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Christie’s to auction treasures from Robert Ellsworth’s Asian art collection

Robert Hatfield Ellsworth was the doyen of Asian art aficionados, and when 1,400 of his pieces go under the hammer next month in New York, it will be the end of an era.
The antiquities dealer Robert H Ellsworth in his Manhattan apartment. Courtesy Christie's
The antiquities dealer Robert H Ellsworth in his Manhattan apartment. Courtesy Christie's

In 1977, a robbery took place at a Manhattan town house. Oriental jades and bronzes were among the estimated US$300,000 worth of art objects stolen from the collection of a connoisseur of Asian antiquities, The New York Times reported.

So respected was this expert that the report referred to him as the “King of Ming”. This was none other than Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, who died last August at the age of 85 after a lifetime dedicated to collecting. Ellsworth was a distinguished scholar, dealer and collector, who also opened new areas of Asian art to western audiences.

His collection is considered one of the most important private collections of Asian art to ever come on the market and will be sold by Christie’s next month in a landmark five-day auction series. More than 1,400 lots will go on sale, including Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Himalayan sculptures, paintings, furniture and works of art, and are expected to make more than $35 million (Dh128.6m).

Ellsworth was born in Manhattan in 1929. His father was a dentist, his mother was an opera singer and his obsession with Asian art began early.

“From a very, very young age he was attracted by works of art,” William Robinson, the international head of group art at Christie’s, tells me. “Buying was important – it was not enough to look and admire them in a window.”

Ellsworth collected Chinese stamps as a child and at just 19, was selling Asian artefacts to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. After studies at the Franklin School of Professional Arts and further studies in Bern and Lausanne, Ellsworth returned to the United States from Europe in 1948. He started to work for an antique dealer named Frank Stoner, who was a specialist in English and German ceramics. It was through Stoner that he would meet Alice Boney, a distinguished dealer who would prove a great influence. Using works from her own collection, Alice Boney taught Ellsworth how to identify the marks of date, value and beauty.

“She took him under her wing. She was a real enthusiast about Chinese art. She dealt and she travelled, so he travelled to China with her,” says Robinson.

It was in Ellsworth’s 22-room Manhattan residence that his taste was on display. Fine Chinese furniture and Indian bronzes were set beside western design and decoration. The living room held some of the finest examples of classic Chinese huanghuali wooden furniture ever assembled, including a set of four very rare huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs dating from the 17th-century Ming era.

Two bronzes also showcase the scope of the collection. One is a gilt-bronze figure of Avalokitesh­vara from Nepal and dated to the 13th century; the other is a figure of Shiva Gangadhara Nataraja from South India during the Chola period and dated to the ninth century. Both are estimated to sell for $2-3m each. In Ellsworth’s bedroom there was a rare bronze of a yogi, possibly Padampa Sangye, from Tibet and dated to the 11th or 12th century. This figure is a masterwork of early Tibetan art and is expected to sell for $1m to $1.5m.

This Fifth Avenue apartment became a centre of the New York Art scene, where Ellsworth would hold court and invite people in to look at the collection. To honour this, Christie’s is re­creating the interior as part of the sale, withexamples of Asian art mixed with English silver and other antiques.

“He was much more than a dealer,” says Robinson. “He welcomed people who were interested in the field to come and see what he had in his apartment. He was encouraging to younger people in the field too; he was keen on other people being involved.

“His apartment was massive, purposely. He loved the company of the rich and famous. The dealing side funded the lifestyle he wanted to have. But he was also a host, a feature of the New York social scene. He was as much a lifestyle advisor, a guru in the widest sense.”

Ellsworth, however, did not simply just buy antiques and put them in his Manhattan apartment. He educated western tastes, made a significant contribution to scholarship and made donations to major museums.

Ellsworth began his career as an independent dealer in the 1970s – fortuitously coinciding with the warming of relations between China and the rest of the world – and he became the first American art dealer to visit the newly opened China. When the American philanthropist Brooke Astor funded a new Chinese courtyard at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1977, Ellsworth donated furniture, including two hardwood wardrobes and four chairs incised with calligraphy, to the new space.

“He was very much of his own mind. He would buy things other people were not interested in – one of the classics is Chinese furniture which nobody was following in the West. This is typical for him – he bought a lot and researched it a lot so ended up writing a book which for a time was the bible on Chinese furniture,” says Robinson.

His greatest contribution was in the field of 19th- and 20th-century Chinese painting, however. His seminal study Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: 1800 to 1950, which was published in the late 1980s, included biographies of 300 artists and reproductions of all the paintings he had collected. It shed new light on an oeuvre which had been effectively ignored by curators and collectors and pushed art historians to consider the value of later Chinese paintings. Ellsworth also donated 471 works of later Chinese painting and calligraphy to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1985.

Later in his career, Ellsworth became a passionate conservator of China’s cultural heritage. In the 1990s he undertook the restoration of a decaying temple called Baolunge in Anhui Province, which was constructed during the Ming Dynasty. He also became a determined advocate for the many sites placed in danger across China because of rapid urban development, and established the Chinese Heritage Art Foundation in Hong Kong to support heritage projects across the country.

As a token of appreciation for these efforts, Ellsworth was made an honorary Chinese citizen, and an honorary consultant and curator of the Beijing History Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Hoffei, near Huangshan.

“Never collect anything that you don’t want to live with every day,” Ellsworth once said, and this collection of suburb Asian art, English silver and antiques is a testament to his eye.

His prolific contribution marks him out as one of the last true connoisseur-dealers. “It is possible that a collection of this importance could be accumulated again,” says Robinson. “But there are many, many attempts to create a failed collection. People don’t have the eye he had – they can’t distinguish between what is good and great.”

John Dennehy is the deputy editor of The Review.

• The sale takes place from March 17 to 21 at Christie’s in New York. For more information, visit www.christies.com.

jdennehy@thenational.ae

Updated: February 19, 2015 04:00 AM

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