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Sotheby's to offer Chinese Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Florence & Herbert Irving Gift
A Rare Celadon and Russet Jade ‘Quail and Millet’ Boulder, Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng / Qianlong Period. Estimate $150/250,000. Courtesy Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- Sotheby’s will offer 300+ Chinese works of art originally gifted by philanthropists and renowned Asian art collectors Florence and Herbert Irving to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as a highlight of their Asia Week sale series in September 2019.

In March 2015, The Met announced the gift of 1,275 Asian works of art from Florence and Herbert Irving – a donation that fundamentally transformed the holdings of the museum’s Department of Asian Art, on the occasion of its centennial. At the time of their gift, the Irvings realized that a full assessment of their collection would take time, and that there would undoubtedly be many pieces that would unnecessarily duplicate works already in the collection. For that reason, they agreed that The Met could sell any of the works in their gift so long as the proceeds would go towards future acquisitions. The present sale is a fulfillment of that visionary goal.

The full proceeds of Sotheby’s sales will go into an Irving acquisition fund, to be used by The Met’s Department of Asian Art to continue the Irving legacy by seeking out artworks to further enhance the comprehensive nature of the institution’s holdings of Asian art.

Sotheby’s will present over 120+ archaic to Qing dynasty jades along with porcelain, sculptures and objects for the scholar’s studio in a dedicated sale on 10 September, titled Chinese Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Florence and Herbert Irving Gift. The auction is led by a finely carved spinach-green jade brushpot, formerly in the collection of Alfred Morrison and kept at Fonthill, his famed English country house (estimate $500/700,000). Additional objects from the Irving Gift will be offered in the Saturday at Sotheby’s: Asian Art auction on 14 September.

Public exhibitions for all of Sotheby’s Asia Week auctions will open on 6 September in our New York galleries.

Angela McAteer, Head of Sotheby’s Chinese Works of Art Department in New York, commented: “It is a privilege to work with The Met this autumn to help bring these exceptional works to collectors worldwide. Our sales are representative of the Irvings’ exceptional taste in Chinese art, which features a strong emphasis on organic materials and works hewn from nature, as well as extraordinary Chinese jades produced during the reign of the Qianlong emperor.”

Maxwell K. Hearn, Douglas Dillon Chairman of the Department of Asian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said: "Florence and Herbert Irving were visionary and passionate collectors whose devotion and generosity have dramatically transformed the Museum’s holdings. We are deeply grateful that their gifts will enable us to continue to enhance The Met’s collection.”

Herbert and Florence Irving’s passion for Asian art began in the Asian galleries of the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. Initially their interest was focused on lacquer, and their first piece happened to be a Qianlong-period brush pot. Soon their wide-ranging art collection encompassed art not only from China, but also from Japan, Korea, India and Southeast Asia. As serious, scholarly collectors, they developed a close relationship with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they held an important exhibition of their lacquer collection. The Met became in the end the home for many of their masterpieces.

The Irvings’ extensive relationship with The Met includes: Florence’s election as a museum Trustee in 1990, and election as a Trustee Emerita in 1996; the 1991 opening of the spectacular exhibition East Asian Lacquer from the Collection of Florence and Herbert Irving; the 1994 opening of the Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for South and Southeast Asian Art, which gave The Met the most extensive display space for these arts anywhere outside Asia; the 1997 opening of the Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for Chinese Decorative Arts, which added 3,000 square feet to the Asian Wing; their 2011 endowment of the position of Florence and Herbert Irving Curator of the Arts of South and Southeast Asia, which is currently held by John Guy; and their 2015 gift.

The Irvings’ 2015 gift of almost 1,300 works of art encompasses all of the major cultures of East and South Asia and virtually every medium explored by Asian craftsmen over five millennia. Areas of particular strength are Chinese, Japanese, and Korean lacquers, South Asian sculpture, Chinese jades and hardstones, scholars’ objects of ivory, rhinoceros horn, bamboo, wood, and metalwork, Japanese ceramics, and Chinese and Japanese painting. Taken together, this transformative gift fills gaps and extends the Met’s existing strengths in ways that will further elevate the Museum’s stature as one of the world’s premier collections of Asian art.

Auction 10 September

A Finely Carved Large Spinach-Green Jade ‘Immortals’ Brushpot
Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period
Estimate $500/700,000
This magnificent vessel belongs to a highly refined group of ‘figure-in-landscape’ brush pots, created at the height of the jade production in the Qianlong period (1735-1795). Portraying mythological and historical events, these brush pots are exquisitely carved in green or white jade. The green jade models, particularly the striking spinach-toned examples, appear to have been especially favored by the Qing court.

The present brush pot is an extremely luxurious item for the scholar’s desk and would have made a most desirable birthday gift in view of its popular theme of immortals surrounded by many auspicious elements such as deer and lingzhi. To create such an extravagant work of art, a high- quality boulder of substantial proportions would be essential. Such a boulder would not have been easily available before the Qianlong Emperor’s 1759 conquest of the Western Territories (xiyu), which gave him access to jade-rich Khotan. The number of surviving jade pieces of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) from the period before 1759 is, in fact, conspicuously small compared to the immense quantity of jade artefacts produced thereafter.

A Rare Celadon and Russet Jade ‘Quail and Millet’ Boulder
Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng / Qianlong Period
Estimate $150/250,000

Expertly fashioned in multiple layers of relief that suggest receding space, this piece is a remarkable example of a jade mountain carving (yushan). Every detail of the design was carefully executed and the craftsman successfully captured the different textures of the design elements: from birds and sprays of millet which give the impression of being modelled entirely in the round, to flowing water in the foreground and overhanging rocks. The scene was designed to maximize the use of the entire boulder so as to waste as little of the precious material as possible.

Jade mountain carvings were kept in scholars’ studios where they provided a means of inspiration and escape from the regulated life of the court through their sense of ethereality and their subject matter. Quails, in China called anchun, are highly auspicious, since ‘an’ is a homophone of the word for peace.

A White and Apple-Green Jadeite ‘Landscape’ Table Screen
Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period
Estimate $80/120,000

This table screen is striking for the brilliant green tone of the stone from which it was fashioned, and appears to be the pair to a table screen in the collections of R.C. Bruce, H.M. Queen Marie of Yugoslavia, and Sir John Woolf. The natural striations and subtle variations in the stone’s color, which were cleverly incorporated into the design of both screens to depict rippling water, appear to match. Furthermore, the two screens read like extracts from sections of a longer handscroll.

This piece and its pair are also remarkable on account of their detailed depictions of a city, possibly showing two different views of West Lake in in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, the capital city of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). From the Song period through to the Qing dynasty, Hangzhou continued to attract numerous visitors, including the Qianlong Emperor, who visited the city during his Southern Inspection Tours.

A Celadon Jade ‘Luohan’ Inscribed Boulder
Qing Dynasty
Estimate $100/150,000

The present sculpture, carved from a tall jade boulder, capitalizes on the material’s inherent qualities to create a towering stone grotto framing Abheda – a Buddhist luohan – who is seated in solitude with a sutra in hand and a censer burning nearby. The cavernous setting has been expertly crafted to give the impression of raw naturalism, while simultaneously providing the artisan with the requisite surfaces to render the luohan almost completely in the round, and inscribe two accompanying texts above the figure and a third on the reverse of the boulder. As a result, the artist was able to faithfully translate Guanxiu’s (832-912) iconic painting of Abheda into three-dimensional form, incorporating the Qianlong emperor’s annotations on the painting.

A Massive Spinach-Green Jade ‘Dragon’ Washer
Qing Dynasty
Estimate $100/150,000

The present washer, hewn from a massive jade boulder and carved to the exterior with powerful dragons writhing through swirling clouds and turbulent seas, can trace its form to an immense jade basin made 1265 and given to Khubilai Khan. The basin, sometimes referred to as the ‘Du Mountain washer’ or as a wine pot, is the earliest known jade carving of this monumental scale. It is carved from a single block of dark blackish-green jade, and measures approximately half a meter deep and up to 182 cm wide.

A Carved Limestone Head of a Bodhisattva
Sui Dynasty
Estimate $80/120,000

This stone head is sumptuously carved with fleshy cheeks, broad arched brows and a large straight nose that leads the eye down to the plump lips. Its features exemplify a crucial sculptural transition from the linear and structured depictions of bodhisattvas in the preceding Northern Qi (550-577) and Northern Zhou (557-581) periods to the fully rounded and fleshy forms of the Tang (618-907). Its oval face and idealized expression, which exude deep spirituality, display an early attempt at naturalism, while its richly carved crown with suspended beads and floral diamonds is reminiscent of the stern aesthetic of the preceding dynasties.

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