Chinese Jades from the Junkunc Collection Will Feature in Sotheby’s Asia Week

Liz Catalano
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When Stephen Junkunc, III was in his early 20s, he came across a book about Chinese art that would propel him on a decades-long journey. Junkunc, born in Budapest in 1905, immigrated to the United States at a young age. His family experienced business success manufacturing machine parts for Ford Motor Company, giving Junkunc a solid financial foundation to start his now-famous collection of Asian art.

Junkunc was a voracious reader whose interests ranged from Ming dynasty porcelain to Buddhist sculpture. It sometimes took months or years to find the next perfect item to add to his collection. “Junkunc sits spider-like in the center of a web of agents. His escapades in procuring some objects have called for the suavity of a diplomat, the daring of an international spy, and the speed of a distance runner,” the Chicago Tribune wrote in 1952. “Cloaked in intrigue and secrecy, and spiced by competition, collecting oriental art is no role of a Milquetoast.”

Stephen Junkunc, III. Image from Sotheby’s.
Stephen Junkunc, III. Image from Sotheby’s.

Before his death in 1978, Junkunc had collected over 2,000 works of Chinese art in the underground bomb shelter below his Illinois home. Many of these pieces have since made their way to the Sotheby’s auction block, including in the last several autumn Asia Weeks.

This year’s Asia Week lineup includes an auction exclusively devoted to the Chinese jades collected by Junkunc. 61 pieces will be displayed in the auction house’s New York showroom before being sold on September 22nd, 2020, at 9:30 AM EDT.

Celadon and russet jade horse head. Image from Sotheby’s.
Celadon and russet jade horse head. Image from Sotheby’s.

Leading the catalog is a rare celadon and russet jade horse head sculpture from the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.), offered with an estimate of USD 600,000 to $800,000. The piece was created early on in the history of Chinese horse sculptures. It reflects the military conflicts that plagued the Han dynasty and started the search for strong, capable steeds. Horse heads were most often depicted in ceramic and bronze due to the rarity and high cost of jade. This example is thus notable for both its distinct details and its rarity.

A Neolithic dark green stone carving of a ram. Image from Sotheby’s.
A Neolithic dark green stone carving of a ram. Image from Sotheby’s.

Junkunc’s collecting interests extended well beyond the Han dynasty, with pieces dating everywhere between the Neolithic period and the last dynasty of China. One of the earliest lots in the sale is a stone sculpture of a ram that is estimated to be more than 4,000 years old ($15,000 – $25,000). It is attributed to the Shijiahe culture that developed near the Yangtze River. 

Jade was emerging as a treasured material at this time, as was the depiction of animals in Chinese art. Animal symbolism was often based on the creature’s physical attributes (such as aggression and strength) or the homophones associated with the animal’s name. For example, the Chinese word for ram, sheep, and goats sounds similar to the word for sunlight. These animals were often associated with positivity and wealth as a result.

The above sculpture shows the stylistic development of these ram sculptures over the next thousand years ($20,000 – $30,000). The animal’s curved back and neck, as well as a streak of lighter jade that flows from the tucked front legs to the rear flank, are defining characteristics. The Song dynasty artist who sculpted it was likely inspired by the styles of the previous Han dynasty and the Warring States period. There was almost no variation on the ancient themes during this time due to a strong emphasis on tradition and historical appreciation.

Also among the featured animal jades in the sale is a yellow and russet jade carving of a mythical animal from the Qianlong period ($200,000 – $300,000). Junkunc’s Qianlong jades include depictions of deities, mountains, and goldfish as well.

A beige and brown jade camel from the Tang dynasty, sold in 2019. Image from Sotheby’s.
A beige and brown jade camel from the Tang dynasty, sold in 2019. Image from Sotheby’s.

Previous auctions have seen strong interest in Junkunc’s jade collection, including during last year’s Asia Week. A beige and brown jade camel, pictured above, was sold for $620,000 after a presale estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. Jades only represented a small portion of the 2019 Arts of Ancient China event but helped push the sale total past $4.6 million. This year’s auction offers an even closer look at the genre through Junkunc’s discerning lens.

Interested bidders can find the full catalog for the Chinese Jade Carvings auction on the Sotheby’s website. Live bidding starts at 9:30 AM EDT on September 22nd, 2020, in New York and online. Beyond this collection of jades, the auction house will also offer events focusing on Kangxi porcelain, Southeast Asian sculpture, and works of Chinese fine art in the upcoming Asia Week.