The Dean is preparing a heartfelt goodbye to a beloved porcelain collection in the New Year, as her Quianlong period 'tea cultivation' dishes go up for auction at Christie's on Thursday. She writes:
Chinese export porcelain, doorstops, clocks, highboys, bed linens, copper pots, cookbooks, antique dining tables – round, oval, rectangle and square – I collected them all. One of the most bizarre diplomatic transactions of the 18th century occurred when Augustus of Saxony choose 127 pieces of Chinese porcelain from the Palace of Charlottenburg, in Berlin, and gave in return 600 giants of the ‘required height’ collected from his provinces...as if the ancestors of today’s NBA players were traded for porcelain! Augustus of Saxony had what was then called ‘porcelain sickness’. He emptied his country’s treasures to the dealers in Paris and Amsterdam.
I admit I too had the ‘porcelain sickness’. When I was just 20 years old, I went on a tour of Bassett Hall in Williamsburg, Virginia. I walked into Mr. Rockefeller’s butler’s pantry and saw his stacks of china (a different set for every day of the year.) My younger self thought, "What a great idea." Mr Rockefeller and I could have been cousins. But now I know that the only thing better than acquiring the collection is getting rid of it so new collectors can enjoy it. I loved assembling the collection but I do not mourn for what I have sold.
There are so many benefits of collections, aside from the pure sporting pleasure of acquisition as you hunt down pieces at auctions and in catalogues. It may seem that you need to be an expert to get started, but that is not the case. Don't be intimidated -- start by researching what you are interested in. Any budding interest takes courage to step out of your comfort zone and explore.
Of course, as with any other hobby, there are pitfalls of collecting too. It may be easy to go overboard, or you may fall under the illusion that you are an instant expert. (You're not!) It's wise to get your purchases vetted by more than one person. Otherwise you are like a sitting duck to predatory dealers.
But a decades long collecting habit leads to self-confidence and untold pleasures once you awaken a new intellectual pursuit. You will learn an object's place in history when you discover its provenance and assess its condition. Beyond your initial attraction, you will develop a keen instinct for precious objects and come to a deeper understanding of color, proportion, patina, constuction, and the difference in quality when something is handmade rather than mass-produced. You will likely find yourself in corners of museums you've never explored before, and meeting new people with similar interests. The passion of collecting quickly becomes an everyday thought.