ART MARKET / The passion of a warlord: Manchuria's 'Young Marshal' - Mao's ally and Chiang Kai-shek's prisoner - is selling his art collection. Geraldine Norman reports

Geraldine Norman
Saturday 02 April 1994 23:02

SOTHEBY'S forthcoming sale of a Chinese warlord's art collection was meant to be kept secret. Even now, the auctioneers are being tight- lipped about the vendor's identity - but they've been rumbled.

The sale will take place on 10 April in Taipei, since the former warlord, Zhang Xueliang, has lived under house arrest in Taiwan for most of the past 40 years. Now 96, and a free citizen, he has decided to sell what remains of the collection of antique Chinese paintings he brought with him from mainland China in 1949 - when he arrived in Taiwan as a prisoner of Mao's adversary, Chiang Kai-shek. In mainland China he is now regarded as a hero; his former home has been restored and opened to the public as a monument.

Sotheby's sale is billed as 'Fine Chinese Paintings from the Ding-

yuanzhai Collection'. Some 700 paintings in ink and watercolour on paper, ranging in date from the 10th century to around 1980, have been crammed into 206 lots. The name under which the collection is being sold, 'Dingyuanzhai', means literally 'studio far from home'. It is one of the names that Zhang himself has adopted for his collection; Chinese artists, writers and collectors regularly provide themselves with pen names - sometimes, as in the case of Zhang, they use several different ones. He apparently asked Sotheby's to sell his collection anonymously but the art trade recognised this pen name; his identity has also been rumbled by the Taiwan press.

Zhang Xueliang, known as 'the Young Marshal', inherited military control of Manchuria in 1928 when his father, 'the Old Marshal', was murdered by the Japanese. His brief moment of glory came in December 1936 when he arrested Chiang Kai- shek in Xian and persuaded the Nationalist government to join forces with the Communists to fight the Japanese. For the previous 10 years Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government had been fighting the Communists and ignoring the threat to sovereignty posed by Japan's conquests in the north.

The coalition negotiated by Zhang finally drove the Japanese out of China after a long and bitter battle - and with the help of the Allies - in 1945. Zhang, however, was never forgiven for his arrest of Chiang Kai- shek, though it lasted only a matter of days, from 12-25 December 1936. Zhang flew back from Xian to Nanking with his former prisoner - and was immediately arrested. While his friends managed to overturn the sentence of 10 years imprisonment passed by a military court on 31 December 1936, he was handed over to the National Military Council (chairman, Chiang Kai-shek) for 'stringent supervision' - and remained effectively a prisoner until the Eighties. A brief visit to New York three years ago was the first time he had been allowed to leave Taiwan.

Despite the demands of military campaigns and high-level diplomacy, Zhang managed to cram a good deal of pleasure into his golden youth, according to the Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. He was an opium addict and a popular member of the international set in Beijing, where he had an affair with Mussolini's daughter, Edda, wife of Count Ciano. When he visited Europe in 1933, he took his wife, four children, two American advisers, numerous nurses and servants and his secretary (and mistress) Miss Chao.

After Zhang's arrest in 1936, his wife, Yu Feng-chih, took their children to America but Miss Chao remained faithfully at his side. On

4 July 1964 Zhang and Miss Chao were married in Taiwan; Yu Feng- chih, then living in southern California, said that she was so moved by Miss Chao's devotion to Zhang that she released him from his marriage bonds. Zhang and his second wife are now said to be living in straitened circumstances which make necessary the sale of his paintings.

Art dealers whose memories go back to the 1930s say Zhang was well known at the time as a passionate collector of painting and calligraphy. He was considered one of the big spenders of Beijing and is said to have had good advisers. Many of the rare, early paintings he bought at that time have appeared on the market in New York over the past 10 years or so - consigned by members of his family who live in the US.

The collection he is selling later this month is short on masterpieces but full of intimate interest. About 400 of the 700 items on offer are fan paintings. Paper fans were painted by all the great scholar artists of China but they were never regarded as great art on a par with handscrolls. They were intimate paintings, dashed off for friends - which gives them a special charm of their own, underscored by the fact that, quality for quality, they cost about one-tenth of the price of handscrolls.

The earliest fan in the sale, a dreamy little landscape of 'Scholars having tea under a wutong tree' painted by Wang Fu (1362-1416), is estimated at 150,000-200,000 Taiwan dollars ( pounds 3,900- pounds 5,200).

In the main, the 16th- and 17th- century fans are being sold in groups of six to eight at a time with estimates in the pounds 4,000- pounds 10,000 range. Similar groups of fans from the 18th- and 19th-centuries are estimated as low as pounds 800- pounds 1,600.

The fans that are still attached to their original sticks are expected to be more costly; a set of two folding fans painted with ink landscapes by Dai Xi (1801-1860) is estimated at pounds 1,100- pounds 1,400. A gold ground also enhances value; an album of 12 coloured fan paintings on gold paper by the 18th-century artists Wang Chengpei is expected to reach pounds 8,000- pounds 11,000.

The star turn is a Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) handscroll painted with a spray of peach blossom by Xie Yuan. According to modern scholarship, it is the artist's only recorded work and it has a distinguished provenance. Chinese collectors stamp their paintings with personal seals and 'Peach Blossoms' is stamped with three seals of the connoisseur Emperor Qianlong and one of the Emperor Jiaqing. It is also sold with special encomiums, known as colophons, written by other connoisseurs who have owned or admired it, the earliest by the artist Feng Zizhen (1257-1327). Sotheby's hopes the scroll will make pounds 80,000- pounds 130,000.

Most of the sale is made up of antique paintings but it also contains a handful of modern works. They include, most notably, 20 paintings by Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), the most famous Chinese artist of the 20th century. Not only is he as famous in the Chinese community as Picasso is in the Western world, but he also copied old masters and made many forgeries. He and the 'the Young Marshal' were friends in the Thirties and met again in Taiwan in the Seventies. They shared a passion for food; the menu of a meal they ate on 20 February 1981, decorated with paintings of vegetables by Zhang Daqian, is included in the sale with an estimate of pounds 6,600- pounds 7,900.

Sotheby's has never held an auction of old paintings in Taiwan before; hitherto they have only sold contemporary oil paintings there, which have a wide appeal and are not plagued by the same problems of attribution. Chinese artists have copied their predecessors' work out of admiration all down the centuries, leaving insoluble problems of attribution for present-day connoisseurs.

The main market for Chinese 'old masters' is in New York, where Sotheby's and Christie's mount sales twice a year, though purchasers fly in from Hong Kong and Taiwan to carry off the best of the offerings. The price estimates for the Zhang sale look quite low by New York standards, reflecting the many unknowns of the sale. For one thing, Taiwan law rules that no works of art over 100 years old should leave the country. Its citizens are not in the habit of paying any attention to this; there are no checks on hand luggage when you leave the country.

But the law will, no doubt, deter foreign museums from buying; foreign private collectors may even think twice before purchasing lots that have been illustrated in the catalogue. Taiwan itself, however, is very well supplied with rich private collectors and the historic interest of Zhang himself as the paintings' previous owner could well send prices through the roof. -

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments