In contrast to today’s one-click mobile purchases, an old-fashioned blockbuster art auction—in a room stuffed with treasures and eager bidders competing for prizes—is a moment to savor.
This month, Christie’s New York has scheduled an auction that may one day be remembered as significant as the estate sales of Jackie Onassis, Andy Warhol, and Yves Saint Laurent—some 2,000 works of art belonging to the pioneering Asian art collector and dealer Robert H. Ellsworth, who died last August at age 85.
The sale includes the largest private collection of Asian art to ever go on the block, spread over five days (with a requisite online-only component), beginning March 17 at Christie’s American headquarters at Rockefeller Center, in New York.
The lots range from ultrarare pieces—such as a tiny gilt-bronze figure of a bear from the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 8) estimated at $200,000 to $300,000 (it sat on Ellsworth’s desk, like the world’s most deluxe paperweight)—to archaic pieces of jade that could go for as low as a few hundred dollars.
Known as the “King of Ming,” Ellsworth was the best example of a dying breed: the passionate scholar who made a fortune with his unerring eye but famously said that he dealt in works only so he could collect them.
Born in 1929 to an opera singer and a dentist, Ellsworth, who never finished high school, got a very early start trading in beautiful objects. “He started collecting at 8 or 10 years old—he went with his gut,” says Tina Zonars, the senior international director of Chinese works of art at Christie’s.
Though Ellsworth grew up in Manhattan, he was not descended from wealth. As a teenager, he was already flipping pieces for a profit and even selling them to museums. After studying stints in the United States and Europe, he apprenticed with several dealers in his 20s. It was Alice Boney, an Asian specialist, who became his crucial friend and mentor. Soon he was pioneering Western appreciation in a variety of Asian objects.
Most important, Ellsworth was a trailblazer in mixing periods, countries, eras, and styles—but only the best examples of each—in his Fifth Avenue apartment. On the block from his collection is an imposing George II English bookcase in mahogany from the 1740s ($120,000 to $180,000), as well as a magnificent early Chola bronze figure of an abstracted dancing Shiva god that could fetch $3 million.
Ellsworth was an anomaly in the antiques world, which is full of rather bloodless characters. “He knew the social world and liked a snobbish joke, but he wasn’t a snob,” says Robert Poster, a Manhattan attorney who knew him for 40 years. “He knew people from all walks of life.” Known for cavorting with colorful friends, including the socialite Brooke Astor and the classic-era film star Claudette Colbert, Ellsworth also had his own idiosyncrasies, like hand-cleaning many of his prize pieces himself despite the presence of ample staff.
Ellsworth presided from a staggering 22-room apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue, easily in the handful of top New York City addresses. At various times, it’s been home to C. Douglas Dillon, Claus von Bülow, and Edgar Bronfman Sr. Last year, it set a New York City co-op record when another apartment in the building sold for $70 million, reportedly to WalMart heiress Alice Walton. “It’s the only apartment I’ve ever been in where the butler’s pantry has a view of Central Park,” says Jonathan Rendell, the deputy chairman at Christie’s.
Having trusted his eye early, Ellsworth became the foremost scholar in a subject that many of his peers in the West passed over. Despite his reputation for Chinese-antiques expertise, the most valuable pieces in the Christie’s sale are actually of Indian and Southeast Asian origin, including an Indonesian stone head of a Buddha from the ninth century ($250,000 to $300,000). He didn’t simply amass wealth for his own sake, however; Ellsworth used profits toward building a foundation to restore architecturally significant buildings in China.
“I don’t know any other dealer and collector who spans the knowledge, the philanthropy, the restoration, the collecting, and the taste-making,” says Zonars. “He was truly a Renaissance man.”