Pilkington Collection Invigorates Sotheby’s Important Chinese Art Auction

Yongle (1403-24) blue and white bianhu
Nicolas Chow, deputy director of Sotheby’s Hong Kong together with the Yongle (1403-24) blue and white bianhu or moonflask sold for HK$97m (£9.25m) on April 6.

The booming market for Chinese works of art that peaked in 2011 has been checked in recent years. The dwindling supply of top-quality material, an economic slowdown, issues of non-payment and a plague of confidence-sapping fakes have all taken their toll. But the emergence from obscurity of a time capsule collection that brings the perfect storm of provenance, rarity and attractive pricing is an opportunity not to be missed.

The centrepiece of Sotheby’s spring series in Hong Kong was the April 6 sale of Chinese ceramics formed by the English collector Roger Pilkington (1928-69) within a single decade from the late 1950s. Unseen for half a century, it was sold by a direct descendant. Nicolas Chow, deputy director of Sotheby’s Hong Kong, described it as “one of the greatest collections of Chinese porcelain left in private hands”.

Eton-educated Pilkington, who briefly worked for the family glassmaking firm in Lancashire, was one of a second generation of British enthusiasts who built their collections after the Second World War. With hindsight it was a collecting golden age and today many purchases – bought from the legendary London dealership Bluett & Sons at sums between £100 (approximately £3000 today) and £5000 (£140,000) – appear remarkable bargains.

moonflask from the collection of Roger Pilkington
The Yongle (1403-24) blue and white bianhu or moonflask from the collection of Roger Pilkington (1928-69) sold for HK$97m (£9.25m) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on April 6.

Pilkington’s great love was the miraculous blue and white porcelains made in the Jingdezhen workshops for the Yongle (1403-24), Xuande (c.1424-35) and Chunghua (c.1464-87) emperors. This period of huge creativity saw mutual cross-fertilisation between the Middle and the Far East.

In both form and the complex geometric design, an elegantly potted 10in (25cm) Yongle bianhu or moonflask recreates in porcelain a Persian metalwork model. Only two similar flasks have been offered previously at auction and both in 1979 at a time when Japanese and Western buyers dominated the marketplace for Chinese works of art.

This particular example was first sold by Bluett in 1954 (for £285) and then again in 1962 when it was bought by Pilkington for £2750. Estimated at HK$25-35m, it sold to a buyer from the Greater China region for HK$97m (£9.25m).

The Yongle emperor, a devout Buddhist, commissioned many porcelains for ritual use. A group of 8in (21cm) pear-shaped rose water ewers with tapering spouts were among the most extraordinary. These are long revered and auspicious objects and the art-loving Qing emperor Qianlong (1735-95) chose one – probably the piece still in the Palace Museum, Beijing – to feature prominently in his portrait.

Now just three are known. Pilkington’s was formerly owned by HRN Norton, a dealer in London in the 1920s whose collection was sold by Sotheby’s in 1963. Then it sold to the celebrated New York dealer JT Tai for £1350, reselling at Christie’s in 1967 (for 4000 guineas) shortly before Pilkington acquired it for £5000. It was his most costly single purchase but 51 years later it would sell for a triple-estimate HK$87m (£8.3m).

The Yongle (1403-24) blue and white rosewater ewer
The Yongle (1403-24) blue and white rosewater ewer sold for HK$87m (£8.3m) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on April 6. British collector Roger Pilkington (1928-69) bought it from London dealership Bluett & Sons for £5000 in 1967.

In total the Pilkington collection doubled its high estimate selling for a hammer total of HK$427.7m (£40.8m). Chow said: “the fact that this was totally fresh and unseen for the last 50 years gave so much energy to the room.”

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About the Author:

Roland Arkell is the Contributing Editor at ATG Media. For almost two decades, Roland has been writing about the British and international art and antiques market for Antiques Trade Gazette, the leading publication for serious buyers and sellers of art and antiques.