Precious as Jade — Visiting the Crow Collection of Asian Art

During my several visits to the Dallas Museum of Art, I did notice that their Asian art, especially Chinese art, is not extensive. It is fortunate that Dallas has a museum dedicated to Asian Art just cross the street of DMA. Even better, it is admission-free!

The Crows started collecting Asian art from 1960’s. They were one of a few Americans who entered China during the Cultural Revolution period, when everything antiques was meant to be destroyed as anti-revolutionary. The museum, growing out of Crows’ passion for Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asia art, opened to the public since 1998.

The late 70’s and 80’s were the golden time to find treasures in China. The highest end antiques were then sold usually under $1,000. Tons of treasures were rediscovered in the rural areas which were carried to the cities’ newly re-established cultural heritage and antiquity preservation bureau for money exchange. If they didn’t sell, they went directly into the dumpsters nearby. Now, with Chinese antiques making world-records every couples of months set by those passionate new tycoons, it is hard to image such collection can be built by individuals.

Crow’s  Chinese collection emphasized on Jade, which is showcased through the current exhibition “Blossoming Stone: Qing Dynasty Jade”. In Qing Dynasty, jade making created some of the most stunning pieces whose aesthetics values  went over their functionality. Interestingly,artworks from the last empire are the hottest in the current market, partially because of the most consummate craftsmanship, partially because of the relative abundant availability.

A jade brush-holder on display was marvelously carved with emboss figures and landscape, impossible to be acceptable as necessity of literati in Song or Ming dynasty. The pursuit of luxury to an almost maddening degree in Qing Dynasty is illustrated by a tea pot nearby. Jade tea pot would not  survive the sudden temperature change and pouring hot water into it would surely cause cracks, yet it is not likely to be ceremonial as tea pots were not commonly used in ritual activities. The original owner of this tea pot, like that of the brush holder, sought these objects as  the unique combination of cultural elements and material opulence.

Such a quest continues in the veins of the current collectors. Even I, as an outsider of Chinese antiques market, began to wonder how much it may cost to handle such a useless jade teapot? Looking through the upcoming auctions, I did find one jade censer of lesser  quality. It is estimated between $4000 and $6000 and was described as a 19th century piece. “Jade objects are very hard to date,” a friend of mine who deals with Chinese antiques once commented, “you have to go with the instinct. Most importantly, the sheen should reflect the wears from the ages, if the object is not manipulated to fake the age.”

His another comment about  carved Rhinoceros horns brought my attention to a pair of large ceremonial Rhinoceros horn cups. Once I found a large carved Rhinoceros horn in a small auction house with an estimation of $2000. “A smaller one from the 19th century was sold at Sotheby’s for more than $30,000, you think it is just too good to be true?” he cooled me down.  But at the Crow Collection, the two, standing against the window, play out a fanfare of supreme workmanship.  The horn, carved with figures and trees against layers of landscape, is a blessing of longevity, happiness, and fortune, derived from those symbolic items such as pine trees, peaches, cranes, etc.

Perhaps one of the most famous poem about Rhinoceros was written by Li Shangyin. He writes:

身无彩凤双飞翼,心有灵犀一点通.

It says lovers separated by long distance can communicate, understand and feel each other without voice or image. The correspondence between two souls in love is like the white line of the Rhinoceros horns connecting one end to the other.

I looked hard. No, there was no white line in either horn. But wouldn’t the couple be blessed if they could drink their wine from these cups in their wedding? I wondered.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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