HUNTING for rhinoceros in the 16th century was quite a business. There were no sporting rifles or telescopic sights. Instead the animals, short-sighted and short-fused, were trapped in holes in the forests of Java, Sumatra and India and killed with sticks.
Still, it was worth the effort. Rhinos were thought to be related to the unicorn, and their amber-hued horn was believed to crack or change colour if it came into contact with poison. This made rhinoceros horn much sought after for drinking cups. The raw material was more costly than gold, and only the finest carvers were commissioned to work on it.
Many cups have been ground down over time for the supposed medicinal properties of the horn, but about 4,000 survive. Most are in museums in France, Britain and Israel, as well as Ireland, where the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin has probably the most beautiful collection in the world.
Later this month Christie’s will sell 30 pieces belonging to Thomas Fok, a Hong Kong-based Chinese-American businessman, in the first-ever auction entirely devoted to rhinoceros-horn carvings. Mr Fok has been collecting and writing about these works for more than three decades, but he now wants to expand his charitable foundation, which helps poor children in northwestern China. This sale represents half his holdings; if it goes well Mr Fok plans to sell the remaining 30 pieces next year.
The collection has been fairly evenly divided, with the current sale containing fine examples of every kind of horn carving, from archaic copies of bronze vessels, with dazzling arrays of dragons climbing over the rim and into the bowl of the cup, to the very plainest pieces.
Chinese ceramics have long commanded the highest prices. But since 2000 jade carvings, lacquerwork, snuff bottles and rhinoceros horns—traditionally considered minor arts—have begun to catch up.
In September 2006 the descendants of Kenyon Painter, a well-known collector from Ohio, sold a rare large “log-raft” wine vessel, similar to the one in the Chester Beatty in Dublin. Sotheby’s put an estimate of $500,000-$700,000 on the piece; it sold for a record $2m.
Mr Fok has another piece by the same carver, You Kan (Zhi Sheng), who was active around the end of the 17th century. It is in the shape of an inverted lotus leaf (Lot 1716, pictured), and beautifully detailed, with two butterflies, flowers, a long blade of grass and curling lotus leaves wrapped around a hollow stem that curves upward to form a pouring spout.
The piece is a rich deep honey colour, much prized by Chinese collectors. Four other signed pieces by the same carver are in the Palace Museum in Beijing. Mr Fok’s piece once belonged to Edward Chow, another well known Hong Kong collector, and was sold in London in 1998 for £37,800 ($75,600), far above the estimate of £8,000-£12,000. The current estimate is $515,000-$644,000.
Another piece expected to sell well is the laughing Buddha (Lot 1727). Figural carvings on rhinoceros-horn pieces are rare. The laughing Buddha, pot-bellied and grinning broadly, symbolises contentment and abundance. Sold only two years ago at Sotheby’s in New York, this laughing Buddha, which dates probably from the 16th century, was expected to sell for $30,000-$40,000. In the end it fetched $296,000, and the estimate for the next sale is also $520,000-$650,000.
But the most interesting piece may well be another rare cup from the Ming dynasty of the 17th century (Lot 1709, estimate $460,000-$520,000). It is elaborately carved, with scenes from a well known Chinese story, “Preface to the Scholarly Gathering at the Orchard Pavilion”, written by Wang Xizhi, a calligrapher and poet who lived in the fourth century. A group of scholars, including Wang, and their attendants are depicted sitting inside a small pavilion that perches on a mountainside. Around it is the rock face interspersed with trees that have large gnarled trunks, while below flows a river, its eddies carefully incised to swirl around the base of the cup. A familiar scene from painted porcelain, the story is given a particular warmth and immediacy by the rich reddish-brown of the rhinoceros horn.
“Important Chinese Rhinoceros-Horn Carvings from the Songzhutang Collection” will be sold at Chrstie’s in Hong Kong on May 27th.
Sumber: Economist May 17th, 2008