Sotheby’s Auctions the ‘Highly Esoteric’ Ellsworth Collection of Chinese Bronzes for $1.67 Million
NEW YORK CITY – On March 19, Sotheby’s offered The Robert Hatfield Ellsworth Collection: Chinese Archaic & Gilt Bronzes, which totaled $1,678,280. One hundred three of 171 lots found buyers. The collection had been estimated to bring $2.5/3.5 million.
The sale’s cover lot and expected highlight was the Ellsworth Chariot Group, an important archaic bronze Set of Carriage and Horses, Eastern Han Dynasty, estimated to sell for $750,000/$1 million, which failed to find a buyer. Joe Hynn-Yang and Mee-seen Loong of the firm’s Chinese Works of Art department, however, reported that the piece sold within 24 hours after the auction to a private collector for $600,000. “[The] price…ranks among the top prices ever paid for archaic bronzes. The total, including [this] price…is $2.3 million, increasing the percentage sold by value to 86 percent. We were particularly pleased to see the level of private participation given that this was the first single-owner sale of archaic bronzes since 1983. The sell-through rate was 60 percent by lot, which is respectable given the highly esoteric nature of the material.”
The Ellsworth Chariot Group dated from the First Century. Bronze horses are extremely rare and bronze carriages have been found only in very few highly prestigious burials. The practice of using bronze figures of horses and carriages as tomb furnishings followed the example set by the first Qin emperor, Qinshihuang, in whose gigantic, luxurious tomb they appeared for the first time. However, the examples from the Qin period differ from those of the Han Dynasty.
The importation of the ‘heavenly horses of Ferghana’ brought to China a powerful, more elegant breed of horse, which is reflected in the present tomb figures with a lighter carriage construction that could be pulled by a single horse. The Ellsworth Chariot group features a pair of robustly modeled Fereghan horses linked with delicate chains and bronze straps to the broad rectangular vehicle with a long axle leading twelve-spoked wheels and an even silvery-green patina with some malachite encrustation and ample traces of pigment to the charioteer figure. The group is closely related to the famous horses and carriages discovered in an Eastern Han tomb at Leitai, Wuwei county, Gansu province, which also included the world-famous figure of a ‘flying horse’ resting its hoof on a swallow which is currently in the Gansu Provincial Museum and was recently exhibited in New York at the Asia Society’s “Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China”.
Heralded for his unerring eye and sense of style, Ellsworth assembled a superior collection of bronzes in the 1970s and 80s that formed an important part of his larger collection of furniture and decorations shown in his 5th Avenue apartment. His other rare masterpieces form a comprehensive art history lesson in Chinese archaic and gilt bronzes from sixteenth century BC Shang Dynasty to Tenth and Eleventh Century Tang and Liao cultures. Sotheby’s exhibition and sale ran concurrently with “Ancient Sichuan: Treasures from a Lost Civilization,” an exhibition of Chinese archaic bronzes from Sichuan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (March 4th to June 16th).
“The Robert H. Ellsworth Collection has long been an active resource for the appreciation of collectors and visiting scholars in the field of Chinese art,” said Yang. “As one of the most eminent dealers in Asian art and a key authority on classical Chinese furniture and modern paintings, Ellsworth, who is now the Chairman of The Board of Directors for China’s Cultural Relics Bureau International, is greatly honored in China through his efforts in repatriating art and restoring historic villages. His generosity is evident in recent gifts of modern Chinese paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which last year hosted a major exhibition of paintings from his collection, and Chinese calligraphy to the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.”
An additional highlight from the collection was an important and extremely rare archaic bronze Tripod kettle and linked cover, Ying, Late Westen Zhou Dynasty which carried an estimate of $300/400,000. Crisply cast with studded ‘dragon’ and bearing the dedication “Father Shi Yu made this Ying,” no other vessel of this form has ever been offered at auction. Only five other ying vessels are recorded-all in museum collections-but none match the present example in quality, clarity of decoration and balance. Other details included a tiger leaping to devour a resting bull, while linking the cover to the vessel, and the five sealscript characters cast inside the cover. The piece brought $467,750 from a private collector.