The man who was Emperor Guangxu’s dentist: some thoughts on provenance and an old Shanghai collection

Guangxu dentist vases065

Some time ago, there was a humorous and very popular little ditty entitled I was Kaiser Bill’s Batman, the implication of which was that it was quite a notable thing to be almost intimately associated with the famous, if not the successful. In the Chinese art business association with a famous owner, and that line of connection being well established and direct, is of prime importance. It is called Provenance.

We were intrigued and not a little amused to note an advertisement a few weeks ago for an auction in far flung Florida said to include ’18 inch vases from the Estate of Emperor Guangxu’s Dentist’. This seemed to be stretching provenance just a little far ( what next, the estate of the Imperial chamber pot carrier?), but it did motivate us to look a little further into who exactly was Emperor Guangxu’s dentist.

The website of the auctioneers, Myers Fine Art, was quite illuminating on the matter. Apparently, Dr James Ward Hall (1849-1908) graduated from Missouri Dental College in 1876. He must have been a dab hand with the old pliers: he was named professor of surgical and operative dentistry just two years later. He moved to Shanghai the same year, and would remain there for the rest of his life, becoming no less than the Imperial dentist, and, indeed, would die in the same year as his most important patient, Emperor Guangxu. Quelle coincidence, as they say.

Guangxu dentist 1880s Shanghai

There are literary references to the extent and quality of his collection of Chinese porcelain, tapestries, incense burners and oil vessels, some, apparently, with Imperial provenance. For sale with the yen yen vases on March 8, were some rather interesting photographs of the interior of Ward Hall’s house, with several displays of blue and white visible as well as some distinctly Imperial looking very large tapestries.

One visitor declared, ‘I never saw or imagined anything so overflowing with attractive things as his house is . . . He has in one room a screen over fifteen feet high dark wood heavily and magnificently carved with dragons, birds, clouds, bats, flowers, etc. and panels of mosaic silk , which looked like the finest embroidery. This came from an old emperor’s palace.’

Guangxu dentist showcase

He was married but the relationship did not survive, whether as a result of Ward Hall’s greater passion for collecting, or his wife’s dislike for China, we do not know. Accordingly, upon his death from ‘hydrophobia’, his sister, Mrs Clifford Hall Jordan of Chicago inherited most of the collection. And so, the exquisite pieces ended up in her family mansion on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Guangxu dentist vases

The vases and photographs came up for sale on March 8 with what seems like a modest estimate of US$2-4,000, but the auctioneer’s website notes that a sales realisation figure is not available. We enquired further by email on this matter but have not heard back . . .

Perhaps, after all, provenance is not everything? Or, maybe, there is provenance and there is provenance. And a dentist doesn’t quite hack it, so to speak.


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