Most of the items for sale come from James Hatfield Ellsworth’s 5th Avenue 22-room apartment, the scene of many glittering parties.
The renowned Asian art collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, who passed away in August 2014, is to be put for sale by Christie’s in March next year. It is, apparently, the largest collection of Asian art ever to appear at auction – some 2,000 objects – and will only be sold online in live auctions taking place during Asian Art Week in New York. However, Christie’s are to tour the contents of the auction internationally and it will be possible to see this remarkable collection at Christie’s in London (St. James’ Street) between December 15 and 19.
Widely recognized throughout Asia and the Americas for his ground-breaking role in the study and appreciation of Asian Art, Mr. Ellsworth was a distinguished connoisseur who opened new arenas of collecting to Western audiences and built a successful business purveying the very finest works of art to his generation’s foremost collectors. His personal collection of over 2,000 items was assembled over a lifetime and widely recognized as the most important grouping of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian sculpture, paintings, furniture and works of art. To celebrate this exceptional collection and the generous and benevolent man behind it, Christie’s is organizing free public exhibitions and a special five-day series of auctions and online-only sales to be held during Asian Art Week at Christie’s New York in March 2015. A global tour of highlights from the collection kicks off November 21 in Hong Kong, and will continue to stops throughout Asia and Europe prior to the New York sales.
About Robert Hatfield Ellsworth
Few individuals have made such an invaluable contribution to the study and appreciation of Asian art in the West than Robert Hatfield Ellsworth. Embracing ancient bronzes and Ming furniture, fine jade, Modern Chinese painting, and Himalayan, Indian, and Southeast Asian works of art, Ellsworth was fully immersed in every facet of the Asian art historical canon. His prolific contributions to Asian art mark him as one of the last true connoisseur-dealers, an icon of scholarship, personal magnetism, and cultural philanthropy. Among his accolades, Ellsworth was made an honorary Chinese citizen in recognition of his scholarship, philanthropy and cultural preservation efforts, and was named an honorary consultant and curator of the Beijing History Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Hoffei, near Huangshan.
Born in New York in 1929, Mr. Ellsworth displayed an unwavering curiosity and devotion to objects from a young age. As a child he collected Chinese postage stamps and as a teenager, he began ‘flipping’ Asian objects he collected for a handsome profit. Ellsworth’s dealing garnered him a sizable personal collection; at just nineteen years old, he was already selling snuff bottles to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
After architectural training at the Franklin School of Professional Arts, and further studies in Bern and Lausanne, he returned to the United States from Europe in 1948 and went to work for antique dealer Frank Stoner, whose firm specialized in English and German ceramics, and through Stoner, he met the Asian art dealer Alice Boney, who took on Ellsworth as a protégé and, ultimately, dear friend.
In her Park Avenue apartment, Boney greeted visitors wearing luxurious silk robes and antique jade jewelry — a habit Ellsworth himself later adopted. Mr. Ellsworth’s own Fifth Avenue apartment was a testament to his mentor’s vision of the connoisseur-dealer: Asian art melded so effortlessly into the surroundings that buying and selling become a refined, even pleasurable experience. Using works from her own collection, Boney taught her pupil how to identify the marks of date, value, and beauty that made collectors eager to possess one of her objects.
During a brief stint in the United States Army in the early 1950s, Ellsworth took advantage of his stationing in Honolulu, Hawaii, to re-start his career in the field of Asian art. When he returned to New York in 1960, Ellsworth partnered with the New York dealer James Goldie. Their gallery, Ellsworth & Goldie, offered traditional English furniture and decorative art alongside works of Asian art. When Goldie retired in 1970, Ellsworth took the business solo, moving to a historic townhouse on East 64th Street before purchasing the Fifth Avenue apartment that would become his home and gallery.
Ellsworth pictured in his 5th Avenue Apartment by Gene Matteo of The New York Times in 1980
Ellsworth’s career as an independent dealer fortuitously coincided with the opening of relations between China and the West and his business grew as trade increased. Although he had visited Hong Kong regularly for nearly thirty years — the collector also kept an apartment in the Kowloon district — he was thrilled at the opportunity to discover the riches of Mainland China. He was the first American art dealer to visit the newly opened China, giving him unparalleled exposure to the best in Chinese art and antiquities.
Later in his career, Robert Ellsworth came to build a reputation as a passionate preservationist of some of China’s most important cultural heritage sites. In 1992, the collector made his first visit to Huangshan, an area in the Anhui province, and undertook the restoration of a beautiful and decaying family temple called Baolunge, which was constructed during the Ming Dynasty. He recognized the importance of continued preservation efforts throughout China, and became a staunch advocate for the many cultural heritage sites under threat from development and dilapidation. He established the Chinese Heritage Art Foundation in Hong Kong to amass a donor base to support future heritage projects across the country.
About The Collection
The sumptuous interior of Mr. Ellsworth’s own 22-room Manhattan residence displayed the collector’s obsession with Asian art — as well as his signature elegance and joie de vivre. Fine Chinese furniture and sensual Indian bronzes mingled effortlessly with the best in Western design and decoration. His apartment became a gathering place for clients, academics, and members of the international bon ton. It was a unique, glamorous world of commerce and pleasure, the product of a decades-long journey in fine art.
CHINESE FURNITURE: Ellsworth was one of the first Westerners to champion the beauty of Chinese furniture, foreseeing the popularity of sleek, minimalist interior design in the late twentieth-century. His love of Chinese furniture grew throughout his career and culminated in the landmark 1971 text, Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch’ing Dynasties. Dedicated to Alice Boney and illustrated with many works from his personal collection, the book has become the standard reference for dealers and collectors.
A true scholar as well as a connoisseur, he continually revised his methods of dating and identification as the category of Chinese Furniture grew in popularity. After Brooke Astor funded a new Chinese courtyard at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 1977, Ellsworth gifted two hardwood wardrobes, a three-drawer alter coffer, and four chairs incised with calligraphy to the new space.
In 1982, the collector returned to Hawaii to catalogue the Chinese furniture collection of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, one of the primary centers for the study of Asian furniture in the United States. Fourteen years later, he collaborated on a special Chinese-English catalogue of the collection of Mimi and Raymond Hung, which included fine examples of Classical Chinese Furniture.
MODERN CHINESE PAINTINGS: Mr. Ellsworth’s greatest scholarly contribution to Asian art was his reevaluation of Modern Chinese painting, a period covering the 19th and early-20th centuries that had been largely ignored by critics and academics. Ellsworth revived an entire field of art historical scholarship and created an entirely new category in collecting. He became the first individual to assemble a comprehensive holding of paintings by the great Modern Chinese masters, and pushed art historians to concede that Chinese painting had not simply ‘ended’ in 1800.
Ellsworth’s home was a place of pilgrimage for collectors of Asian art for decades right up until his death in August 2014
Throughout the 1960s, Ellsworth continued to expand his collection of Modern Chinese works, acquiring a substantial batch of 19th century paintings he believed warranted further scholarship. At one point, Ellsworth’s collection of Modern Chinese art grew to nearly 500 works, the largest assemblage outside of China. With a trove of paintings at his disposal, Ellsworth recognized that 19th century Chinese painters were actually the forerunners to the bold, energized compositions found in the twentieth century. In 1987, he revealed the results of his decades-long investigation into Modern Chinese painting in Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: 1800–1950, a groundbreaking multi-volume project. Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy revitalized an entire art historical period, shedding new light on works that had been previously ignored by curators and collectors. In 1985, Ellsworth donated some 471 works of later Chinese painting and calligraphy to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, a testament to the collector’s belief that his source material should be available to everyone.
Cataloguing and complete details of the Collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth will be announced in January 2015.
Auctions and Online-Only Sales: March 2015 at Christie’s Rockefeller Center
Global Tour Dates and Locations:
- Hong Kong: 21 – 25 November, Hong Kong Convention Centre
- Shanghai: 6 – 11 December, Christie’s Galleries at Ampire House
- Tokyo: 11 – 12 December, Christie’s Galleries
- London: 15 – 19 December, Christie’s King Street
- Beijing: 15 – 20 December, Christie’s Galleries at the Imperial Club
- New York: March exhibition, Christie’s Rockefeller Center