When a quartet of famous Chinese porcelain pieces—known as the Buccleuch vases—reaches its new home in Wynn Palace, it will have completed a journey spanning more than two centuries and thousands of miles.
Packing and shipping four vases that have virtually no equal in the world is, as you might imagine, not a matter an art handler takes lightly. When a set of legendary vases from China’s Jiaqing period (1796–1821) fitted with early-19th century French ormolu journeys the mere six miles from its current location in the lobby at Wynn Macau to the Wynn Palace VIP registration area in June, the logistics involved will be nothing short of “intense,” explains Wynn Design and Development’s Director of Purchasing, Pamela Cyr. On moving day, a specialty fine-art mover and installer from Hong Kong will arrive with six employees to de-install the vases, detach them from their ornate gilt-bronze mounts, secure them in the crates that originally took them the 6,000 miles from London to Macau in 2011, and move them to the Cotai Strip. Flanked by heavy security, the art handlers will transport the vases to their new home, where the process will begin in reverse. “Even a short move is very complex, due to the value of the vases, the coordination needed, and the staff it takes to make the move happen,” says Cyr, who managed their original move from Christie’s in London.
The four-foot-high vases, painted with Buddhist and Daoist emblems, with their 19th century gilt-bronze handles and bases, are not ordinary parlor decoration. Purchased by Steve Wynn at the Christie’s International “Exceptional” sale in London in 2011, they were the most expensive of 50 lots and set a world auction record for ormolu-mounted porcelain when Wynn paid $12.8 million for the set. But in fact they had been parlor decoration for two centuries prior, albeit for a family of Scottish nobility that included two of the foremost art collectors of the early 19th century.
The quartet, known as the Buccleuch vases, was either first acquired by Elizabeth Montagu, 3rd Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry (1743–1827), and later inherited by her grandson Walter, 5th Duke of Buccleuch and 7th Duke of Queensberry, or they were purchased by him in the late 1820s. By 1827, Walter was one of the richest landowners in Britain (the current Duke of Buccleuch is still the largest private landowner in the United Kingdom). And though a property inventory for Elizabeth’s Montagu House prior to his inheriting it listed a number of vases, including “Sea Green China Vases” and “enameld [sic] China Jars,” it was her grandson who became one of England’s greatest collectors, with the largest stores of not only Boulle furniture and Sèvres porcelain but also of ormolu-mounted Chinese porcelain.
Montagu House, Whitehall, was one of London’s grandest private mansions in its day, hosting aristocracy and housing the exceptional Buccleuch art collection, which included works by Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Canaletto, along with many porcelain objets d’art. The vases resided with the Buccleuch family, later in the family’s Dalkeith Palace in Scotland, until the death of Walter Montagu Douglas Scott, 8th Duke of Buccleuch and 10th Duke of Queensberry, in 1973. They were auctioned twice after that, including in 2011, when Wynn Executive Vice President of Design Roger Thomas spotted them in his Christie's catalog and immediately made plans to fly to London to bid on the quartet. The find was so memorable, he recalls, he still has the catalog.
The vases likely originally arrived in London via one of the importers of “foreign curiosities” in the West End, who sought exotic items for wealthy clients for whom oriental objets were in vogue. The ormolu mounts were attached to “improve” the porcelain—dealers worked with Parisian marchands-merciers (merchants) to commission the mounts. To the credit of the bronziers who made them, they recognized the incredible quality of the porcelain, says Robert Copley, Christie’s Deputy Chairman and International Head of the Exceptional Sale of Decorative Arts. “Often the pieces were pierced to accommodate the ornate mounts,” he notes. “What’s interesting about the combination of these vases is that the French respected the porcelain enough to leave it intact.”
Not only are the vases of incredible quality, they are also significant for combining images and motifs from both Buddhism and Daoism. The 2,000-year-old indigenous Chinese religion of Daoism thrived throughout the 300-year-long Qing Dynasty, during which these vases were produced, despite the emperors’ preference for Tibetan Buddhism. The many bats in flight depicted on the celadon background are an auspicious symbol of happiness and prosperity, as the word “bats” is a homophone in Chinese for a word meaning “happiness.” According to the lot notes by Christie’s historians, the eight Buddhist and Daoist emblems, of central importance on the vases, are believed to bring blessings and harmony: “The Lotus symbolizes purity and harmony; the Vase or Jar alludes to the elixir of life that stands for victory… the Twin Fish expresses the freedom and happiness that true knowledge brings.”
The only parallels known to these vases were acquired by the Prince Regent (George, Prince of Wales, later George IV), and are still in Buckingham Palace. To give a sense of the workmanship involved, the 1814 commission for the Prince Regent required 31 different craftsmen. Today, visitors can see the vases that originally adorned Carlton House in the palace’s State Dining Room, transferred there when George became king.
For Steve Wynn, who has been dubbed one of the 21st century’s “Medici buyers,” acquiring the vases was part of a goal to repatriate some of China’s most important art. Wynn began collecting Chinese art in 2006, when he purchased a rare red porcelain vase from the 14th-century Hongwu period and donated it to the Macau Special Administrative Region, where it is now in the permanent collection of the Cultural Affairs Bureau’s Macau Museum. “It’s not only important that Macau expands economically, but also culturally,” he explained. When Wynn brought the Buccleuch vases back to China, he announced in a ceremony at Wynn Macau that returning the pieces was part of a continuing policy to add to the cultural enrichment of the community. “China is where the vases have their roots and their story,” he said. And after a long trip abroad, collecting some embellishments on the way, the vases have found their way back home.