Es is a fascinating family collection that will go under the hammer at Christie’s in Paris on December 13th and 14th with almost 300 lots: It combines Chinese art objects, most of which were knowledgeably collected in the 1930s, with European paintings and masterpieces , primarily of the French decorative arts – furniture, art de table – from the 18th and 19th centuries. Three generations have built up this collection, whereby the works also tell something of the eventful history of a family between Orient and Occident. The family wishes to remain anonymous under the sig “VWS”. The initials designate the second-generation collector, who had parts of the collection scattered at Sotheby’s in London as early as 1963 and 1964.
The saga begins at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the Russian-Jewish family fled from the persecution in the Tsarist Empire to the East, which was opened up after 1890 with the construction of first the Trans-Siberian and then the Trans-Manchurian railway line. The family settled in Harbin, a railway station in northern Manchuria, which was then still occupied by the Russian Empire. There she founded a construction company that would soon flourish – like the city of Harbin, which was rapidly expanding and becoming a cosmopolitan metropolis with the influx of Russian Jews and refugees from the October Revolution. After the war with Japan, Russia had to evacuate Manchuria in 1905; it went back to China shortly thereafter. By the end of World War II, Harbin was a battlefield between Russian, Japanese and Chinese interests, but benefited from cultural diversity.
The consignor’s grandfather, who was born in 1890 and grew up in Harbin, laid the foundation for the art collection and continued to expand the family business. After the educated and polyglot entrepreneur settled in Shanghai with his family in the late 1920s, he began to hoard valuable porcelain and jade works, Chinese bronzes and finely crafted tobacco bottles. His son with the initials VWS (1918 –1974) inherited his passion for collecting and continued to build up the collection while the company’s business branched out to Europe and North America.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the family, now in its third generation of collectors, commissioned the French interior designer Daniel Pasgrimaud to set up a villa on the Côte d’Azur and furnish it with the collection. Pasgrimaud created a colorful mood for each room, bringing different centuries, continents and styles together with a sense of harmony. A painting, possibly created by Lorenzo Tiepolo, capturing the mysterious atmosphere of a masked ball (estimate 40,000-60,000 euros) was placed on a Chinese wall panel made of Coromandel lacquer. The six meter wide and two and a half meter high screen from the Kangxi epoch (1662 to 1722) depicts scenes of Chinese palace life (50,000/70,000) with numerous figures. The drawings are created by colored scratches. In the “Grand Salon” the colors were determined by the jade works exhibited there, with their subtle nuances from celadon or almond green to rare yellow and white tones.
This ensemble of 56 lots is exceptional in scope, variety and preciousness. Richly ornamented vases and bowls, finely crafted Buddha or animal figures, mostly from the Qianlong epoch (1736 –1795), were sculpted from flawless blocks of jade – they say “carved”, although jade is one of the hardest stones to work with. A finely chiselled bowl with a lid and a wedding bowl made of white jade stone are the highest-valued works on offer, each at 300,000 to 500,000 euros. Masterpieces of French cabinetmaking from the 18th and 19th centuries fit perfectly into the aesthetic dialogue between the Occident and the Orient in the Mediterranean villa.
The top lots include a Louis XVI commode by Claude-Charles Saunier with pietra dura inlays (400,000/600,000) and two column pedestals by André-Charles Boulle (300,000/500,000 euros). Also outstanding is the ensemble of Chinese porcelain that adorned showcases in the dining room. The highest price – 80,000 to 120,000 euros – is expected for two small, sky-blue bowls from the Yongzheng period. The collection of tobacco bottles put together in the 1930s is also a rarity in terms of quality and quantity. The Portuguese introduced tobacco to the Chinese court at the end of the 16th century. While smoking remained illegal, the use of snuff became a status symbol in the 17th century. Each bottle is a small miracle. Estimates range from 2,000 to 30,000 euros.