Tang dynasty (A.D. 618 to 906) was unlike any other era in China, or in
the world for that matter. It was a time of peace, prosperity and
thriving international trade.
"The Tang Empire was very powerful and very rich," said Khalil Rizk,
director of the Chinese Porcelain Company in Manhattan. "It had a mighty
army." Its borders stretched from the Caspian Sea in the west to Korea
in the east, and from Manchuria in the north to Vietnam.
Like Constantinople, the Tang capital city of Changan (the modern
Xian) had two million inhabitants, about what it has today. The
government supported a large class of Confucian literati who served as
civil servants and ran the country well. The crime rate was at an
all-time low, with prisons reportedly empty. Inflation was under
control. The poor had enough rice to eat and the ability to pay taxes.
"It was one of the most sophisticated periods of Chinese history,"
said Theow H. Tow, Christie's international director of Chinese ceramics
and works of art. "China attracted Persians, Indians and Jews. Last
summer they found the site of a seventh-century Christian church, so
there were already Christians there, too."
The silk route opened China to foreign ideas, religions, culture and
lifestyles. Foreign merchants established markets in Changan to sell
exotic spices and aromatics, camels, horses, tropical birds, jewelry,
ivory and furs.
"The Chinese tended to be inward- looking," Mr. Tow said. "The Tang
is one of the few dynasties that looked outward."
The first 137 years of the dynasty were also a golden age for Chinese
art. "Nowhere else in the world were they making better pottery at the
time," Mr. Rizk said. Tang potters made elegant earthenware vessels for
everyday use and sculptures for tombs, including the Tang horses and
camels so prized in the West.
The potters also created figurines representing exotic foreigners,
with their odd physiognomy, costume and customs. "Sometimes the
depictions of foreigners were like caricatures," Mr. Tow said. Horse
grooms, for example, could have had wildly curly hair, bushy beards, big
noses or bulging eyes.
Many of the Tang ceramics on the market today are tomb sculptures and
vessels. The Chinese did not hedge their bets. They planned for the
afterlife years in advance, buying hundreds of pottery figures and
"The princes, princesses, wealthy ministers and distinguished nobles
surrounded themselves with all the extravagances that money could buy,
not only in life, but also in death," wrote the Chinese ceramics scholar
Margaret Medley in a 1989 catalog for a show at the Dixon Gallery in
Memphis, "Tang Sancai Pottery From the Collection of Alan and Simone
Forty-eight pieces from the Hartman exhibition will be auctioned at
Christie's in New York on March 20. The preview begins on Tuesday. "It's
a good snapshot of life at the time," Mr. Tow said.
Mr. Hartman, who owns Rare Art Inc., a Manhattan gallery specializing
in British and American silver and Chinese art, said that he and his
wife, Simone, had collected Tang ceramics for 30 years and that he hoped
to sell his pottery to one institution or collector for $1.3 million. If
one buyer does not reach his reserve price, the collection will be sold
in individual lots.
The Hartmans' pottery is all sancai (meaning three-colored) glazed
earthenware in the colors of straw and amber (made from iron oxide) and
green (from copper oxide). Sancai usually also includes blue glaze,
which is rarer and was made from oxides with imported cobalt.
Other Tang sculptures are for sale in Sotheby's Chinese Ceramics and
Works of Art auction on March 22. In addition, Mark Richards, a Los
Angeles dealer, and Alberto Manuel Cheung, a private dealer in
Manhattan, are bringing Tang ceramics to the Arts of Pacific Asia Show
at the 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington Avenue and 26th Street, from
March 22 to 25.
Mr. Cheung is selling a figure of a Tang woman playing a polo-like
game on a horse whose legs are outstretched, similar to one exhibited
last year at the International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, Ky.
Nicholas Grindley, a London dealer, has two fine early unglazed Tang
horses and two foreign grooms, which he is showing at the Kate Ganz
Gallery, 25 East 73rd Street in Manhattan, from Wednesday through March
The Hartman pottery is remarkable in its diversity. "The sculptures
are of people who were part and parcel of Tang life," Mr. Tow said.
There is a courtier, a groom, a falconer, an entertainer, a dancing
lady, a foreign wine merchant and various animals. "They depicted native
animals like buffalo and boar and foreign ones like camels and lions,"
Mr. Tow said. "The lion looks a bit like a pug, but they'd probably
never seen a lion."
There are also jars, a water pot shaped like a beast, an ambrosia
vase and a ewer with the head of a phoenix. The provenances of many
pieces can be traced to the 1920's. Others were acquired at auction
Tang artists were not the first to make tomb sculptures. Clay tomb
figures go back to at least the third century B.C., before the Han
dynasty. But Tang potters were more accomplished than their
predecessors. The modeling is more subtle and individualized and the
glazes are shinier and more colorful.
Perhaps the most extraordinary figure in the Christie's sale is a
charming court lady seated on a rattan drum stool looking at a round
mirror in her left hand. Her elaborate hairdo has two round buns. She
rests her right foot on her knee, while one loose shoe, with a pointed
toe, rests on the base. She wears a figure- revealing green gown with
blue sleeves and has an amber throw on her shoulder.
Probably made in a mold, the figure has an unglazed head with a
subtly carved, hand-painted face. The estimate is $170,000 to $200,000.
"She cost me more than my apartment on Park Avenue," said Mr. Hartman,
who bought his apartment in the 1970's.
Another striking piece is a blue water buffalo with striped brown
horns, huge ears and a plaintive look in his eyes. His tender, a small
boy, sleeps on his back, the tether in his hand. The boy's straw hat
rests on his hip. "This is one of the earliest depictions of a boy on
the back of a water buffalo," Mr. Tow said.
Mr. Hartman added, "I bought it 20 years ago at Christie's East when
it was being sold as a fake." Its estimate is $80,000 to $100,000.
According to Christie's, the only known similar depiction is of a cow
with a boy wearing a straw hat in the Freer Gallery of Art in
Why are the Hartmans selling their collection? "I have eclectic
tastes," Mr. Hartman said. "I collect jade and early English silver. In
my gallery I sell English and American silver, Japanese cloissoné,
silver and ivory. I've been partial to the Tang, but times change. I'd
rather put my resources into English silver now."