When Alan and Simone Hartman view an antique Chinese jade carving, they consider what the stone looked like in its original state and how the artist chose to transform it. “[The carver] might analyze it for several weeks or months before deciding how to shape it,” says 76-year-old Alan. The jade collection that Alan began assembling as a boy, and which he and his wife increased together following their marriage in 1975, suggests the endless possibilities that a stone would present to an artist. Bowls, beads, vases, pendants, plaques, seals, stands, screens, figurines, scepters, basins, brush pots, paperweights, pitchers, cups, boxes, and a back-scratcher are among the items the Hartmans have amassed. Now the Manhattanites are preparing to sell those and other pieces through Christie’s in two Hong Kong auctions, the first of which will take place November 28; the second is scheduled for fall 2007.
The Hartmans are drawn to Chinese jades because of the carvings’ idiosyncrasies; duplicates were rare because it was difficult for the artists to obtain stone that could yield items of matched quality. Indeed, the objects, which the artists made for emperors and the Chinese elite, amount to aesthetic displays of problem solving. “The more heavily carved examples of Ming jade make up for the fact that the material was not good,” Alan says, explaining that a piece carved from a finer sample was sparingly ornamented to showcase the stone’s inherent beauty.
The term jade refers either to jadeite, the stone that is most often used for jewelry, and which was discovered in the late 18th century in what is now Myanmar, or to nephrite, which is preferred for carvings, and which has long been available in China. All but three of the Hartman jades are sculpted from nephrite, and though a few pieces are green, the color commonly associated with jade, many are white.
Sometimes, slabs of nephrite were found naturally streaked and spattered with rust-colored markings. A piece in the Hartman collection shows how well one artist used that potential flaw to his advantage. The pale green vase from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), which is considered the golden age of Chinese jades, has tiny bats protruding from its surface. The artist carved the bats so that the orange-brown splotches in the stone covered their bodies rather than the vase itself.
Pure white stone carried the most value because a talented carver could cut it thinly enough to make it translucent. The Hartmans have a lightly detailed bowl from the Qing dynasty that appears to glow when viewed in the right light. Another piece, a 7-inch-tall white nephrite Qing brush pot, was a radiant presence in the Hartman home. “We sat it under a lamp that illuminated the carving,” Simone says. “It stood out like crazy.”
Both of those items—indeed the Hartman’s entire 207-piece collection—will be included in the auctions, which together, Christie’s estimates, will garner about $24 million. “We’re not keeping anything for ourselves. We don’t think that would be fair,” Simone says. “We want others to share our treasures, and we feel it’s time to pass them on.”