The Property of the Ping Y. Tai Foundation: Important Chinese Art
Ping Y. Tai (1915 - 1998) was the wife of the legendary connoisseur, collector and dealer, Jun Tsei Tai (1911-1992), fondly known in international Chinese art circles as J.T. Tai. The collection of the Ping Y. Tai Foundation comprises a hitherto little-known group of important classical paintings, ceramics and archaic bronzes given to Ping Y. Tai by her husband. The Chinese paintings were acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Tai without commercial intent and indeed were kept at home for their personal enjoyment. The superb early Ming white porcelain meiping and the unique Qianlong imperial famille-rose 'butterfly' vase also were treasured at home by Mr. and Mrs. Tai. Christie's is therefore especially privileged to present the collection in three sales in New York and Hong Kong in the autumn of 2008.
Mrs. Tai was born Chang Ping Ying in Suzhou in 1915. In 1932 in Shanghai, she married Jun Tsei Tai, who was already a highly respected connoisseur and dealer of Chinese ceramics, ancient bronze vessels and carved jades. Like many of their compatriots, Mr. and Mrs. Tai moved to Hong Kong in 1949, a year of great political and social upheaval in China. In 1950 Mr. Tai settled in New York and was joined by Mrs. Tai in 1953. Working first with the leading Paris-based dealer C.T. Loo, Mr. Tai soon established his own gallery, J.T. Tai and Co., on Madison Avenue in New York City's elite district of museums and galleries. Many masterpieces in major American museums and collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Freer Gallery of Art, the Avery Brundage collection and the Arthur M. Sackler collections were acquired from Mr. Tai. In this way, he was a primary force that profoundly influenced the appreciation of Chinese art in America and Europe.
Ping Y. and J.T. Tai were a central part of the cultural elite in New York's Chinese community, which included such renowned artistic and literary figures as the artist and collector C.C. Wang, the author and scholar Lin Yutang, the scholar and collector Wan-go Weng as well as the calligrapher and collector Wang Fang-yu. It was to this small group of friends and intellectual equals that Mr. and Mrs. Tai showed their private collection of art treasures. In the time-honored tradition of Chinese collectors, they would study and enjoy each painting or object during private moments together or at gatherings with their connoisseur friends. These meetings were relaxed and informal occasions. In addition to good food and art, there were also frequent mah-jongg games and Mrs. Tai was an especially enthusiastic participant.
It is not difficult to imagine Mr. and Mrs. Tai at home - studying and appreciating together the technique and beauty of Qiu Ying's (1495 - 1552) magnificent Lotus Picking (offered in Hong Kong in December). They might have recalled their hometown origins as they gazed at the depiction of a scholar seated at leisure surrounded by his finest treasures on the banks of one of Suzhou's rivers. Perhaps they were reminded of the warm summer days of their youth in that picturesque city. Qiu Ying, one of Suzhou's great masters, produced many of the most elegant and technically skillful paintings in the history of Chinese art.
Two porcelain masterpieces which were displayed in the New York home of Mr. and Mrs. Tai reflect contrasting aspects of their taste in ceramics. On the one hand, the exceptionally rare early 15th century meiping (offered in New York in September) with its incised peony scroll under an unmistakable milky white glaze is an important example of the famed tianbai or 'sweet white' ware of the Yongle period (1403-1425). Elegant, technically perfect and in pristine condition, the vase is surely one of the greatest early Ming monochromes to become available in decades. Its restrained decoration, subtle glaze and perfect form is best appreciated by the cognoscenti.
Equally important is the magnificent 18th century Imperial famille rose 'butterfly' vase (offered in Hong Kong in December) formerly in the Fonthill Heirlooms collection. Exquisitely and elaborately decorated in brilliant colors with a multitude of butterflies reserved on a brilliant pink ground meticulously incised with a delicate floral scroll, the vase is a tour-de-force of Qing enamelling technique. It is also a supreme testament to the luxurious taste of the Qianlong Emperor, whose seal mark graces its base. In contrast to the meiping the 'butterfly' vase emphasizes surface decoration, a rich palette and virtuoso technique.
All three of these treasures reflect the couple's appreciation of the highest levels of artistic and technical achievement and this is repeated throughout the Ping Y. Tai Foundation Collection.
Ping Y. Tai established the Ping Y. Tai Foundation in New York in order to continue her charitable work. This organization, which primarily supports institutions that provide vital aid in the areas of health and humanitarian services, regularly benefits such groups as the American Red Cross, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, UNICEF, City Meals on Wheels, Lighthouse International and Memorial Sloane-Kettering Hospital. The proceeds from the sales of this collection will help the Foundation to continue its important philanthropic endeavors.
Christie's sales of this exceptional collection in New York and Hong Kong provide collectors all over the world with a rare opportunity to participate in a tradition characterized by the most refined approach to art appreciation and collecting. Having benefited from the connoisseurship and discerning eye of Ping Y. and J. T. Tai, these treasures, unavailable for many years, can now be handed over to another generation of discerning collectors.
Treasures of the Ping Y. Tai Foundation
International Academic Director
The items from the Ping Y. Tai Foundation are a very interesting group, encompassing a variety of media and a wide spread of dates. Among the early items from the Foundation's collection, a Shang dynasty (c.1600-1100 BC) bronze tripod ding (lot 225), with cast interior mark, stands out as being a fine and classic example of 12th-11th century BC bronze casting from the Shang capital, Anyang. While the tripod ding would have been used for offerings of food, a fine Western Zhou dynasty (c.1100-771 BC) zun vessel (lot 226), which also has a cast interior mark, would have been used for wine during rituals. The handsome Western Zhou dynasty yan vessel (lot 227), on the other hand, has pouched legs and also has small struts on the interior at the level of the waisted area which would have supported a pierced tray on which ritual offerings of food could be steamed. This vessel also has a cast interior mark.
The earlier earthenware pieces from the Foundation's collection include a well-potted Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) jar with dramatically splashed sancai (three-colour) glaze (lot 234). This jar is not only relatively large, it is also unusual in being of elegantly attenuated ovoid form, rather than the more common spherical or compressed shape. Among the early stonewares is a rare, beautifully carved, 10th century Northern Song dynasty (AD 960-1127) Yue ware box and cover with bird and flower design (lot 237). The bird is a parrot with outstretched wings, shown against a background of blossoming peonies. This was a very popular motif on refined ceramic wares of the late Tang and Northern Song dynasties, and can also be seen on a number of fine silver and gold items, such as the famous Tang dynasty silver and gilt lidded jar with handle excavated in 1970 at Hejiacun, Xi'an, Shaanxi province, which also bears a design of parrots and peonies. Fine 10th century Yue ware boxes of similar shape with similar decoration to the current example have also been excavated in China. A slightly smaller Northern Song example, with a design of phoenixes and peonies, was excavated in 1972 at Shengxian, Zhejiang province. Like the current box it has a fine greyish-green glaze of a type that is often designated mise or 'secret colour'. This glaze was first mentioned in connection with Tang dynasty Yue wares, and was lauded by Tang poets such as Xu Yin (active late 9th to early 10th century). The Tang version of the mise Yue glaze was conclusively identified in 1987 when both the inventory noting the inclusion of mise wares and the wares themselves were excavated from the crypt of the Famen Temple pagoda, Shaanxi province, which was sealed in AD 874. Significant numbers of mise Yue wares were later sent as tribute to the Northern Song dynasty court in the early years of the dynasty, and it is to these that the current box relates.
From the Tang dynasty onwards, floral motifs abounded on the Chinese decorative arts, and so it is not surprising to find that sprays of carved lotus flowers decorate the interior of a Song dynasty Ding ware dish (lot 240) and a bowl from the Yaozhou kilns (lot 236) in the Foundation's collection. Lotus flowers, due to their association with Buddhism and purity, are one of the most popular floral decorations on Chinese art. The other very popular flower is the peony, which is associated with riches and honours. A rare Song dynasty ewer from Yaozhou (lot 238) bears a peony scroll, but the elements of this scroll are on a much larger scale than the peonies that decorate the Yue ware box lid. On the ewer, the torque around the base of the neck has been carved in such a way as to resemble the petals of a flower, with the neck at its centre. This somewhat formal approach on the torque provides a pleasing contrast to the freely depicted peony scroll that covers the entire body from the shoulder down.
A particularly rare and elegant white-glazed meiping vase (lot 245) from the Foundation dates to the Yongle reign (AD 1403-25). Such was the Yongle Emperor's admiration of white porcelain that more than 90 of the production at the Jingdezhen imperial kilns during his reign appears to have been white wares. It was during this reign that the so-called tianbai or 'sweet white' glaze, seen on the current vase, was developed. It has been admired by connoisseurs ever since for its soft, jade-like, appearance, which so perfectly complements the exceptionally fine potting and pure white porcelain body of this reign period. Few vases of this 'sweet white' type have survived, and the Tai vase is subtly enhanced with anhua or secret decoration. Such decoration is almost invisible from a distance, but was intended to be appreciated only by those fortunate enough to examine the piece at close quarters. In this case a finely-incised cloud-collar band emphasises the roundness of the shoulders, while the major band around the body has blossoming peony sprays, and a classic scroll encircles the foot. The Foundation's vase is very similar in form and style of decoration to two slightly smaller 'sweet white' Yongle vases in the collections of the Palace Museum, Beijing, and the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Both the vases from the Palace collections share with the current vase three bands of anhua incised decoration. All three vases also have a more slender meiping form than that seen on some Yongle meiping decorated in underglaze blue, like the example in the Palace Museum illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 34 - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), Hong Kong, 2000, p. 30, no. 28.
Another very rare monochrome porcelain in the Foundation's collection is a small zun jar with delicate pale blue glaze of the type known as clair de lune (lot 248). This zun, which has a form related to earlier incense burners, bears a six-character underglaze blue Kangxi mark and is of the period (AD 1662-1722). On either side of the vessel is a sprig-moulded, low relief, appliqué. These are in the positions where handles would often be found, but in this case they serve simply as decoration, rather than having any practical function. There is a jar of the same size and form in the collection of the Shanghai Museum, but the Museum example has a white glaze. The Shanghai Museum has described the appliqués being dragons, but they are of unusual form and could perhaps more confidently be described simply as representing auspicious creatures. The heads of the creatures look downward and have distinctive barbels or whiskers. A portion that may be the body of each creature is ridged, but truncated, and appears to have features resembling those of an insect or crustacean. No limbs are visible. Nevertheless it is of pleasing form and appears to owe less to archaic bronzes than the decoration on most other vessels of this shape. The relative low-relief of the appliqués also complements the smooth profile of the zun most effectively.
One of the most delicate porcelains in the Collection is a small, exceptionally thinly potted, cup bearing a Kangxi mark and of the period (lot 252). This is from one of the imperial sets of wine cups depicting the Flowers of the Twelve Months. Each of these cups was decorated in a particularly finely painted version of the wucai palette, with rocks and clumps of grass painted in a soft underglaze blue, while the majority of the decoration is rendered in overglaze famille verte enamels. The status of these cups can perhaps be judged by the fact that at the end of the inscription, which accompanies the flower painting on each cup, there is an underglaze blue seal character which reads: shang. This character may be translated as 'enjoy', for example to enjoy or appreciate the flowers. However, in this context it is more probable that it should be translated as 'reward', with the implication of being bestowed by a superior (in this case the emperor) as a reward for meritorious service.
The flower depicted on this particular cup is apricot blossom (xinghua), the flower of the second lunar month. Since this was the month in which the imperial examinations were held, apricot blossom has also become the 'successful candidate's flower', as well as being a symbol of a beautiful woman. The poetic inscription written on the other side of the cup in underglaze blue reads:
'Qingxiang he suyu, jiase chu qingyan'
This may be translated as:
'Its clear fragrance harmonises with the scent of over-night rain,
Its beautiful colour surpasses the brilliance of sunshine reflected off the haze.'
The couplet is taken from the poem In Reply to Zhangsun Yi for Sending me Apricot from Lanxi by the Tang dynasty poet Qian Qi (AD 710-780).
The reign of the Kangxi emperor (AD 1662-1722) saw the revival of the complex doucai decorative technique at the imperial kilns. In the Yongzheng reign (AD 1723-35) a new delicate version of doucai was developed, which made use of fine soft underglaze blue outlines and a more subtle application of the enamel colours painted within them. The Ping Y. Tai Foundation has a very rare pair of Yongzheng dishes (lot 253) and a particularly lovely Yongzheng bowl (lot 255) which exemplify the doucai technique in this reign period. The interior of each of the dishes is decorated with a design of five bats, which symbolize the Five Blessings of health, wealth, happiness, longevity and a peaceful death. On the exterior of the dishes eight bats fly above waves and mountains with red clouds. This motif also has an auspicious meaning - wishing the recipient happiness as deep as the ocean and as high as the mountains. In addition the red bats and coloured clouds also provide a rebus for vast happiness and great good luck. The beautiful Yongzheng doucai bowl in the Foundation's collection also bears auspicious motifs. On the interior are two peaches, symbols of longevity, while on the exterior are the anbaxian, the emblems of the Eight Daoist Immortals. In depictions of the Eight Immortals each member can be identified by what he or she carries. Zhongli Quan, a military man, carries a fan; Lan Caihe, a strolling singer has a flower basket; Zhangguo Lao has a bamboo drum with sticks; He Xiangu is a woman and carries a lotus or flower basket; Lu Dongbin has a fly whisk or sword; Han Xiangzi plays a flute; and Li Tiegui is often shown carrying a gourd containing magic potions as well as his iron crutch. On the Yongzheng bowl the immortals themselves do not appear, but their emblems are shown, each tied with fluttering ribbons, and provide the auspicious message.
In addition to the ceramics and bronzes, the Foundation also includes jades, and a very handsome Qing dynasty kesi panel (lot 243), which has been mounted as a hanging scroll. The latter bears a title strip which reads Ming kesi Fang Shuo tou tao tu (Ming kesi picture of Fang Shuo Stealing Peaches). Dongfang Shuo is depicted running away from Xi Wangmu's orchard carrying a peach tree branch with two of the famous peaches of immortality attached to it. The weaver has most effectively depicted him with his robes swirling around him to emphasise the speed of his flight.
Dongfang Shuo is a well-known character from Chinese history and legend, and his biography appears in the Huaji (Humorists) chapter of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) by Sima Tan (died c. 110 BC) and his son Sima Qian (145-86 BC). Here it is stated that Dongfang Shuo entered the service of the Han dynasty Emperor Wudi (r. 140-87 BC) and left the court during the reign of the Emperor Xuandi (r. 73-49 BC). He was noted for the inconsistencies of his personality - sometimes erudite, sometimes superficial, sometimes very sincere, sometimes very playful. The Hanshu (History of the Former Han) by Ban Gu (AD 32-92), also includes a biography of Dongfang Shuo. Some contemporary authors have interpreted the historical information about Dongfang Shuo as suggesting that he was a court jester. However the more usual interpretation is that he was a learned and witty, but eccentric, court official with an eye for beautiful young women, while Liu Xiang in his Biographies of Immortals, says that Dongfang Shuo was transformed into a Daoist Immortal.
In later dynasties humorous stories concerning Dongfang Shuo abounded and were included in plays. Two Qing dynasty plays are based around the same story as that which is depicted on the current kesi scroll. A 20-act chuanqi play by Wu Dexiu (fl. c. AD 1692) is entitled Xinke chuxiang yinshi dianban - Dongfang Shuo toutao ji (A Newly Cut and Annotated Woodblock Print [edition] of Dongfang Shuo Stealing a Peach), while a one-act sketch by Yang Chaoguan (AD 1712-91) is called Toutai zhuozhu Dongfang Shuo (Dongfang Shuo Caught Stealing a Peach).
The legend is that Dongfang Shuo went to steal one of the famous 'peaches of immortality' from the orchard of Xi Wangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, whose palace was believed to be high in the Kunlun mountains. The first time he was caught and beaten as punishment. The second time he was caught again, but was able to use his quick wit and humour to prevent further punishment. Some versions of the story have him making three attempts to steal the peaches, which were believed to ripen only once in 3,000 years and to confer immortality on anyone who ate them. This tale has provided the decoration for many items of Chinese decorative art, and Fang Shuo tuo tao ([Dong]Fang Shuo steals the peaches) has even been incorporated into the game of weiqi. The theme is particularly well depicted on the current kesi scroll, which shows the roguish Dongfang Shuo fleeing across the rocky mountain with his prized peaches. Interestingly, the artist has given the figure features that are associated with the Star God of Longevity, Shou Lao, who is often shown with a high, domed, forehead, long white beard and carrying a double gourd, and who also holds a peach.
1 Illustrated in World of the Heavenly Khan - Treasures of the T'ang Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2002, p. 50.
2 Illustrated in Zhongguo Taoci quanji - 4 - Yueyao, Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1981, no. 201.
3 See Report of Archaeological Excavation at Famen Temple vol. 1, Wenwu Chubanshe, Beijing, 2007, plates 192-201 CXCII-CCI.
4 The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 37 - Monochrome Porcelain, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 108, no. 99.
5 Illustrated in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum, Monochrome Ware of the Ming Dynasty - Book I, Cafa Company, Hong Kong, 1968, p. 34, plates 1a-d.
6 Wang Qingzheng (ed.), Kangxi Porcelain Ware from the Shanghai Museum Collection, Shanghai Museum Woods Publishing, Hong Kong, 1998, p. 346, no. 231.
7 A complete set of twelve month cups is in the collection of the Percival David Foundation. These are illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration - Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, op. cit., p. 113, no. 122.
8 Beatrice K. Otto, Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World, University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. 196-7.