This magnificent pair of 18th-century Chinese ‘Boys’ jars are thought to have been purchased by America’s original retail magnate, John Wanamaker, in around 1907.
The jars, which have spent the last century in the Wanamaker family collection, are decorated with famille rose enamels, and feature scenes of young boys at play — some waving flags, others playing instruments, one riding a hobby horse.
‘The theme represents a wish for many sons,’ explains Margaret Gristina, a senior specialist in Christie’s Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art department. Marks on the base of each jar indicate that they were made for imperial use sometime between 1736 and 1795 during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong, who had no fewer than 17 sons.
Although similar vases can be found in the Palace Museum in Beijing, Gristina explains that to find two imperial examples together — and, crucially, with their original covers — is exceptional.
John Wanamaker was born in 1838, in a rural suburb of south Philadelphia. From humble beginnings — his father was a brick-maker — he went on to serve as US Postmaster General under President Benjamin Harrison, as well as a patron of America’s Gilded Age of collecting.
Wanamaker started his first general store business at the age of 23. Initially partnering with his brother-in-law, he quickly found success with his novel ‘one price and goods returnable’ sales policy, and expanded throughout his home city, before moving into New York, and eventually London and Paris.
Wanamaker was the first retailer to use full-page newspaper advertisements, the money-back-guarantee and the price tag, and by 1910 the business had grown to such an extent that the entrepreneur was able to put the finishing touches on his crowning achievement: the 12-storey Wanamaker Building, Philadelphia’s first department store, which occupied an entire block across from City Hall.
Wanamaker’s collecting of art and antiquities was almost as noteworthy as his business, civic and political careers.
‘He is said to have had an insatiable appetite for art,’ says Gristina. ‘One biography recounts how he would have crates packed full of hundreds of paintings, art objects, sculptures, and originals and copies of masterpieces shipped to the States to join his personal collection or to be hung around his stores.’
Records don’t survive to shed light on when and where John Wanamaker acquired these jars, but in 1907 his Pennsylvanian country retreat, Lindenhurst, burnt down along with the majority of his collection, which would have needed replacing.
‘Descendants of the family have told us that the two jars were always displayed at either end of John Wanamaker’s mantelpiece, flanking a pair of jade parrots and a jade figure of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy,’ says Gristina.
This arrangement became tradition when the objects passed down to Wanamaker’s daughter, Mary ‘Minnie’ Brown Wanamaker (1869-1954), then to Minnie’s son, C. Egerton Warburton (1902-1973).
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In 1989 the family asked Christie’s in Hong Kong to auction the jade parrots and the figure of Guanyin. Now, it’s the turn of these wonderful jars.
‘In terms of quality and rarity, they’re certainly museum-worthy,’ notes Gristina. ‘There has always been a demand for pieces of imperial Chinese porcelain, and with such illustrious provenance, who could resist these?’