Soong sisters' jewellery and art heirlooms to be auctioned in Hong Kong
A highly anticipated collection of jewellery and art belonging to Kung Hsiang-hsi, a member of one of Asia's most prominent families, will be sold at auction in Hong Kong next month.
A leading banker, Kung was a major player in the Republican period of China, and his wife Soong Ai-ling was well-known as one of the Soong sisters; her younger sisters married Sun Yat-sen (Soong Ching-ling) and Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling), and Kung helped his brothers-in-law with their revolutionary causes.
Kung's fine taste can be seen at the June 2 auction, featuring art by Zhang Daqian and calligraphers Fu Shan and Zhang Ruitu and imperial ceramics from the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods.
This is also the first major sale of jewellery owned by the three sisters.
Forty-six pieces will go under the hammer, and Vickie Sek, director and head of the jewellery and jadeite department of Christie's in Asia, already has a few clients lined up to bid for the lots, whose total value is estimated conservatively at US$2 million. She expects the final figure to be many times higher.
"Remember the Elizabeth Taylor sale [that fetched US$157 million in 2011]? The whole world was excited about it. This is different, mainly for Chinese," says Sek.
The enthusiasm is due to the provenance of the jewellery; many of the items are very rare high-quality jadeite, and there are diamond and ruby brooches, earrings and rings by Cartier.
"Chinese people like to buy good quality jewellery and pass them down from generation to generation," she says. "It's very rare to see a collection like this. In Asia the history of buying jewellery is so short. Christie's jewellery department in Hong Kong only started in 1992. "The last major jewellery collection auctioned off [in Hong Kong] was that of Theresa Po Wing-kam [the ex-wife tycoon Joseph Lau Luen-hung] in 1998. Generally, people in Asia are still buying, not selling their collections."
Sek says the jadeite pieces from the Kung collection come from an old mine in Myanmar that no longer produces top quality stones. "It's like Golkonda diamonds from India - the mine is finished. These days they can only get light-coloured jadeite, but the ones in this collection are very deep in colour, and translucent at the same time."
Raising a dark green jadeite ring to the light, she shows it's almost see-through. "They are the highest quality because of the vivid emerald green colour and translucency," Sek says.
Dealers are interested in the collection because it is rare to see such high quality and old jadeite for sale.
One of Sek's favourite pieces is a slim rectangular jadeite brooch from about 1910, that has the carving of a dragon winding its way through flowers and leaves. "There's a carving on the back," she says. "They don't carve like this any more. Craftsmen in China use different techniques and machines, they don't carve it slowly by hand any more."
Jadeite is popular with Chinese collectors and enthusiasts because of its correlation with the imperial family. Sek explains that, unlike diamonds that follow a universal grading system, jadeite is difficult to evaluate. Its value is based on colour and translucency, and comparisons with other pieces.
There is a Cartier cabochon emerald ring surrounded by diamonds. The dark green, 30-carat stone came from Colombia. Cartier also created two floral brooches using rubies and diamonds form the pistil, and gold for the petals.
Sek says Soong Ai-ling loved jewellery and her wealthy husband was able to fund her expensive interest, while her two other sisters focused on helping their husbands in the revolution and war efforts. Nevertheless, Sek says after China's situation stabilised, Soong May-ling and Soong Ching-ling also began indulging in jewellery.
"The whole collection is from the three sisters and they were the most important women of that period," Sek says.
Kung's background is equally impressive. A 75th descendant of Confucius, he was educated in China, then completed a master's in economics at Yale University in the US.
He returned to China in the midst of the 1911 revolution. Kung supported Sun, held key finance and business posts in the Nationalist government and then joined the Kuomintang under Chiang in the early 1930s.
"The collection shows the Soong sisters had very good taste, and at that time only important families had Cartier making jewellery for them," says Sek. Cartier rarely worked with jadeite and Sek believes the family gave the stones for the jewellery house to mount.
Other pieces feature sapphires, diamonds, emeralds and natural pearls. After Soong Ai-ling died, her jewellery was passed to middle sister Ching-ling. All the pieces were finally given to May-ling who died in 2003 at 105.
Sek says Soong May-ling's Manhattan apartment is filled with family photos, and many feature her wearing a qipao with buttons made from coral, natural pearls and jadeite. "Only someone like her could have buttons made from these materials."
When Sek and her colleagues went to evaluate the jewellery in the New York apartment a few years ago, it was a jeweller's dream come true. "After we saw the collection, we could not sleep," Sek recalls. "We were so honoured to see all these pieces. At night we missed them so much. It is very emotional to see this kind of jewellery from such important women, and be able to touch them with our hands."