Put a ring on it

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Christie’s to sell largest private collection of Asian art at auction, from first dealer to enter mainland China in the 1970s

A view of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth’s New York apartment, where he lived surrounded by Asian art and objects. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2014

Christie’s plans to sell 2,000 objects from the collection of the prominent Asian art dealer Robert Ellsworth during New York’s Asian Art Week in March 2015. The largest private collection of Asian art ever to come to auction, Ellsworth’s holdings include Chinese furniture, Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art and Modern Chinese paintings.

Ellsworth, who died in August, was the first American art dealer to visit mainland China after it opened to the West in the 1970s. He is credited with shaping major US private collections of Asian art, including those of John D. Rockefeller III and the financier Christian Humann. He also popularised new categories of collecting, including ancient jade, and Ming and Qing dynasty furniture. In 1985, Ellsworth donated 471 works of Modern Chinese painting and calligraphy to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Ellsworth told the Independent in 1994 that when he died, his holdings would “be sold in a consecutive seven-day sale. The last lot will be a single item, the finest piece of jade in the world—which I wear on my finger.” In reality, his collection is due to be sold in a five-day series of auctions and online-only sales following a global tour scheduled to begin in Hong Kong on 21 November. Christie’s did not confirm whether Ellsworth’s jade ring would be the final lot, as he had predicted.

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