Calligrapher and scholar Mi Fu flouted 11th-century etiquette by choosing to pay his respects to a scholars’ rock before greeting the leaders of a distant town. “For 20 years I have been longing to see a rock brother like you,” he said. According to Christie’s Chinese art specialist Laura Whitman, “The Mi Fu ideal is that by looking at a natural object, one is looking at a higher truth.” Scholars and courtiers first introduced the rocks—intended for contemplation—into their homes during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), placing smaller rocks on desks and installing larger stones in their gardens.
“It was a cosmopolitan time,” says Whitman, “a golden age when a garden was not considered beautiful without rocks.” To modern eyes these rocks might appear to be carved, but in fact they are not. “They were found objects,” she says, “but were sometimes helped along by human hands. Rocks might have been exposed to the elements or placed in a river.”
On September 20 in New York, Christie’s is auctioning the Niliuzhai Collection of 65 scholars’ rocks as part of its Asian art sales. While they frequently show up in Asian sales and have intrigued collectors, scholars’ rocks have never appeared in this volume at auction. Some are made of petrified wood or coral (which was thought to be stone a millennium ago), but most are composed of three types of limestone: lingbi and ying for smaller stones and taihu for larger ones. A deep gray stone that resonates when tapped, lingbi has “a lovely papery texture,” says Whitman. White calcite deposits and a furrowed, pocked surface define the paler ying. Taihu originated on the bed of an eponymous freshwater lake south of the Yangtze delta.
The stands can be as interesting as the rocks they support, but an original stand isn’t critical to the value of the piece. “In reality, tastes change,” says Whitman. “It’s similar to putting a new frame on a paint- ing.” She says a rock’s original stand is referred to as the first wife. If placed in another stand, the rock has taken a metaphorical second wife. It’s more important for the stand to come from the same era as a rock than for it to be a first wife.
Estimates for the collection range from several hundred dollars for the smallest pieces (some only a few inches tall) to $50,000 to $60,000 for a massive taihu stone intended for a garden. “It’s the size of a refrigerator,” says Whitman. For those nervous about acquiring fragile, centuries-old art, bear in mind that they are rocks, after all, and are far sturdier than other Tang Dynasty art forms.
Christie’s, 212.636.2000, www.christies.com