 2019 at Christie’s in New York
A large and finely carved white jade ‘elephant and boys’ group, Qianlong period (1736-1795). 7½ in (19 cm) high. Estimate $500,000-800,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christie’s in New York
A large and finely carved white jade ‘elephant and boys’ group, Qianlong period (1736-1795). 7½ in (19 cm) high. Estimate: $500,000-800,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 25 September 2020 at Christie’s in New York

What set the Irvings apart, says Rendell, was their scholarly approach to collecting. ‘They were not society people, they were interested in getting to know the experts who could help them understand the work they loved. They put their heart and soul into it, and the results are exceptional.’