HG Beasley’s collectors’ odyssey since he was 13

Harry Geoffrey Beasley (1881-1939), heir to the North Kent Brewery in Plumstead, took an early interest in ethnography.

A collecting obsession that began at the age of 13 with the acquisition of two clubs from the Solomon Islands has grown over a lifetime to number around 10,000 artifacts from around the world. Until the building was damaged by bombs, many pieces were displayed at the Cranmore Ethnographic Museum in Chislehurst.

Substantial parts of the collection, acquired during that golden age of the interwar period when London was inundated with dealers, collectors and officials returning from the empire, were donated to other institutions.

HG Beasley provenance is attached to pieces in the British Museum, the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford and the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. However, the rest of the collection was kept by Beasley’s widow, Irene, and her family.

A total of 15 pieces – four ivory brush pots and 11 rhinoceros horn libation cups – were offered in the inaugural sale at Alastair Gibson Auctions (25% purchase bonus) in London on November 18.

Some great rarities were available here, all dating from the late Ming and early Qing periods (17th and 18th centuries).

Estimated at £20,000-30,000 but sold for £40,500, it was an intricately carved ‘Jian Guangzhi’ vessel 13cm wide copying a Western Han jade ear cup. One of only half a dozen on record, it bears an inscription dated to the year Guiwei (1643 or 1703) which reads: ‘the year of Aries, stone fire, star fire, copy of the jade of the Han Jianguang Zhi dynasty”.

An old paper collector’s label is dated June 20, 1930. Three signed copies are known by the famous Yangzhou sculptor Bao Tiancheng; including that of the Fowler Museum, Los Angeles, sold at Christie’s in London in November 2006 for £100,000.

The sale and circulation of rhino horn artwork is rightly tightly controlled and it is fair to say that the family left relatively late in the day to decide whether to sell. Export licenses are now only granted to items with a hammer price above $100 per gram in weight and it took several months of work with the Covid-stricken CITES team in Bristol before a group even well established like this could be sold.

Another very rare form was a carved cup in the shape of a recumbent mountain goat – one of the Chinese zodiac animals and an auspicious creature often used as a symbol of the arrival of spring. One of three other examples illustrated by Jan Chapman’s The art of rhinoceros horn carving in China (1999) bears both a Wanli reign mark and a Bao Tiancheng seal mark, which allows this group to be dated to around 1600.

This example was particularly well observed (the natural ridges of the horn had been used by the carver to accentuate the fur of the animal). It took £31,000.

In total, the Beasley lots (three were unsold) fetched £255,000. Most are sold in Hong Kong and China.

Several hats worn

Gibson viewed the Asian art world from the perspective of both poacher and game warden. Responsible for Chinese and Japanese works of art at Sotheby’s for many years, he became a dealer and consultant (with Canterbury Auction Galleries among others) in 2008. As the profession continued to evolve, he now plans to return to the gallery full time.

“This sale was mainly born out of the boredom of lockdown and the inability to do business in the traditional way at fairs in 2020 and 2021,” he said. “But to move forward, I decided to go back to my old career as an auctioneer, mainly specializing in Chinese ceramics and artwork.

“Asian customers generally prefer to transact through auctions and over the past two years all online auction formats have flourished. I am currently working on my next auction in early July.

The first sale, presented at the Brian Haughton Gallery in November and sold at the premises of Kerry Taylor Auctions in Bermondsey, south London, set the bar quite high.

The online catalog was among the best published for the AsianArt in London series, complete with scholarly references and detailed condition reports. The hammer total was £675,060 with 78% of the 234 lots sold. At a time when Sotheby’s and Christie’s are reducing London’s focus on Chinese art (Sotheby’s will soon join Christie’s in hosting a sale in the capital and another event moving to Paris and Hong Kong), there is clearly room for maneuver in the market.

boston bounty

Objects from the estate of Diana Metcalf Stainow (1926-2019), a Boston native who lived and worked as an artist in London, Paris and Hong Kong, were donated by Gibson without reserve.

Some fled. From a group of classical era ceramics (catalogued as 19th century copies by another auctioneer) were three Jianyao “hare’s fur” tea bowls from the Song or Jin period (12th or 13th century) estimated between £400 and £600 each. They sold for prices of £490, £2,600 and £9,000 – the last mentioned for a bowl covered in a russet and black glaze that fell just below the stem, exposing the unglazed purplish-brown body.

A feature of the market in recent years has been the willingness to accept damages when it comes to the Qing mark and period china. A few good copies were offered for sale by a private source: all had been listed in an old inventory of 1967 (updated by Christie’s in 1976).

An 8 inch (20 cm) Yongzeng (1722-1735) lotus petal from a bowl decorated with chrysanthemum sprays on a powder blue ground cost £16,000 (estimate £2,000-3,000) although it has been broken in two. This rare type of decoration was created by blowing the cobalt pigment over a stencil. An identical bowl in good condition sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April 2012 as part of the Meiyintang collection for HK$1.4 million (£140,000).

In addition, the Yongzeng brand and period (and also broken into seven pieces) was a yellow green and brown “dragon” dish. Most such pieces from the Kangxi period have grapes as the border decoration, but this one adopts the crane motif used on other yellow and green Yongzheng porcelains made for the Forbidden City. The hammer price was £6500 (estimate £400-600).

In better condition were a trio of pieces from Kangxi famille verte.

Two 5-inch (13 cm) brush pots (bitong) had been purchased from a Dutch private collection at Christie’s Amsterdam in 2007. The example painted with two scholars in a classical landscape, a kingfisher perched on a peony bouquet and bamboo and two poems took £11,000 while another depicting a scholar offering a book to the poet Li Taibo and conversely with the Taoist god of literature Guixing fetched £9,000. The latter had a star crack at the base.

A 14 inch (35cm) famille verte dish decorated with a central image of a leaping carp in iron red and gold sold for £13,000. The carp in Chinese mythology symbolizes courage and perseverance; in the “Dragon Gate” fable, he ascends a waterfall where he transforms into a benevolent and powerful dragon. This dish with a diamond mark on the base had previously sold at Christie’s New York in January 2014 for $18,000.

An exceptional pair of large baluster vases and lids dating from around 1740 came up for sale from a private Portuguese collection and had previously been at London export porcelain dealer Cohen & Cohen.

Intricately painted in the famille rose palette with green peacocks, Manchurian cranes, paradise flycatchers and mynas among lush peony flowers, they stood 4 feet 3 inches (1.28 m) tall on 18th century carved giltwood European mounts. The epitome of English country house taste and in generally good condition (one with a recently restored hairline), these cost £41,000 (estimate £40,000-60,000), the best deal of the sale .

Without forgetting the addition of some beautiful Japanese ceramics, a 25cm Meiji satsuma vase sold for £3200 (estimate £2000-3000).

Finely painted with a processional scene of high-ranking ladies, gentlemen and children enjoying the spring bloom, it bears the artist’s signature in iron red and gold, Okamoto Ryozan, for the Yasuda Company, Kyoto.

About Oscar L. Smith

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