A Brief History of Collecting For 200 years
By: Peter Combs,
Appraisers - Dealers - Auctioneers, since 1979
Chinese antiques in Boston and New England have a long and enduring history. During the last 35 years I've had the good fortune to work in the antiques business here in New England. My roles have been as a dealer-broker, auctioneer and estate appraiser. New England's rich historic heritage of antiques is, to put it mildly legendary among collectors and dealers around the world. Living and working within "the trade" here has been and continues to be a fascinating journey. For me, Gloucester, Massachusetts is a perfect place to live and do business.
The regional concentration of so much art and antiques is drectly attributable to massive familial financial wealth and longevity. The first millionaire in America Elias Hasket Derby was from Salem, MA followed by many more starting in the early 19th C.. Much of this prosperity had its roots in shipping and trade throughout the world conveyed by ships built and owned by New England merchants. Vast fortunes accumulated in the pre-income tax eras via shipping empires provided fertile ground for collecting. A pursuit carried on, on a global basis by generations of wealthy New England families.
The China Trade and Ships
From the late 1700's onward hundreds and hundreds of ships plied the waters from here to nearly every port in the world, from England to China. During these early days New England exported millions of tons of lumber, salted Cod, fur etc. all the while buying and selling goods from port to port like floating department stores as they traveled. Then returning to the America's with goods in demand here. Along the way many brought back hoards of objects from China and Japan. While they of course did bring back Tea (the biggest import), spices and fabrics, they also brought piles of porcelains, paintings, carved jades, bronzes and much more. This was only the beginning.
Who Brought all the Chinese Antiques in Boston and New England here?
To better understand historically where and just how much has been brought here over the last couple centuries take a walk through a few museums in the area. Start at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, Harvard Art Museum and Salem's Peabody Essex Museum aka the PEM.
While visiting them you can learn a great deal about just how much was brought here and by whom. During a visit spend a little time looking at the donor tags beneath the Asian works of art in their collections as well as many other areas of art. In doing so you'll encounter names like Bigelow, Fenollosa, Morse, Peters, Coolidge, Weld, Cabot, Loring, Prince, Agissiz and many more. These names go a long way to telling the tale of why the New England region has such a massive legacy of stunning works of art from Asia, in particular from China and Japan. In short they made New England "MECCA" when it comes to antiques from the Far East.
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Chinese Antiques in Boston and New England Today, Where Is It All?
Today these wonderful collections fill not just houses in the Boston area and North Shore, but are spread far and wide into New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island as well. They include some things from the China Trade days of the 18th and 19th C. and more brought from China and Japan during the mid to late 19th and early 20th C. by wealthy Boston industrialists. Much of it has stayed here, scattered across New England as a result of over 200 years of nearly constant trade with Asia.
Objects have a curious way of filtering down through families, this includes everything from jewelry to furniture to great rarities. Extremely valuable small objects and large get passed along without a second thought to a distant cousin often just because the appraisal was done with inaccurate values and descriptions. In many cases rare items are overlooked in the appraisal entirely and are viewed as just "Stuff". From that point on it may languish for another generation as little more than a household furnishing waiting to be recognized for what it is.
Chinese Antique Collecting Today
To this day, the tradition of collecting Chinese antiques in Boston and New England continues, albeit it quietly and often without fanfare. Which is at it should be, collecting is a very personal thing I think when done in serious way. True collectors do it for themselves with the occasional loan to a museum if asked. It makes them happy.
Over the years I've had many calls from a collector or heir in our area with a fantastic collection to sell or have evaluated. I've lost track of how many times they are people I had never heard about, even though I am in the business.
Sometimes these collections are multi-generational in nature, started perhaps by a grandparent or even great grandparent which was added onto by various family members.
The good part of serious collecting is, the more you know and learn, the better examples you buy (obviously) and the cost of doing it goes down as you become better at finding things. Consequently its a near perfect activity for New England horse traders who have the interest. For a New England Yankee, getting a real bargain is strong motivation to learn and study. Its a cultural thing, going back to the revolution and is a contagious impulse for those who move here from other parts of the country.
While for obvious reasons I cannot share here images of things still in collections locally I've seen or appraised, I can share images and information on things we've bought and sold from the area to give some idea of what can and has been found. Also shown are items from the area whihc were sold at major auction houses that made the news.
The F. Gordon Morrill Collection of Chinese Porcelain, Manchester By The Sea, Massachusetts realizes 12 Million Dollars
A Glimpse Of A Modern Day Collector
While Mr. Morrill's collection was well known among museum folks here in New England, his name was not anything close to a household name among the general public as a serious art collector. Not even to his neighbor's in Manchester where he and his wife lived for many years. Mr. Morrill began collecting during the 1960's and by the 1970's had assembled one of the finest collections of Chinese blue and white porcelain in private hands anyplace in the world. His collection was focused primarily on Yuan and early Ming wares and was sold following his passing at the Doyle Auction Gallery in 2003. The sale was conducted under the guidance of Chinese porcelain and art guru Martin Lorber. Martin was a friend of Mr. Morrill, it was his and his wife's wish that the sale of the collection be handled by only Mr. Lorber, a wise decision.
The results of that auction speaks for itself. The sale was a massive success realizing over 12 million dollars for a handful of pieces. The star, a Yuan period spectacularly painted Pilgrim Flask measuring just 14' tall. It was the best of the best and sold for 5.8 Million Dollars. The flask has once belonged to Sir Harry Garner, and was bought by Mr. Morrill from Bluett & Sons on May 1, 1973.
From the Morrill collection also came a spectacularly large massive blue and white dragon dish measuring over 19" in diameter. It sold of 1.6 million dollars.
His outstanding collection was not representative of what you typically find among collectors of Chinese antiques in Boston and New England, it was among the best. Not for its size, but for its quality.
Much More Than Canton and Rose Medallion
When many folks think of Chinese and Asian art in New England, what often comes to mind are mental images of standard blue and white Canton as well as the bountiful examples of Rose Medallion. It is true these wares indeed did flood the region during the early to late 19th C. . It was however in reality a small part of a very big history of Yankee's who collected and still do "the exotic goods of Cathay".
Today when looking for Chinese antiques in Boston and New England you will also encounter numerous examples of fine Chinese furniture often dating to the late 1700's. From fine black and gilt lacquered examples to well carved rose-wood examples inset with marble tops and if you're very luck jade.
Fascinatingly, despite the thousands of pieces which have been sold, inherited and given to friends, there seems to be no end to it. As I had mentioned earlier, today collectors are still busily buying and gathering art of all kinds in New England, including fine Chinese and Asian works of art.
Thank you for visiting..Peter Combs.