It all started with a delayed flight.

The late Sir Joseph Hotung’s passion for collecting jade is said to have started in the 1970s, when a plane delay resulted in an unplanned visit to a gallery in San Francisco. It was there that he laid eyes on a pair of matching Qing Dynasty white bowls.

The acquisition was the start of a lifelong passion. Now, Sotheby’s will sell some 400 works from Hotung’s encyclopedic private collection in a series of dedicated single-owner auctions in Hong Kong in October and London in December. The more than 400 works are expected to fetch more than $100 million.

Hotung, who died in 2021, was the son of Robert Hotung, arguably the most influential businessman in Hong Kong’s history and the patriarch of one of its ‘big four families’ during colonial times from the city. Best known for its collections of jade, porcelain, and Chinese artwork, it has also amassed a top-notch design collection. He exhibited his personal favorites – English Chippendale furniture, French royal silverware, Ming hardwood furniture and Indian ink paintings –in his London residence, where he was only seen by a few close associates and friends.

The 11th-12th century gilt bronze seated figure of Avalokiteshvara, Kingdom of Dali, as displayed in the London house of Hotung. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Some museum visitors may already be familiar with Hotung’s name, as a gallery in the British Museum is named after him. He was also a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Asia Society in New York, among others. Hotung left almost all of his collections of jade and ancient Chinese blue and white porcelain to the British Museum.

Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s Chairman for Asian Art, described Hotung’s aesthetic as “a winning combination of a serious Chinese scholar with that of an English gentleman”. He took pleasure in juxtaposing English and Chinese a way that I have rarely seen elsewhere and that was way ahead of its time.

One of the best lots at the Hong Kong auction is a seated gilt bronze figure from the 11th and 12th centuries. Avalokiteshvara, estimated at $1.8-2.3 million. This is the only example in this form known to exist from the kingdom of Dali in southwestern China.

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Eugene Manet (1874).  Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Eugene Manet (1874). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The selection of beautiful Chinese paintings includes works by Chinese ink artists from the late Qing dynasty to the modern era, such as Xu Gu, Fu Baoshi and Shi Lu. A starry lot is one of the most large multi-panel works by Qi Baishi, Prosperous fruits and flowerswhich is estimated between 2.1 and 3.5 million dollars.

Edouard Vuillard, Gentlemen in Black (circa 1895-99).  Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Edouard Vuillard, gentlemen in black (c. 1895–99). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Hotung also amassed an enviable collection of Impressionist art. Degas Portrait of Eugene Manet (1874) is estimated between $4.7 and $7 million. His group of paintings by Vuillard represents “the finest offering presented at auction from a single collection in decades”, according to Sotheby’s.

Howard-Sneyd said Hotung frequently visits Hong Kong auction houses. “He was pretty inscrutable, so we would never know what he was going to do until sale day,” he recalled. “He was someone who was always focused on buying the best of the best in an area, and it wasn’t just aesthetics that were important to him, but also things like subject matter and provenance. Almost always though, the defining characteristic was that a piece captured it from the start.

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