Asian Art and The Collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth
For an in-depth look into the significance of this landmark sale and insight into the Asian Art market, we spoke with Nick Wilson, Head of Christie’s Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art Department in New York
The rising importance of Asia on the global world stage, and the resulting international interest in Asian art and culture, has had a profound impact on the Asian art market in recent years. Nick Wilson, Head of Christie’s Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art Department in New York, spoke with Luxury Defined about the burgeoning Asian art market and one of its iconic collections—that of the late Robert Hatfield Ellsworth—which will go under the hammer during Christie’s Asian Art Week in New York from March 15-21.
Luxury Defined: Asia is the fastest growing art market in the world and China has established itself as the world’s largest antiques market, with Asian works of art realizing more than US$115 million during Asian Art Week at Christie’s last year. What are the current trends in Asian art and what objects should those buyers who are new to the market seek to acquire, whether for a private collection or for investment purposes?
Nick Wilson: The market for Chinese art has seen dramatic growth over the past ten to fifteen years, but there are certainly still plenty of opportunities for new private collectors or investors. The focus of many new collectors has been on Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) ceramics, as these tend to be the most easily accessible and understood. However, there are many opportunities to look at other areas, which have not yet seen the same exponential growth. Lacquer carvings or Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) ceramics, for example, are currently very much under-appreciated, as is much of the body of art produced prior to the Song Dynasty (960–1279), including archaic jades, Buddhist sculpture, and early ceramics.
Luxury Defined: As a senior specialist at Christie’s you have seen thousands of important Asian works of art and a significant number of landmark auctions and private sales. Can you talk about some of the notable artworks that you have personally overseen throughout the course of your career?
Nick Wilson: I was fortunate to be in Hong Kong between 2006 and 2013 to witness the height of the growth in the Chinese art market. This was a ‘perfect storm’ of unprecedented interest from new buyers in Greater China during a period when some truly exceptional collections came on to the market. The atmosphere was exhilarating with salerooms getting increasingly full with new buyers every season and collectors being enticed to sell by the ever-rising prices.
It was at the beginning of this period that I had the privilege of helping to organize Christie’s landmark sale of Important Chinese Jades from the Personal Collection of Alan and Simone Hartman in November 2006. It was one of the first single-owner collections focusing on a specific material to have been sold in Hong Kong and it was an incredibly comprehensive collection put together by people with a deep knowledge of the medium. The focus on superb examples from a single, very specific category, and the research it entailed, allowed us, and new buyers, to gain a much clearer understanding of the subject. The two sales of the collection were phenomenally successful and realized more than HK$116 million (nearly US$15 million) and ultimately heralded the beginning of the surge in interest in jade carvings that we are still seeing today.
Luxury Defined: This sale of the upcoming Robert Hatfield Ellsworth Collection represents the largest private collection of Asian Art ever to appear at auction. Apart from the collection’s size and value, what makes this sale so significant to the Asian Art market?
Nick Wilson: Although we have been grappling with the logistics of bringing this material to the market over the past few months, the size and value of the collection is only a small part of what this collection represents. The objects were collected over a lifetime by a visionary in the field and someone who was able to seamlessly meld art, from different cultures and time periods, into a single setting in his impressive apartment.
The process of researching and putting together the catalogues for this sale has revealed an incredibly rich collection of stories and anecdotes from people who were supported, influenced, and guided by one of great dealers and collectors of the 20th century. His in-depth understanding of so many diverse categories of Asian art enabled him to form a collection ranging from masterpieces of Indian and South-East Asian art, to an astonishingly comprehensive group of Chinese furniture, which formed the core of his seminal publication on Chinese furniture (Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch’ing Dynasties, 1971). Mr. Ellsworth was able to develop his remarkable career and collection by meticulously researching and understanding very specific media and subjects, ranging from Buddhist sculpture to English silver, Chinese paintings to Japanese screens, and archaic jades to Qing monochromes.
What makes this collection significant to me is that the sale will provide the opportunity to acquire artworks that influenced the life of one of the great tastemakers and characters of his time. What also makes this collection so remarkable is that if you take any one of the works of art out of the context of the sale, it represents an important, interesting, or rare example of a genre in its own right.
The extraordinary art collection of the late Robert Hatfield Ellsworth—widely considered to be one of the most important private collections of Asian Art ever to come to market—is expected to realize in excess of US$35 million. Comprising more than 1,400 important works of art, decorative objects, and antique furnishings, the collection will be sold in a special five-day series of live auctions and online-only sales during Christie’s Asian Art Week in New York from March 15-27.