On 5 November, Bonhams will offer the Bronze Age Chinese vessels from one of the finest old English collections, formed by the 2nd Lord Cunliffe between the darkest war years of the early 1940s, and his death in 1963.
The most important group of early Chinese bronzes ever offered at Bonhams, the Collection mainly comprises classic funerary vessel dating from the 12th to 2nd century BC. The auction is expected to total up to £500,000.
English collectors were among the most prominent Western collectors of Chinese art in the mid 20th century, but very few collections formed at that time remain in private hands.
Wing Commander Lord Cunliffe’s son, Roger, the 3rd Lord Cunliffe, says of his father’s collecting during the war: “There weren’t many people buying fragile porcelain as the flying bombs rained down. What makes this even more extraordinary is the fact that he lived in a top floor flat in London’s West End. A countryman at heart my father always had his city suits made with a poacher’s pocket. How better to discreetly bring home a Palace bowl?”
The Bonhams sale of the Cunliffe will draw international interest from private and museum buyers, attracted to exhibited and published bronzes which have remained unseen in private hands for over fifty years. Given the international restrictions of selling archaeological treasures (like outstanding bronzes) whose origins are undocumented, the excellent old pedigree of this famous English collection will encourage public bodies to bid and buy, confident that the date of original acquisition in London falls well outside the restricted decades.
The 2nd Baron Cunliffe (1899 1963) was fortunate to be buying in London when fine Chinese material was being offered for sale week after week at auction and by dealers, and Asian buyers were not yet the purchasing force that they have now become. Great fellow collectors had included George Eumorfopoulos, Sir Percival David, Mrs Sedgwick and Oscar Raphael, many of whose collections subsequently entered national museums.
During his lifetime, Lord Cunliffe’s acquisitions were available for enthusiasts to study in his spacious flat across Carlos Place from the Connaught Hotel, conveniently placed for buying trips at London’s major Chinese ceramics dealers, Bluetts, Sparks, Spinks and Peter Boode. In 1923, the foundation of the Oriental Ceramic Society had given English collectors a unique forum in which information could be disseminated, opinions canvasses and exhibitions held. Many Cunliffe items, including selections from the bronzes, were generously loaned to the Society’s ground-breaking exhibitions during the 1940s and 50s. The Collection to be offered in November is particularly striking because of the rarity and outstanding condition of the bronzes to be offered.