25 juillet 2021

Golden Splendour – Gold Jewellery from the Collection of Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter at Sotheby's HK

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Tuyêt Nguyêt (1934-2020) and Stephen Markbreiter (1921-2014) were passionate collectors of Asian Art, over the years amassing a comprehensive collection that includes a diverse range of arts from different cultures. Following the earlier successful sales of gilt-bronze Buddhist metalwork, jade carvings, China trade paintings, and snuff bottles, this online auction presents a remarkable assemblage of antique gold jewellery. Among Tuyêt Nguyêt's many passions was her antique jewellery collection which represents pieces she acquired over a span of 40 years with an eye toward the finest examples from Java, Khmer, Burma, Vietnam and Tibet. The sale also features the most remarkable group of gold rings from the Angkor period, 9th century, their superb workmanship and sumptuousness indicating they were made for the royal court.

Mapping of the History of Asian Gold Jewellery

The history of Southeast Asia is written in the gold of its early kingdoms, reflecting the rise and fall of ancient empires as well as the influences of neighbouring cultures through trade, religion, and conquest. The map below shows the overlap of kingdoms through more than 2000 years of history. Click on the red hotspots below to see styles of gold jewellery that developed in each location.

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Khmer – A Testament of Power

The Khmer empire was a mighty state in Southeast Asia that flourished from the 9th to 15th centuries. At its peak, it controlled present-day Cambodia and large areas of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos.

Before and during the Khmer empire, the region was heavily influenced by India. In the later 8th century, the Javanese conquered part of the Pre-Angkorian empire, which greatly influenced the style of ornamentation found in the Angkor period. As a result, the Hindu-Buddhist iconography became prominent, as seen in a group of gold rings in the collection.

The most remarkable group of rings in this collection come from the Angkor period. These rings can be stylistically identified by the architectural features mirrored in the goldwork, reminiscent of details found on the friezes of the Angkor Wat temple complex. Their superb craftsmanship and sumptuousness suggests the rings were made for the royal court.

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Lot 1015. A gold and agate 'Apsara and Makara' ring, Khmer, Angkor period, 9th century; d. 2.2 cm; 27.5 grams. Estimate: 80,000 - 100,000 HKD. Lot sold: 214,200 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

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Literature: Susan Ollemans, 'Ancient Gold Rings from Asia. The Tuyet Nguyet Collection’, Arts of Asia, July-August 2017, cover and pl. 15.

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Lot 1025. A pair of gold repoussé 'Makara and human figure' earrings set with green glass beads, Pre-Khmer, 8th century; 3.1 cm; 18 grams. Estimate: 26,000 - 28,000 HKDLot sold: 60,480 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

Literature: Theresa McCullough, 'Gold Jewellery. Pre-Angkor and Angkor Civilisations of Cambodia’, Arts of Asia, Marc.h-April 2000, pl. 12.

Each earring contains tiny pellets as a rattle and takes the form of a Makara, a hybrid figure combining an elephant with a crocodile in one body. The elephant trunk forms the ear hook with the body and head of a crocodile, a human figure caught in its jaws trying to escape. 

This motif reflects an iconographic transmission of Indian mythological representations and appears frequently in Khmer sculpture.

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Lot 1020. A gold 'Ganesha and rats' ring, Khmer, Angkor period, 8th - 9th century; d. 2.2 cm; 24.1 grams. Estimate: 35,000 - 40,000 HKD. Lot sold: 352,800 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

Literature: Susan Ollemans, 'Ancient Gold Rings from Asia. The Tuyêt Nguyêt Collection’, Arts of Asia, July-August 2017, pl. 12.

Note: Easily recognisable by his elephant head and human body, Ganesha is the god of wisdom, intelligence, education and prudence. The myth of Ganesha explains that he was the son of Shiva and Parvati, and was originally born with a human head. While Shiva was away at war, Parvati appointed her son to guard her chambers, and permit none to pass while she was bathing.

Shiva had never seen his son, having left for war before he was born. When he returned, he went straight to Parvati's chambers, and there met Ganesha. When Ganesha refused to let him pass, as his mother had ordered, Shiva cut off his son’s head in fury. Parvati saw what had happened, and collapsed in grief, telling her husband of his terrible mistake and implored him to bring their son back to life.

Shiva sent his servants and commanded them to bring back the head of the first living creature they came across. When they returned, they brought with them the head of an elephant, and using this Shiva brought his son back to life, with an elephant's head on his shoulders in place of his human head.

Half man, half elephant, with a round belly, representing abundance and generosity, he has small eyes, a symbol of concentration, and big ears representing the need to talk less and listen more. He is joined by his companion, Mûshika the mouse.

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Lot 1029. A gem-set gold ring of a deity riding on Garuda, Possibly Khmer, Angkor period, or Java, 9th century; d. 1.8 cm; 27.8 grams. Estimate: 50,000 - 70,000 HKDLot sold: 378,000 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

LiteratureSusan Ollemans, 'Ancient Gold Rings from Asia. The Tuyêt Nguyêt Collection’, Arts of Asia, July-August 2017, pl. 17.

Note"This ring is typical of the crossover culture that spread throughout Southeast Asia at the time. The shank of the ring is typically Javanese, but the workmanship could be Khmer. The mythology is Hindu: Garuda holding a crystal or moonstone in its upturned front claw and a yellow stone, [possibly hessonite, in its back claw. The woman, possibly Lakshmi or Sita, with flowing hair, has large breasts and is decorated with an elaborate pair of earrings of plug form seen all over Southeast Asia at this time. Garuda possesses talismanic properties. This half bird-half man is the natural energy of the Naga serpent and protects against illness associated with water. He is seen frequently depicted in Khmer jewellery and architecture, and is seen in Tibetan motifs under the guise of the monster mask, an image again seen in Khmer and Nepalese items." (Susan Ollemans, 2017)

1042

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Lot 1042. A gold repoussé ring with a garnet intaglio of a scorpion, Khmer, 9th - 15th century; d. 1.6 cm; 11 grams. Estimate: 7,000 - 9,000 HKDLot sold: 107,100 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

Literature: Susan Ollemans, 'Ancient Gold Rings from Asia. The Tuyêt Nguyêt Collection’, Arts of Asia, July-August 2017, pl. 25A. 

 Java – A Convergence of Islamic Culture

Jewellery has been the most prevalent form of ancient goldware across Southeast Asia, of which the most impressive traces of Indonesian civilisation are from Java. The Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection includes a significant portion of gold jewellery from this region dating from the 7th to early 16th century, a period also known as the Classical Period, illustrating Javanese goldsmiths' copious variety and intricate artistry.

The Classical Period is conventionally divided into three phases: Early Classical Period (7th - 9th century), where the political power was based in Central Java; Middle Classical Period (10th - mid 13th century), where the authority shifted to East Java; and Late Classical Period (mid 13th - early 16th century), which is characterised by the Majapahit Empire - one of the greatest of the early Indonesian kingdoms. The Majapahit Empire came to its demise in 1519 with the arrival of Islam, signalling the end of the Classical Period as a whole.

During this period, Javanese goldsmiths were highly esteemed in society, listed among the five main crafts. They produced some of the most unique and intricate gold jewellery, particularly rings. Their skill was highly advanced, creating designs that significantly diverged from their Southeast Asian counterparts, such as rings with auspicious motifs, wire-wrapped rings, rings associated with Hindu-Buddhist iconography, and ear clips.

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Lot 1007. A gold seal ring with 'Sri' inscription, From Rabuk, Purbalingga, Central Java, Indonesia, 8th - 10th century; d. 1.6 cm; 24 grams. Estimate: 26,000 - 28,000 HKDLot sold: 107,100 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

the oval bezel with Sri inscription, which is associated with Dewi Sri, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.

Literature: Susan Ollemans, 'Ancient Gold Rings from Asia. The Tuyêt Nguyêt Collection’, Arts of Asia, July-August 2017, pl. 4. 

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Lot 1038. A gold ring with an inscribed lozenge bezel, Central Java, Indonesia, 9th - 10th century; d. 1.6 cm; 40 grams. Estimate: 35,000 - 40,000 HKDLot sold: 352,800 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

The two-tier lozenge-shaped bezel chased with a repetitive stylized script.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection. 

Note: A similar ring in the Wereldmuseum collection is illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, Goud der Goden: uit het oude Java [Gold of the Gods from Ancient Java], Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam, 2014, p. 236.

Provenance: Habsburg-Feldman Geneva, 14th May 1990, lot 139. 

Literature: Susan Ollemans, 'Ancient Gold Rings from Asia. The Tuyêt Nguyêt Collection’, Arts of Asia, July-August 2017, pl. 2.

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Lot 1008. A gold ring of Nandi on a lotus, Java, Indonesia, 10th - 15th century; d. 1.5 cm; 32.5 grams. Estimate: 28,000 - 30,000 HKDLot sold: 44,100 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

Note: Nandi, which means 'joy' and 'satisfaction' in Sanskrit, is the vahana ('mount' or 'vehicle') of the Hindu god Shiva and the guardian deity of Mount Kailash. He sometimes appears in an anthropomorphic form but is more often depicted as a bull, seated outside most Shaivite temples facing the shrine's main entrance.

Bulls were considered sacred because dairy farming was the most important occupation in early Indian culture. Nandi is also believed to promote fertility; temple visitors may touch sculptures of him for blessings. Him seated also symbolizes meditativeness, one of the greatest virtues in Indian culture, as he sits full of alertness, waiting for Shiva silently and faithfully. The present ring reminds the wearer to be aware of one's presence and existence, along with a sense of calm and peace.

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Lot 1036. A gold 'Makara' ear clip, East Java, Indonesia, 13th - 15th century; 3.2 cm; 12.2 gramsEstimate: 9,000 - 12,000 HKDLot sold: 21,420  HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

The half-mammal half-fish mythical sea monster Makara is usually depicted with bulging eyes and mouth agape baring teeth. It is a symbol of darkness: opposite to Kala, the sun element. Both Kala and Makara designs were common on Javanese temples in the Early Classic period.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.  

1056

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Lot 1056. A pair of gold ear ornaments, Possibly Java or Indonesian archipelago; 5.7 cm, 34.2 and 34.9 gramsEstimate: 22,000 - 24,000 HKDLot sold: 63,000 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

the shape possibly inspired by Javanese double-scroll fertility earring.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection. 

Pyu

In the 8th century, the eastern region of modern-day Myanmar was ruled by the Pyu people, who struck coins with designs inspired by the Arakanese kingdom to the west, such as lot 1061.

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Lot 1061. A gold 'coin' pendant, Pyu, 8th - 9th century; 3.5 cm; 12.4 gramsEstimate: 3,500 - 4,000 HKDLot sold: 44,100 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.  

Note: The front of the coin depicts a throne adorned with royal diadems; the reverse features the Shrivastava emblem, which represents Sri, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Within the Shrivastava emblem, a mountain representing the earth and also Shiva, the god of opposing forces, rises from the primordial water below and under the heavens signified by the moon and sun above. The mountain is flanked by a vajra thunderbolt, an emblem of Indra, the god of the heavens, and a shankha conch shell, a symbol associated with Vishnu, the god of creation and preserver of the cosmic system.

The bail suggests it may have also been used as an amulet. The production of coinage largely ceased in the 9th century with the demise of the Pyu. Although Pyu coins were highly standardized in size and weight, it is uncertain if they were used as currency in the contemporary sense or as royally sanctioned bullion due to their scarcity.

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Lot 1046. A gold necklace with multi-form beads, Pyu, 9th - 11th century; approx. 60 cm, 63 gramsEstimate: 3,000 - 5,000 HKDLot sold: 163.800 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.  

Note: Pyu, present-day Upper Burma, was a group of trade-focused city-states that incidentally imported many cultural ideas from other countries in Southeast Asia. Influenced by India, the Pyu were devout Buddhists who emphasized religious symbolism in the creation of their jewellery. Their use of gold in personal ornaments expressed their belief system and social status. Beads were especially popular among the royal class for their extraordinary variability and freedom of expression, such as the present gold necklace of multi-form beads. The free mix and match in a beaded necklace catered for the needs and preferences of the wearer.

Appearing in different forms and shapes, all beads demonstrate the exceptional workmanship of the Pyu artisans. Spiked beads and graduated beads in particular, illustrate the dexterity of the craftsmen for the high-level skills required. Conch shell beads were considered an auspicious symbol and hence were used extensively in religious ceremonies. The Pyu were also famous for their unique production of dice beads, in which four of the six faces were reserved for decoration and the other lateral two for drilling and stringing. Other forms include six- or eight-sided pumpkin-shaped beads, claws, bells, multi-cones, drums, axes and spheres.

Indonesian Archipelago – The Sumbanese Mamuli

The Sumbanese believed precious metals had a celestial origin. The sun is made of gold, while the moon and stars are of silver. Gold and silver are deposited on Earth when the sun and moon set or shooting stars fall from the sky. Sumbanese regarded ornaments made of gold as a symbol of divine favour. They would commission gold jewellery to be used as ancestral heirlooms, and to ascend the social ladder by displaying these heavenly treasures at celebrations. 

Mamuli, usually made of gold or silver, are among the most important ornaments typically used in the exchange of gifts associated with marriages and alliances. They were worn as ear ornaments when the Sumbanese practised artificial earlobe extension, but they could also be worn as neck pendants.

Mamuli also embodied Sumbanese's dualistic belief in cosmology: heaven and earth, male and female. It takes after the shape of omega (Ω), a fertility symbol representing female genitalia; the animals at the base represent the male aspect. In lot 1027we have two whimsical monkeys, skilfully constructed with rotatable bodies, movable heads and arms. While in lot 1070, we have water buffaloes and Sumba-native cockatoos.

Sumbanese's mamuli has become so well-known that the omega form is often referred to by its Sumbanese name mamuli across Indonesia.

107

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Lot 1027. A gold 'monkey' mamuli ear ornament or pendant, East Sumba Island, Indonesian archipelago, 19th century; h. 10.2 cm, 101.7 gramsEstimate: 18,000 - 22,000 HKDLot sold: 44,100 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

1070

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Lot 1070. A gold 'cockatoo' and a 'water buffalo' mamuli ear ornament or pendant, East Sumba Island, Indonesian archipelago, 19th century; h. 6.5 cm; 38.8 and 31 gramsEstimate: 26,000 - 28,000 HKDLot sold: 277,200 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

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Lot 1026. A gold 'snake' necklace with stone-set eyes, Possibly Flores or Sumba, Indonesian archipelago, 19th century; 48.5 cm; 116.4 gramsEstimate: 35,000 - 40,000 HKDLot sold: 201,600 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

Provenance: Habsburg-Feldman Geneva, 14th May 1990, lot 116.

1030

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Lot 1030. A gold 'mythical beast' bangle, Possibly Sumatra, Indonesian archipelago, 19th century; d. 6.8 cm; 118.4 gramsEstimate: 35,000 - 40,000 HKDLot sold: 163,800 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

India – A Burst of Colours

In the late 16th century, Mughal court goldsmiths ingeniously combined enamelling with the kundan setting technique. This sophisticated art form came to India during the Mughal invasion and has been practised in India ever since. Such lavish ornamentation is evident in a kada bangle and a 'bird' ring in this collection.

In India, the art of enamelling is known as meenakari. The word 'meenakari' means to place paradise onto an object. Jaipur artisans perfected this art form and developed their distinctive style. It is defined by the vivid red colour and the intricate designs enamelled on the back or inner surfaces of ornaments. The enamelled details remain unseen, adding hidden interest that only the wearer knew about.

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Lot 1023. A gem-set and enamelled 'Makara' bracelet, kada, Jaipur, North India, 19th century; 6.1 cm, 74.6 grams. Estimate: 5,000 - 8,000 HKDLot sold: 113,400 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Property from the Tuyêt Nguyêt and Stephen Markbreiter Collection.

The kada bangle rendered in the form of two confronting Makara heads with onyx eyes, the exterior set with rubies and diamonds arranged in a floral spray, the gems set in the kundan technique against a green enamel ground, the interior exquisitely decorated with pairs of peacocks within a floral design on an enamelled ground of white picked out in red, green and touches of bright blue.

The inner surface of the kada bangle is exquisitely decorated with pairs of peacocks enamelled in vibrant shades of blue and green, against a floral design picked out in vivid red. While the reverse of the 'bird' ring (lot 1019) enamelled with a peacock in green, white, red and blue, echoing the front design and choice of gems – emerald, diamond and ruby.

These two pieces reveal that meenakari work requires a great deal of attention and precision. The craftsmen have to first engrave a complex design onto a small surface area, chisel off the grooves before filling in the tiny spaces with enamels. Meenakari adds greater artistic value to the piece and has a pragmatic reason behind it. It protects the high-karat gold from abrasion due to frequent skin contact, and gives the jewellery piece the rigidity necessary to keep its form.

Another known characteristic of Indian jewellery is the kundan setting technique. It is a process of setting gemstones with thin sheets of pure gold, or kundan. This sophisticated technique allows precious stones of any size or shape to be set directly into fragile enamelled surfaces.

Indian jewellery is renowned for the luxuriance of their artefacts, combined with designs of great complexity. They, such as the kada bangle, were considered objects of marvel; they were brought overseas and displayed in London at the Great International Exhibitions in the 1850s.

For a similar bangle, see one with a blue-enamelled ground, in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, accession no. 119-1852 (https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O68463/jewellery-unknown/).

1019

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Lot 1019. A rare gold, diamond, ruby and emerald 'bird' ring, Jaipur, North India, 19th century; d. 1.8 cm; 6.8 grams. Estimate: 26,000 - 28,000 HKDLot sold: 56,700 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby's. Golden Splendour – Gold Jewellery from the Collection of Tuyet Nguyet and Stephen Markbreiter, Hong Kong, 28 July 2021


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