February, 1913. The American Art Gallery at New York’s Madison Square South hosted an unrestricted public auction, promising “a wonderful treasury of Celestial art.” According to the sales catalogue, the pieces came entirely from the collection of Imperial Prince Gong, heretofore housed in “his spacious Pekin mansion … northwest of the Imperial Palace.”
That spacious mansion is a well-known Beijing landmark today, having been restored and re-opened to the public in 2008 (just in time for the summer olympics). Now officially known as Prince Gong Mansion or Gong Wang Fu (恭王府), this princely estate’s history stretches back to 1777, when it’d been built as a lavish home for the Qianlong era official, He Shen (和珅).
He Shen, a brilliant and corrupt court favorite under Qianlong’s rule, exercised no restraint in furnishing his mansion lavishly. Such extravagant display of personal power backfired when Qianlong’s son, the Jiaqing Emperor, summarily executed He Shen upon coming to power. The mansion subsequently passed hands until 1825, when it went to Yixin, Prince Gong of the First Rank and sixth son of the Daoguang Emperor. Having been passed over for the throne, Yixin received the lavish estate as a conciliatory present of sorts.
Famous in history books as one of late Qing’s most competent statesman, Prince Gong enjoyed a brief career as prince-counselor (yizhiwang議政王) during the Tongzhi Restoration of 1862-74. He led a movement towards modernization, spearheaded various reforms, and founded a government school (Tongwen guan同文舘) to teach Chinese scholars foreign languages and technologies.
But in 1884 Yixin was ousted from power and forced into retirement by the Empress Dowager Cixi, whose policies the Prince was often at odds. The next 14 years saw the disgraced statesman languishing in his mansion and gardens until his death in 1898.
Today, the Prince Gong mansion remains the largest and most prominent princely seat (wangfu) in Beijing—and is one of the few to survive China’s turbulent history mostly in tact. But despite this ultimate survival, its 20th century history was a somber one: it passed through various owners and functioned under different guises, from Catholic university to government offices to air condition factory. Suffering the common fate of China’s historic buildings, the princely estate was gutted of its furnishings, valuables, objects, and works of art.
The Mansion’s last years as a wangfuwere as turbulent as the era it occupied. Puwei, the last Prince “Gong” and Yixin’s grandson, advocated reform and — like his grandfather — was removed from power by court reactionaries. Seeking refuge with the German protectorate and in dire economic straits, Puwei offered his mansion and properties as a mortgage to the Catholic Benedictine Order.
1911-12 saw the final collapse of Qing authority, as well as wholesome disposal of Chinese works of art overseas, as palace eunuchs and members of the Manchu nobility began selling valuables to art dealers.
One such buyer was Yamanaka Sadajiro, who opened a store in New York’s west twenty-seventh street near Broadway, and bought aggressively in Beijing following the revolution. It was to him that Puwei sold the bulk of the Prince Gong Mansion collection.
Yamanaka & co. in turn staged a three-day auction at the American Galleries Feb. 27th – March 1st of 1913. Buyers flocking to acquire a piece of imperial treasure included names such as Louis Comport Tiffany, C.T. Loo, Charles Lang Freer, and John D. Rockefeller Jr. For various Shang dynasty ritual bronzes and archaic jades, Freer reportedly spent over $5000 (about $120,000 in today’s money after adjusting for inflation).
The 1913 Yamanaka catalogue remains an interesting and important document. For one, it offers an inventory of Prince Gong’s estate when much of China’s imperial treasures disappeared undocumented through the ‘backdoor’ during decades of unrest. To this day, the catalogue is often cited in provenance and lot notes in major auctions around the world.
The Prince Gong sale is also representative of an early 20th century movement towards collecting Chinese art in the West; it is during this time that major collections were formed (such as the Sackler, Freer, Rockefeller, Brundage, and David holdings). The expanded volume of Chinese works of art in the West helped to establish independent Asian art wings in major museums, and heavily influenced design movements such as art nouveau and the aesthetic movement.
For the Chinese Art historian, the Yamanaka catalogue offers valuable insight into the kind of art that befitted a princely mansion during the Qing dynasty, as well as Prince Gong’s private taste as an connoisseur and collector.
Compared to works of art made for the imperial court, the Prince Gong collection is decidedly more refined and subdued. In the Song literati-antiquarian tradition, much of his estate included archaic bronzes and jades dating to the Shang, Zhou, and Han dynasties.
Of course, the collection also included pieces that suitably reflected the wealth and power of its owner, such as these Qianlong period jade and crystal vessels:
The Prince Gong collection of Chinese ceramics is especially refined and tasteful. The catalogue mentioned almost no imperial porcelains from the Qianlong era and onward. Instead, Prince Gong seemed to have preferred white wares (the imperial choice of the early Ming and Yuan) of all kinds, including Song “ding”, Yongle “tianbai”, and Dehua blanc-de-chine pieces:
The collection also included some Ming wares from regional kilns other than Jingdezhen:
Prince Gong had a passion for Kangxi porcelain, and collected fine pieces from both imperial and private kilns:
Very few vases of the above design (white reserve against blue ground) has been recorded. One painted with magnolias is in the Morgan collection. Consider a similar one offered by Christie’s Hong Kong:
In haunting testament to the resilience of valued works of art against the tides of history, several of the Prince Gong pieces have re-emerged to light in recent years– some to change lives and owners before the cycle repeats yet again.
Finally, there’s lot 199, the magnificent pair of zitan hardwood embellished screens from the Qianlong period.
And in 2010, when the pair fetched $4.1 million at Christie’s Hong Kong fall imperial sale: