Robert Ellsworth was a pioneering dealer of Chinese and Asian art in New York from the 1960’s into the 1990’s. I unfortunately never got to know him, I did meet him briefly at an art fair, and was impressed by his emerald green jade set in a high karat gold ring. I was told by a friend who would know, that the jade was of such fine color and quality that it was worth 2 million, and this was in the 1990’s! I never got to see his apartment, which was legendary, large and on Fifth Avenue, full of fine antique American and Chinese furniture and of course, Asian antiquities. When he died last year, the extensive obituaries lauded his taste and importance as a dealer in early Asian art, and his social connections.
Christie’s got his estate to sell, and did so just this week, in a series of 6 sales over 5 days, the last day being today as I write this. The sale has been eagerly anticipated by myself and everyone involved in the trade of Asian antiquities. Particularly exciting to me was the inclusion of a number of good early Chinese Buddhist sculptures, which you don’t often see coming up at auction.
|Lot 755 from the Christie's Ellsworth auction|
One of the pieces caught the eye of my best client, and that was lot 755, a small limestone statue of Buddha, broken above the ankles and missing its right hand. It is Chinese, from the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D., limestone, and 18 1/4 inches tall. It has extensive remains of paint and some gold leaf, which add to its appeal. I was poised to bid on the piece, which was estimated $40,000. to $60,000., and I was ready go above the estimate by a bit. I didn’t get a chance to even bid, the little Buddha sold for 1.5 million dollars hammer price, which doesn’t include the 20% buyer premium! This is an amazing price for what is a sweet, but modest example of Northern Qi sculpture. I have bought and sold much better examples for a fraction of this price.
One wonders at this extraordinarily high price, probably a record for this type of sculpture at auction, certainly a record for a piece of this size and condition of this period. The provenance had a lot to do with it, but should that really justify pricing a piece that I would expect to be priced at $50,000., or $60,000., to sell for 1.5 million?
Robert Ellsworth was a great dealer, and one assumes that his pieces were purchased a number of years ago, but frequently the catalog simply stated for this piece and many others, "The collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, New York, before 2000" What this really means, Christie's had no idea of when exactly or from whom Robert Ellsworth had purchased the piece. It is safe bet that it was before 2000 simply because of his advanced age and that he had essentially retired from dealing by this time. However, it is hardly the type of precisely documented provenance that the auction houses claim to require to sell pieces! The reality is that the "collection" was really the leavings of a great dealers inventory, the pieces he didn't sell while active, rather than a collection in the sense of a deliberate gathering of the finest pieces for ones own pleasure of ownership. Even so, it was an impressive group of objects amongst which were some real gems. Christie's gave it the full "Liz Taylor" treatment, a hagiography at the beginning of each of the 6 volumes of the full set of the print catalogs which were printed in a larger size than normal. The display incorporated some of the antique furniture and other objects that Robert Ellsworth had in his home, and the catalog had lots of glamorous views of his 960 Fifth Avenue apartment, showing how he lived with the pieces.
Robert Ellsworth had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time. He formed friendships with people who were able to advance his career early on, starting in the 1940's, and was dealing when the art market was really just forming for Asian art in Post War America. He bought his apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue in 1975, when someone who was just rich, but not super-rich, could buy a great apartment in NYC. From there he entertained and showed his wares in grand style. He had the means and the courage to purchase the legendary Christian Humann collection, called the Pan Asian Collection, in 1981. This gave him the inventory for his career. Christian Humann was an heir to the Lazard family banking fortune, who created the Pan Asian collection. I was told by Matthias Komor, who knew all of these people, and for who I worked for in the early 1980's, that Christian Humann's family was very disappointed that upon his death, there was no money but an apartment full of Asian Art. It was considered one of the greatest collections of early Asian art ever assembled, and Ellsworth's purchase of it was a stroke of genius. However, the little Northern Qi Buddha, lot 755, was not from the Pan Asian collection, nor were many of the pieces in the auction.
I think this illustrates one of the facts of the art market, particularly for antiquities, its irrationality. I’m happy to see a Chinese Buddhist sculpture sell for so much, it helps validate what I’m dealing in. However, I don’t expect to get this type of price, although I wish I could!