The Move to Davies Street
Taste and Patterns of Collecting
The War Years
Selling the Stock
Beginnings Return to Top
This essay will give the history of the firm of art dealers Bluett and Sons, and an overview of the collectors and the development in the nature of collecting Chinese art during the 20th century. The principal source I have used is the extensive archive built up by the Bluetts over some 80 years. All references given are to this archive unless otherwise stated.
This archive covers the years 1907 – 1922, with the most accessible material for the years 1919 – 1969. In detail the archive comprises a series of Sales Day Books, Stock Books, Purchase and Sales Ledgers, large quantities of annotated auction catalogues, exhibition catalogues and many files of photographs. There is also a series of letter books relating to the direct supply of goods from china from the early 1920’s to the time when trade with Shanghai ceased in 1938. There is a similar extant archive for the firm of John Sparks Ltd., a firm that was contemporaneous with Bluetts and for many years a close neighbour in London’s Mayfair district. This archive is now housed at the Percival David Foundation.
There is no material relating to the earliest history of Bluetts. Within the firm the date of its founding was held to be 1884 and was celebrated in 1984 with an essay competition in connection with the magazine “Oriental Art”. The firm’s founder, Alfred Earnest Bluett, would seem to have been something of a bon vivant, making such sales as were necessary for him to make enough money to take off to Europe with his wife and, presumably, their children. It would seem that no permanent records were kept in these early years, and certainly none survive.
Alfred Ernest Bluett's elder son Leonard (Plate 3) joined the firm in 1907, at the age of about 27, and this is the point at which Bluett's 'historical' period may be said to begin. Leonard was a methodical man, as the records make clear and, with his younger brother Edgar (Plate 1), who joined the firm in 1910, became fine scholars and connoisseurs of their adopted subject.
On the earliest surviving Sales Day Book, a fragile oblong ledger opening in August 1907, is a label giving an address: "89 Queen Street London E.C.". This is carefully lined through. Below this, in smaller type is the address where the firm operated until 1923: 377 Oxford Street, conveniently sited "adjoining Bond Street tube station".
Alfred Ernest Bluett died in 1917 and thenceforward the Bluett Brothers, as they were known, ran the firm until their deaths, within a year of one another, in 1963 and 1964. They were very much equal partners, but perhaps Leonard's deafness and lameness, a result of injuries sustained in the First World War, put Edgar forward as the more visible face of the firm.
As little evidence survives before the move from Oxford Street around the corner to ground floor space in the newly built Brookfield House, a neo-classical building at the junction of Brook Street and Davies Street, in the autumn of 1923, this is the point at which the coherent history of the firm begins.
The Move to Davies Street Return to Top
The gallery space at Brookfield House, a shop on the ground floor and basement at the north-west corner of the building, with a large bay window facing Davies Street and a series of high windows -facing onto Davies Mews (for many years looking onto the firm of Boulding Brothers, manufacturers of commercial ceramic vessels), was well-lit and laid out with show cases and Chinese carpets, at least one of the latter survives today. Photographs taken around 1925 and later in 1948 show little change (Plate 4). Considerable alterations were made in the later 1960's when a more modern Japanese-inspired look was introduced, and perhaps the gallery lost something of the atmosphere of a gentleman's club. As will become evident Bluetts was very much a place for the meeting of minds, the contemplation of beautiful porcelains, ancient bronzes, fine Ming lacquers and the discussion of the merits of early jades. Further changes were made in the late 1980's and the gallery is still quite recognizable, now in the ownership of Mansour Mokhtarzardeh and exhibiting Islamic and classical art.
Tastes and Patterns of Collecting Return to Top
Alfred Ernest Bluett established his business at the height of the aesthetic movement, the time of Whistler and Wilde, the years when the 'Long Elizas' of the blue and white vases and the 'Hawthorn' pattern ginger jars were so desirable. The earliest Day Book entries, for 1907, still show this tendency, along with such Japanese minor arts as netsuke, tsuba and inro. The history of Bluett and Sons combines two major strands that are inextricable one from another, that of the changing taste in the collecting of Chinese art and the complex and traumatic political history of China throughout the 20th century.
This history of the collecting of Chinese art is thus made particularly interesting. The previous three and a half centuries, from the early imports of Chinese ceramics in the cargoes of the Portuguese Carracks and the Dutch trading ships to the illicit treasures taken at the sacking of the Summer Palace in 1860 and the looting of the Forbidden City forty years later, supplied a huge quantity of Chinese ceramics, bronzes, jades and other works of art. The goods that had been brought on the ships were of fairly limited range although the quantities were very considerable1. The looted goods, however, were far more varied and of much higher quality and tended to be restricted to a small number of private collections. The Portuguese and the Dutch brought blue and white decorated porcelain and the familles verte, rose, jaune and noire, and the Chine de Commande, still to be seen in collections all over Europe. The sacking of the Summer Palace brought to Europe the finest ceramics, bronzes and enamelled wares of the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods, still to be seen in the collection at Fontainebleau and for many years at Fonthill House in Wiltshire2. The looting of the Forbidden City brought many smaller Palace ceramics and works of art of the Qing dynasty to Europe, such as may be seen in the small collection at Quex Park in north Kent3. But it was the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the long years of unrest that followed that gave to a number of Europeans and Americans the opportunity to set up lines of supply that made the 1920's and 1930's a golden age for those who had the eye and the means to buy for sums that seem to us today almost derisory the prized treasures of the Chinese court and newly unearthed archaeological pieces.
The Exhibition of Chinese Art at Burlington House in London in 1910 was the first of its kind in the U.K., if not in Europe, and brought to public view early Chinese ceramics and works of art hitherto little known or understood. Another exhibition was held there in 1915, the year that saw the publication of R.L. Hobson's 2 volume work Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, widely seen as the first scholarly publication in the west on the subject. This was also a period when influential scholars such as Roger Fry were encouraging people to look at art in a different way. In 1921 the Oriental Ceramic Society was established, at first a private gathering of twelve members in each others homes, later to become an international institution. In his obituary for the Bluett brothers in the 1964 Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society Sir Harry Garner wrote: "It is not generally known the [the society's] inception arose from a discussion between A.L. Hetherington and Leonard Bluett"4.
In the same year the publishers Benn Brothers, whose publications had hitherto been confined almost exclusively to engineering and science, started their series of well illustrated and clearly written books on Chinese art with A.L. Hetherington's The Early Ceramic Wares of China. It has been said that the great exhibition of Chinese art held, again, at Burlington House in 1935 was the stimulus for the interest in Chinese art in England but this is really not so. Indeed, it was the committed interest among the private collectors, principally Sir Percival David, and their friends at the museums, that led to its taking place. The view prevailing in the 1920's may be understood from the following excerpt from the introduction to Bluett's catalogue for their exhibition of the collection of James Baird in 1926: "The publication in 1915 of R.L. Hobson's work Chinese Pottery and Porcelain marked for the Western collector a fresh epoch in the study of Chinese ceramics. Facts as to date and provenance of types of the earlier wares which, up to that time, had passed unrecognized by most European collectors, were brought to light and the fresh information supplied engendered an interest in wares which, apart from their historical value were found to possess high artistic merit. During the succeeding eight or nine years the inevitable demand was followed by a gratifying response from China and some of the finest representative examples of wares of the Han, Wei, T'ang and Sung dynasties reached this country"5.
In considering the history of Bluetts I wish to approach it from three directions. Firstly, the suppliers, the means by which the firm acquired its stock. Secondly the way in which this stock was presented for sale, especially by examining the series of exhibitions held at the gallery at regular intervals. Thirdly, the customers, principally the collectors, many of whom bought a large proportion of their collection from Bluetts, a few buying almost exclusively from the firm.
The Suppliers Return to Top
In considering the suppliers I will concentrate on those based in China in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The earliest surviving correspondence in the China Letter Books dates to January 1921, to Mr Tanosuke, presumably in Peking, concerning a recent shipment of varied goods from China. I give below a short extract from this letter: "No.266 (Ming blue and white). Small pieces of this sort preferably with date marks, are saleable. ... We like the Ming pottery very well, but do not want a large quantity of this, as there is not a very big demand for it and high prices are not given for pottery ... Can you offer us good old snuff bottles? We have recently sold a few pieces of sculpture – we do not want heads or poor specimens, but could sell anything of real merit of this sort"6.
A little later other correspondents appear, E. Gordon Lowther, Captain W.F. Collins and Peter Boode, all in 1924 - 25. The last two named had long relationships with Bluetts, and in Captain Collins we find a rather sympathetic and most usefully descriptive character. Peter Boode became a most important dealer, and will be discussed in more detail below, but I give here the first letter from Bluetts to Boode, dated October 28th 1924:
We thank you for your letter of Sept. 17th offering to send us photographs of old Chinese objets d'art in which we may be interested.
It is quite possible that we may be able to open business with you in this way but before we do so perhaps you will kindly let us know on what terms you propose to export to us, whether you would be willing to send goods on consignment etc. An exchange of credentials would, of course, be a necessary preliminary to any dealing.
Yours faithfully [Bluett & Sons]"7
The earliest letter to Captain Collins is dated March 19th 1925 and reads as follows:
"Capt. W. F. Collins, 13 K'uei Chia Ch'ang, Peking
We thank you for your letter dated Feb. 26th which has reached us today.
We are pleased to learn that you have sent us a first consignment and we will send you a report immediately it arrives.
We note your terms, and are pleased to adopt the four suggestions you make in your letter.
Yours faithfully [Bluett & Sons]"8
As the consignments arrived pieces were carefully considered by the Bluett brothers and the resulting correspondence, a little one sided as Collin’s replies have not survived for the 1920’s, give a little flavor of those times. I give a series of excerpts, interpolating Collins' descriptions in square brackets within the text of the letters from Bluetts. In the 1920's Collins' consignments were sent via the Siberian Express, and he sent detailed notes of their contents with the packages. These were carefully pasted into a ledger at Davis Steet and thus a number of these have survived. These three groups of excerpts are given in chronological order. The first is from the first consignment recorded, number 5, and in this instance Collins' typed sheets have not been kept but instead were transcribed into the ledger:
"5.14 Set of Sui silver figures from Chin Kou Shang Shan (Shang mountain 4 miles north of Loyang). Two ladies, each 8¼" high and two servants, each 8½" high. £350 (plate_5) [Letter from Bluett and Sons to Captain Collins, dated 22nd October 1925]
5.14 Set of Sui period silver figures. We are very interested in these pieces and are taking them. It will be of value to us to know something more of their history. Can you tell us:
1. How many of the figures were in the same grave?
2. If they are in the hands of other dealers and are likely to come to the market.
3. If you possess any more.
We consider the price rather high as we know so little as to their rarity (i.e. for the future) but we shall be grateful if you will let us know in confidence if you think there are likely to be more for sale in the near future"9.
Captain Collins' reply has not been preserved. Bluetts were successful in selling the four figures, although the firm only made a profit of £30. They were sold to: Dr Seligman, Henry Oppenheim, George Eumorfopoulos and to the British Museum, all on the same day, 21st October 1925. Two of the figures were illustrated in line drawing by Professor Bo Gyllensvard in his 1958 publication T'ang Gold and Silver, when he gave the following comments: "When the first figures came to the European market around 1920, they were regarded with suspicion and strongly criticized. ….As soon as objects of gold and silver from T'ang increased in number, the early scepticism died down, and for the present most scholars seem to have accepted the authenticity of the tomb figures of silver"10. There was published discussion of the figures at the time of their purchase by R.L. Hobson. Recent correspondence with the British Museum concerning their silver figure elicited the following response: "I found your silver figure quite easily in our database ... It is described as Tang type, but modern, made in France! We didn't even have the purchase price, so thank you for that. I intend to find the figure in the reserve in the near future you've made me curious"11. This putative French origin is interesting, particularly in relation to the following excerpt from Sir Alan Barlow's 1937 lecture to the Oriental Ceramic Society entitled The Collector and the Expert: "... the process of filling [the collector's] cabinet has enabled the tenant of expensive premises in the Chinese quarter of London, that is to say, in Davies Street and Mount Street, to increase employment by the purchase of a third Daimler or the engagement of a second footman, or that he has helped an ingenious workman in Paris or Tokyo to take on an assistant fabricator"12.
The second object from Collins' consignments to be considered here is a Chenghua period imperial yellow saucer, to be seen today in the study galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
[From Captain Collins list no.15, dated 22nd April 1926] "15.2 Yellow plate. 8¼" in diameter with Cheng Hua mark. Interesting as it has crackle and iridescence"(Plate 6).
[Leonard Bluett to Captain Collins, 7th July 1926] "15.2 Yellow plate. There are three dots lightly drilled in triangular fashion on the base of this plate. This occurs now and then on dishes, more frequently on celadons. Can you or your Chinese friends tell us why it is done or if this kind of mark has any meaning?"13
Captain Collins' reply has not survived. The dish was sold to George Eumorfopoulos on 29th June 1926 for £12.10 and entered the Victoria & Albert Museum as part of the sale of the Eumorfopoulos Collection to the nation in 1935.
Bluett's response to the reception of Collins' 17th consignment, the letter is dated August 18th 1926, gives a little insight into the trade at this time. The details in square brackets are taken from Collins' list and the relevant Sales Day Book.
Lot 17 has reached us and we are taking at sight goods as per list enclosed. Cheque in settlement has been sent to the Chartered Bank with instructions to cable to your account at Peking.
In spite of your careful packing nos. 17.9 [Tang period gothic lady in unglazed clay, with red and black colours. The hair was formerly covered with gold-leaf. From Luoyang. Repaired at neck. Sold to D. Cohen for £37.10] and 17.26 [A Tang seated lady in a cream-glaze chariot with wheels, having an overall height of 10in. drawn by three cream horses and preceded by two outriders carrying each a sword (on left hip in a wooden scabbard) and an axe or other fighting arm in a leather or wooden case, on the left hip. Much iridescence. Sold to Madame Edvina for £140 (plate_7)] have suffered rather much in transit and we are having them restored [at a cost of £1.15]. As they come in the category for which the Post Office will not accept responsibility it is useless to claim.
We are pleased to have No.17.29 [Tang period blue-glaze horse 12in. high. Repaired behind the neck (the head and part of the neck have been off in one piece), in the two forelegs and behind the saddle. If unsold in two months please return. Sold to Warren Cox for £130] although we regret its condition. We also like No.17.25 [Wei period dog and puppy, from Luoyang. 8½in long, 4¼in high. Please return if not sold within 3 months. Sold to Warren Cox for £18] and can do with other examples similar to 17.12 [Ming period blue white plate 7¾ in diam. 5-claw dragon decor. Chengde datemark. Thin ware. One chip on outside of lip. Sold to George Eumorfopoulos for £35 along with an octagonal box] i.e. dated pieces of pre Chia Ching porcelain.
We do not want any more pottery horses (unless pieces like No.17.29.) or figures unless exceptional pieces"14.
By the 1930's the bulk of the correspondence with Captain Collins concerned the disposal of pieces from earlier consignments. The following letter from Captain Collins to Bluetts was sent from Shanghai and reflects the changing situation in China.
"c/o The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Shanghai
16 December 1935
45A.4 Bronze animal. Mr Ives writes me that he returned this to you but that you feared that the price was too high. I have not all my papers here and cannot remember the price but please note that I do not want price to stand in the way of any goods which you have had in stock for more than a year. I would rather sacrifice goods at considerable loss than have them go back to the Pall Mall [presumably a deposit office] where I lose track of them and they pile up without a chance of being seen. Whilst I was living in Peking it was possible in many cases to get the goods returned and exchanged against fresh pieces but this is not practicable under present circumstances. The Exhibition [presumably referring to the exhibition at Burlington House.] is a wonderful opportunity of getting rid of some of the old stock and if you could manage to have back some of the pieces from the Pall Mall and give them another chance now that they have been forgotten this would be appreciated.
You will possibly have heard that the Chinese Government has prohibited the export of all "antiquities" within the last few days. Whether this means "antiques" remains to be seen.
With kind regards and best wishes for the New Year,
By 1937 Captain Collins was living in Southern Rhodesia. From his home there he wrote in May 1937 with a more personal request:
Injina, Wedza, S. Rhodesia
21 May 1937
My son Wilfrid is taking his London matriculation this June. After the examination he is anxious to take up work in connection with antiques and interior decoration, subjects in which he has been interested for some years. He has been educated at Westminster and with private tutors. Having lived out here in Southern Rhodesia for a time and having been born in China he is also something of a traveller. Any assistance you can give me by way of advice to him and furtherance of his desire to obtain experience and employment along the lines he desires will be much appreciated by me.
Yours faithfully, W.F. Collins"16
Although this letter has been carefully preserved there is nothing in the ensuing correspondence concerning young Wilfrid. The last correspondence to have survived between Bluett and Collins is dated November 1937, although entries in John Sparks ledgers show dealings with him during the war.
A number of new suppliers appear in the 1930's, and a number of older names come into a different focus. One of these was K.K. Chow who was connected with the Parisian firm Chinois Tonying (see separate entry), from whom the Bluett brothers bought many pieces on their regular trips to Paris. The first reference to Tonying in the surviving ledgers is for January 1921, giving an address at Clarges Street, London W.1, but later, over the period 1921 - 1927, an address at Place Saint Georges, Paris, is given. In the new loose-leaf ledger, which was opened in 1928, reference is given to an address for Tonying in Shanghai, and in this context a mention of K.K. Chow, C/o Lao Brothers Shanghai. There is correspondence with Mr Chow in the letter books, the earliest letter from Bluetts to Mr Chow being dated October 2nd 1930. The following excerpt clearly establishes the link between Chow and Tonying:
"You have asked us to tell you exactly what we think of the things you have sent and as we are convinced that this is the only way in which we can conduct satisfactory business relations, we propose to do so with complete frankness. On the whole we are definitely disappointed, as the shipment contains a large proportion of things which we should not have bought if we had seen them at Clarges Street and there are others about which we cannot agree as to period. We have sold items as per attached list, at the prices set against them but the character of the shipment was not sufficiently good for us to invite a large number of our clients to see it. We should prefer a more favourable impression"17.
K.K. Chow became an important supplier to Bluetts and Peter Hardie, former curator of Asian Art at the Bristol City Art Gallery, cites Mr. Chow as a major supplier to the collector F.N. Schiller18.
By chance a quantity of correspondence has survived between Bluetts and an Englishman by the name of Oliver Bedford, based at first in Peking and then in Shanghai. The relationship was fairly short-lived, and would not seem to have been too productive, but the following excerpts highlight some of the difficulties connected with this long distance trade. This is from the first letter from Mr. Bedford to Bluetts, which has a distinctly period feel to it:
"College of Chinese Studies, Pei-p'ing
22 Dec. 1936
Dear Mr Bluett,
In view of my experiences here in Pei-p'ing I am venturing to send you these photographs of bronzes with the hope that they may be of interest to you....(Plate 8)
May I be so bold as to suggest purchasing some of them on your behalf as I am unfortunately not endowed with funds to do so on my own initiative. May I also suggest, as remuneration, a share in the profit of such pieces. I can arrange for their shipment on receiving your instructions. Having only had the pleasure of meeting you on one occasion and my name, therefore, unfamiliar to you, I enclose the following references:-
Messrs. Martineau and Reeds, solicitors, Grays Inn Road
Sir Percival David
Arnold Silcock, F.R.I.B.A.
...should you be interested in porcelain of the 15th and 16th centuries please let me know the range and types required, whether plates, bowls, cups or vases. There are a few good specimens still available though the market is nearly exhausted. Please address all communications to the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Pei-p'ing.
Yours very sincerely, VA Oliver H. Bedford."19
On 22nd January Leonard Bluett replied to Mr Bedford:
We have your letter of 22nd December enclosing photographs of several old Chinese vessels... If you are likely to be in Peiping for some time, we think it would be possible to establish useful and satisfactory business relations, providing you are able to find the kind of thing we want.
We are definitely interested in primitive bronzes and have recently bought and sold many interesting examples ....We are also interested in all fine porcelains and certainly would like to know of any really good examples of 15th and 16th century pieces which you may see. Polychrome pieces are those which are most sought after, but exceptional pieces of blue and white of the earlier periods, i.e. Hsuan Te, Ch'eng Hua, Hung Chih or Cheng Te would attract us. If pieces are fine quality, they are usually worth buying. Vases, of course, are most wanted, but are very hard to get and we often have to be content with bowls, plates etc. [....]"
Some months later the rather tortuous nature of business between England and China meant that little had been achieved, but one piece of Xuande blue and white had been received, a small vase that was sold to the collector F.C. Colthurst on 22nd April 1937, for £45. Excerpts are here given from three letters from Leonard Bluett to Oliver Bedford, which have added interest in connection with mention of the forthcoming sale of the Wu Lai Tse collection and the fact that two of the blue and white bowls under discussion are today on public view as part of the Riesco Collection at the Clockhouse, Croydon.
"16th April 1937
...With regard to the blue and white - you will appreciate our apparent caution when you realise that up to the time of writing to you on the 14th inst. we had received nothing from you and at present we only have the very attractive little Hsuan Te vase. However the new factor of a large consignment (about 50 pieces) of really good quality and interesting Ming specimens, mostly 15th century with date marks, being offered by auction in the heart of the collectors centre here has to be taken into very serious consideration (Plate 9). Unfortunately this sale may not be held for some weeks, as we are anxious to know how the prices will be maintained...."
"21st April 1937
…We still have no news of the three blue and white bowls, but we hope they may reach us before the sale at Sotheby's which we have mentioned to you.
The three bowls arrived safely, although the correspondence confirming this is not in the file. They were entered into the stock book on 30th April 1937, at a total cost price of £84:10. Two, of Xuande and Zhengde date, were sold to R.F.A. Riesco for £98 on 31st May 1937 and the third, of the Xuande period, was sold to F. Howard Paget on 16th June 1937 for £37.10."
"7th June 1937
[Leonard Bluett to Oliver Bedford in Shanghai]
... The sale of the collection of early blue and white and other porcelain belonging to Mr Wu Lai-hsi has now taken place. The prices obtained were very uneven but we purchased over half the collection and amongst the items, had some very cheap lots. We shall therefore only require the finest pieces of this kind in the future."
The last extant correspondence between Bluetts and Mr. Bedford is rather abrupt:
"7th December 1937
Dear Mr Bedford,
We shall be glad if you will give us a call as soon as you conveniently can.
Yours faithfully, Leonard B. Bluett"20.
Oliver Bedford's account page in Bluett's Purchase Ledger opens on 25th January 1937 and business continues for about a year. In 1941 a balance of £4:10 is written off as a bad debt.
The last of the "China Suppliers" with whom correspondence has survived is the Italian lawyer, F. P. Musso, who had legal offices on Hankow Road, Shanghai. The extant correspondence runs from October 1935 to November 1937 and his account with the firm is active until December 1950. The two letters quoted below yet again show how complex the network of contacts was at this time.
"[Leonard Bluett to F.P. Musso]
22nd May 1936
Dear Mr Musso,
We have not yet acknowledged your letter of the 24th April as we have been hoping to receive a further communication from you with regard to the basis on which we can do business together.
In the meantime we have only received part of your last shipment, as the customs are detaining the case containing the brocade until they can be satisfied as to its antiquity. We will await the delivery of this case and the receipt of your letter before we report on the shipment.
In accordance with our usual procedure when dealing with early bronzes, we submitted the large Tsun, which you sent to us on February 4th, for examination at the British Museum. We have not yet received the final report. Dr Plenderleith, the analyst has, however, advised us that he had this identical piece submitted to him about two years ago for examination and that he then took several photographs and made a very exhaustive report to the firm, who then had this piece on consignment.
He found that the Tsun had been repaired at some period - probably a long time ago - at the foot and owing to the fact that it was undoubtedly cast in several pieces, he was much puzzled by it. This was before the publication of Yin and Chou Researches in which Karlbeck has established the existence of clay moulds in the Shang period.
There is no doubt whatever but that this is the same Tsun as the one you have sent us, as we have examined the photographs in detail, and it is therefore clear that you have been misinformed in being told that the Tsun was recently found in An Yang. We do not know, but only guess, that it was brought on its previous journey to England by Gutmann of Paris. We have given you all these details as we fear that the fact that it has been here before definitely lessens its saleability and if you have not already purchased it, possibly you might consider returning it to its owners, as the price is sufficiently high in all the circumstances....
In the meantime, with kind regards,
Yours sincerely [Leonard B. Bluett]"21
Naturally this letter elicited a very concerned response from Musso, which is worthy of quotation at length:
"F. P. Musso
Law Offices, No.110 Hankow Road, Shanghai
June 16th. 1936
The news you give me in your letter of May 22nd., regarding the 'Tsun' is absolutely astounding and upsetting. I cannot doubt the exhaustive examination of the analyst nor can I imagine that there could be an other similar piece in existance [sic] as marks from age and patina could be compared, for examination purpose, to the accuracy of finger prints. The native dealer through whom I have purchased this piece, has been known to me for years, and I have never had occasion to doubt his good faith and sincerety [sic] which has been proven to me by many previous deals. He asserts that the 'Tsun' was brought to Shanghai by a country farmer and he ridicules the idea of the piece being out of China before, as the piece had all the evidence and characteristic of a freshly dug up piece. I made him read your letter and he seemed much mystified but agrees with me that the findings of a British Museum analyst could hardly be doubted, nevertheless, he would not be convinced that it is the same 'Tsun'. I am also told that it is very unlikely that anyone would hand such a piece in consignment to Mr. Gutmann. However, what puzzles me most is that, as the authenticity and the importance of the piece is beyond doubt I cannot imagine how such a fine piece was allowed to find its way back to China; its rarity would make anyone feel proud to handle same. I can only surmise that the first report of the analyst, perhaps owing to the fact that the existence of clay moulds had not yet been established, must have cast a doubtful reflection on the piece. If my assumption is correct it would be only fair that the new report should offset any such impression. If I am wrong it would be very important to know what other cause could have induced its return to China. Unfortunately it would be very difficult for me to give back the piece, as articles forwarded to you have been all bought and paid for. Moreover not dreaming of any such thing happening I have not taken the necessary steps to avoid the enourmous [sic] duty payable to the local customs for anything returned to China.
As the matter stands now I should like you to cable me what offers if any, or in your opinion what is the best price obtainable for the 'Tsun', meanwhile owing to the fact that the piece is alleged to have been previously in London I will try and get some kind of compensation from my native dealer, but in order to do so it would be helpful for me to get copies of previous photos and the last analysts report. [The underlining above is in pencil, and most likely made on receipt of Mr Musso's letter by Bluetts] If you think that definetly [sic] a sale cannot be effected, though I hope this will not be the case, kindly have the 'Tsun' mailed by parcel post to my name care of 'The Chartered Bank of India, Australia & China, Victoria, HONG KONG', and please advise me by deferred telegram using the word "Returned" and insure only against total loss...
Hoping soon to hear further from you, with kind regards,
A couple of further letters concerning this Tsun are in the file, the first mentioning the absence of Dr Plenderleith on his holiday, the second, being fairly brief, is given below and seems to mark the conclusion of that particular piece of business.
Dear Mr Musso,
Dr Plenderleith has now returned from his holiday and, as promised, we have obtained from him a copy of the photograph which he made of the bronze "Tsun" when it was in England in 1934. He has signed it on the back with the date that the photograph was taken.
We enclose it herewith and hope that it may be of some use to you in securing a substantial rebate in the price you have paid.
Just at the moment business is very quiet, we have had very bad weather which has made the London 'season' very dull.
We hope to be able to report an inprovement and more sales soon.
[Leonard B. Bluett]"
Neither Edgar nor Leonard Bluett made any trip to the Far East in the course of their long lives, although Edgar planned to do so shortly before the war, and some of these plans are recorded in his correspondence. The trip was to be effected with the help of F.P. Musso and K.K. Chow and some excerpts from this series of letters are given below.
"22nd June 1937 [Edgar Bluett to K.K. Chow]
[....] It is my intention to visit China at the end of this year. I shall take my wife with me, we shall travel by sea and expect to reach Shanghai on January 5th next. Altogether I expect to be in China about a month most of which will, I expect, be spent in Peiping"22.
"July 17/37 [K.K. Chow to Edgar Bluett; spelling as in original]
Dear Mr Bluett,
Your letter of 22nd of June reached me a few days ago, in which I have learned that you will come to China with your wife at that end of this year. I have enjoying of seeing you at that time. I am appentance [? appreciate] that you are look me so highly and trust me to recommend a proper person to assist you for travelling and buying. It is a very serious matter to me a special for your first visit so I have searched the man who must honest and understand our line, and must know the market well, and have to know the trick, so you can imagine it is not so easy and I have taken all responsibility to satisfy you.
There is a good friend of mine, Mr Chow Tsi Shan who manager of Zie Soey Koo also the agent in Peiping many years. He knows all the Chinese antique dealers in China, he is most honest man among them, he has great experience in our line. I already arranged with him to take my place to accompany you to go where you like, that is my duty to do so for I can't accompany with you by myself for I have my eye sight. [K.K. Chow had serious eye problems, which feature in earlier letters]
There is inclosed a photography of Mr Chow and one is his firm car [card] (Plate 10), I want you see him before you leave, and when you are arrive to met you in the wolf [? wharf] or on the ship if possible. Of course I shall take my son and we will meet your arrive.
I expected that if will kind enough to sent one of your own small photography to me, I will show it to my friend and my son let them to recognize you. In case you have arranged another person to do the job before you receive my letter, it is no different to me, I can stop him to do with you, and I wish you will write to me all the detial of your journey and the name of the ship.
I hope to see you once more not before long, I hope enjoy your health, with my kind regard to your brother.
Yours sincerely, K.K. Chow
P.S. By the way can you let me know the result of my sale when I'm your early confluence. [?At your early convenience]
August 23rd 1937 [Edgar Bluett to K.K. Chow]"
"Dear Mr Chow,
Very many thanks for your letter enclosing a photograph of Mr T.S. Chow who you have kindly recommended to assist me during my proposed forthcoming visit to China.
Judging by our newspapers Shanghai and the whole of Northern China appears to be in a dreadful state at the present time and it seems to be highly improbable that I shall be able to carry out my plans. If matters change I will write to you again giving you full particulars of the boat I am travelling on, date of arrival etc.
Meanwhile I most sincerely trust that you have been able to keep out of the danger zone and that you are still well. A letter assuring us on this point would be greatly appreciated by my brother and myself,
There would appear to be a gap in the correspondence at this point, the next letter in the file relating to this trip is dated October 19th 1937, to F.P. Musso:
"Dear Mr Musso,
To-day is the day appointed for your arrival in Shanghai and to-morrow the day on which, with your customary optimism, you anticipated you would be in a position to cable information concerning our projected voyage to China. We should be only too glad if you had found it possible to keep up to timetable but we fear that it is in the highest degree unlikely. [....]
It will be a relief to us to learn that on your return to Shanghai you have found your affairs not too much disorganized. We trust you will write to us at the earliest opportunity.
With kind regards from both of us,
Yours very truly,"23
The situation did not improve, and the trip was not to be. The final letter in this series, again to Musso, is dated November 1st 1937:
"Dear Mr Musso,
Your cablegram reached us this morning. It reads AGOHS and according to the code arranged between us I understand this to mean that you do not advise me to visit China at the present time. Very many thanks for this cable; your message does not surprise me in the least. I should have been greatly surprised had it been otherwise.
I wrote to you on October 19th and sent a duplicate letter via Siberia. Although I had nothing very important to say I shall be glad to hear that one of these reached you. In any case we should very much like to have a letter from you - with all the good news you are able to convey.
With kind regards from both of us,
Yours very truly,"
The cablegram has been preserved in the file. Little more correspondence has been kept, and this marks the end of the direct supply from China for over a decade. The last shipments from Shanghai would seem to be in 1938, but sales from Musso and Chow consignments continue.
The War Years Return to Top
The war years were, of course, a difficult time for the Bluett brothers. The business had grown gradually through the 1920's, more than doubling the turnover during the decade (£12,225 for 1920, £27,359 for 1930) and was then hit quite badly by the recession of the early 1930's, gross turnover dropping to £8,076 in 1933. Business improved in the mid-1930's, not regaining the levels of the late 1920's, but by 1937 turnover had reached £19,321.
The cessation of trade with China after 1938 had a major effect on the supply of fresh goods to the European markets, and the increasingly sinister political situation in Europe must have dulled the enthusiasm of the private collectors. Bluett's turnover dropped in the course of 1938 and 1939, but fell to disastrous levels in the early years of the war, perhaps unsurprisingly given the blitz and very considerable insecurity. In 1940 turnover had fallen to just £3,921 and the brothers faced financial hardship. From 1943 there was an upturn and by 1946 turnover was a healthier £25,570 and this trend was set to continue into the 1960's24.
A combination of the European war and the political situation in China meant the end of any direct trade with either Shanghai or Peking. The Shanghai based dealers fled the city - if they could - before the Japanese took control, and set up business in the emerging economic centre of Hong Kong. By the late 1940s a new pattern of trading had emerged and new names are seen in Bluett's stock books, and the nature of pieces they were able to buy. No significant correspondence from this period has survived, so a less vivid picture emerges than of the pre-war era. An early post-war supplier, who was to achieve academic prestige in England in later years, was Cheng Te-k'un. His family had been in business in Fujian province, but Cheng had left for Hong Kong by the late 1940's. Cheng's study was archaeology, and he would have had contacts among the runners who were bringing goods to Hong Kong from excavations in Southern China. Cheng sent regular shipments to Bluetts from 1949 onwards, mainly pre-Ming ceramics, jades and bronzes, in many cases pieces of South Chinese origin. In general the Imperial magnificences ceased to arrive - most of these pieces in the market after the war were being re-cycled from pre-war collections. In 1990 Bluetts held a selling exhibition of Cheng's collection of Chinese jades for which Roger Bluett wrote a short essay relating the relationship between Cheng and Bluetts:
"The Bluett connection with the Cheng family goes back to the 1940's. How the introduction was made, I fear, I do not recall, but a cordial and even warm relationship developed in a short space of time. When Professor Cheng Te-k'un came to England to take up his post as Lecturer in Chinese Art and Archaeology at Cambridge University, my late father and uncle were instrumental in helping him to buy the large house in Chesterton Road, known to so many of his friends, which I visited on numerous happy occasions and where I enjoyed many a delicious lunch provided by his charming and talented wife, Wen-tsung. The house remained his home until his return to Hong Kong to the Chinese University at Shatin"25.
Other suppliers from Hong Kong included the Chinese dealers Duht King and T.Y. King and Sons. There was also an Englishman, Dr Isaac Newton, Director of Medical Services in the colony, "the fifth of that name in direct descent from an ancestor who was a near contemporary of the towering genius whose statue at Cambridge the poet Wordsworth called 'the marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought alone'."26
Newton supplied many pottery vessels to Bluetts in the 1950's, particularly celadon wares from Hunan province, of which he made a special study. He gave several talks on this subject to the Oriental Ceramic Society and the introductory paragraphs to his lecture A Thousand Years of Potting in Hunan Province, given in London in January 1952, give a fascinating glimpse into the antiques market in Hong Kong at that time:
"There is a short street in Hong Kong known usually as Paddy's Market or Cat Street - though why I have no idea. Its real name is Upper Lascar Row. This street is full of junk shops of all kinds where you can buy anything from a second-hand camera to a set of medical forceps, or a Sung bowl; not, as a rule in the same shop, although even that is not impossible."
It was in this happy hunting ground that in 1946 the first bowls and small pots and they were mostly still covered with mud. They appeared in one shop only and the dealer told me that they had come from Changsha. He spoke of them as Yo-chou ware. At the time this was no particular testimonial and there was no reason to doubt his word. Later on, when the demand increased, other dealers became interested and it became worth their while to attempt fakes and to cover them with red mud, particularly when the Communists closed all the exits from China, as they did in January 1951. Eventually, everything that was not obviously recognisable as something else was claimed to have originated in Changsha.27
Many of these small vessels, often with a flaking crackled green glaze, passed through Bluetts hands and entered such well-known collections as those of Lord Cunliffe, Sir Herbert Ingram and Sir Alan Barlow. Dr Newton re-appeared many years later when Roger Bluett learned in 1979 that the old man was living in a large house outside Edinburgh and had a collection of small Chinese jade animals. These became the subject of a successful exhibition held at the Davies Street gallery in July 1981 entitled Dr Newton's Zoo (Plate 11).
As China became increasingly closed to the outside world the supply of goods, whether of archaeological origin or from old Chinese collections, declined almost to nothing. At the same time the Japanese market was developing and Bluetts developed relationships with some of the best established dealers, such as Mayuyama, Kochukyo and Nakamura. Although Japan became an important source for Bluett to obtain their stock, the trade was more in the other direction and the 1960's saw the beginning of the return of many pieces to the Far East. These Japanese names would be seen increasingly among those of the buyers of fine Tang, Song Ming and Qing ceramics from collections formed in England earlier in the century.
By the early 1980's it was evident that the situation in China was changing. A new market developed in Hong Kong, centred on the string of small shops along Hollywood Road, just above Dr Newton's Cat Street. Pieces appeared there from all over China, generally pre-Ming wares and often of types hardly seen before (Plate 12). The place was for a few years a sort of Aladdin's cave to the western dealers. Unfortunately the ever present problem of fakes blighted this source to an increasing extent.
A footnote to the story of the supply from the Far East was the appearance in the market for a brief period in the 1980's of a flurry of objects which appeared mysteriously in Khatmandu, having been brought through the mountain passes from Tibet. Textiles of the Song (Plate 13), Yuan and Ming dynasties, fine ceramics principally dating to the early years of the Ming dynasty (Plate 14), cloisonne enamels and gilt bronze Buddhist images were all to be had, at a price. Some quite remarkable objects appeared, but by the 1990's the supply had all but ceased.
There was, of course, a good deal of business between Bluetts and the other Oriental dealers in London. In the pre-war years the dealers names most frequently seen in the stock books were those of John Sparks, H.R.N. Norton, Weinberger, Burchard, Yamanaka and Moss. The Bluett brothers also made regular trips to Europe, mainly to Paris but on occasion to other cities. Of the Parisian dealers C.T. Loo, Chinois Tonying, Wannieck and Compagnie de la Chine were among those most often visited. In London the auction houses were an important source of supply and as this business was by its nature a very public one, allows closer examination. The smaller houses, Glendinning, Eastwood and Holt and Phillips were regularly visited, but it was Sotheby's and, to a slightly lesser extent, Christie's who were increasingly important.
Bluetts kept file copies of the major London auctions in a numerical series. The first of these is Christie's sale of S.E. Kennedy's collection in June 1916, a sale typical of its time with mainly famille verte and famille rose pieces. This series continued into the 1980's, by which date over 250 catalogues lined the shelves. Sotheby's dominated, with more than 200 of these sales in their name; under A.J.B. Kiddell and later Julian Thompson, Sotheby's Chinese department had developed great authority. Christie's strengthened its position in this field with the appointment of Anthony du Boulay as a director in the early 1960's, but they never became the dominant auction house for Chinese art in London.
The auction houses played an important role, particularly from the 1920's onwards, of bringing to the market groups of pieces from existing private collections. The buyers were mainly members of the London trade and Bluetts in particular acted at these sales as agent for their clients. They would seem to have been more willing to act in this way than John Sparks. Probably the greatest of these pre-war sales was that in May 1937 of the collection of Mr Wu Lai-tse. This sale has been referred to above in the correspondence between Leonard Bluett and Oliver Bedford. It was announced as "The property of a well-known collector, formerly resident in Pei-ping" and it surely still represents one of the finest groups of 15th century Imperial ceramics ever offered for sale at one time. The prices, as Leonard Bluett noted, were low, perhaps because of the uncertain political situation, but perhaps it also represented something of an embarrassment of riches. Bluetts made purchases at this sale for most of the well-known private collectors and bought 20 of the 110 lots for stock. The collection sold for a total of £2,119:15, three lots being unsold. This is little more than £88,000 in 2004 values. Wu Lai-tse's sale differed from earlier sales such as those of William Alexander, Charles Russell or Stephen Winkworth in that this was a collection formed in Peking being brought directly to the London trade. The low prices perhaps also reflect a taste which was still more willing to pay high prices for the finest kinuta glazed celadons, Junyao bulb bowls or the best famille verte than for Chenghua Palace bowls or doucai wares. The name Wu Lai-tse gained an almost legendary status in later years, and would re-appear as collections formed in the 1930's and 1940's came to the market in the 1970's and 1980's. Few other names have the same caché, except that of George Eumorfopoulos.
A couple of other sales that presented unusual groups of Chinese ceramics were those of the collections of Lord Kitchener (Sotheby's, November 1938) and of Captain C. Oswald Liddell (Sotheby's June 1944). Both these collections had been formed largely in China at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, and were in a lots of smaller palace wares of the early Qing reigns, pieces selling for a few pounds that today command prices in the thousands.
There were also very many lesser sales, the small catalogues being illustrated with a couple of black and white plates, if any. Bluetts bought frequently at these sales, the somewhat tattered catalogues being annotated on their covers with the lots purchased, mostly for stock. These little catalogues, mostly of the 1930's to the 1960's would often have one or two really fine pieces - a 15th century blue and white dish, Song dynasty dingyao bowl or a Shang bronze vessel. These minor sales continued into the 1980's, the illustrations increasing in number but the quality of the lots offered declining.way more accumulations than collections. There were many multiple By the mid-1980's this tradition had all but ended, and the era of the auction house as an almost exclusive preserve of the trade was drawing to a close.
The 1980's also saw a shift of the primary auction market for Chinese art from London to Hong Kong and, to a lesser extent, New York. London became increasingly peripheral, and the flow of the best pieces to the private collections of Japan and Hong Kong gathered pace. In recent years the sale of the remaining pieces from Lord Cunliffe's collection, at Bonham's in November 2002, was a reminder of earlier times, and the atmosphere in the room during the sale reflected this.