End notes: A carved ivory wrist rest
November 1, 2011 | A mid-twentieth-century Chinese carved ivory double wrist rest sold at Cincinnati's Cowan's Auctions' first Asian art sale on August 26 for the handsome price of $47,000 (including premium) off a presale estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. Designed as an aid for scholars in the painstaking arts of calligraphy and brush painting, wrist rests were long made in China in carved wood and jade as well as ivory and other semiprecious materials. This one was obtained by the consignor directly from the carver sometime after World War II, so it turns attention to the art in the postwar years.
The exterior is realistically carved to replicate a section of bamboo cane, with roots sprouting from the rhizome-shaped end and bamboo shoots and leaves along the sides, while the interior holds polychrome crickets and a cicada minutely carved from the ivory. "This is a brilliant bit of carving and I am completely unsurprised that it sold for the amount it realized," says the Asian art expert Lark Mason. "Most wrist rests are very finely and densely carved with mountainous landscape scenes with pavilions and figures and generally sell in the $5,000 range."
The vogue for these elaborate accoutrements of the "scholar's study" originated in the eighteenth-century Qing dynasty palace workshops. "During the Republic Period, after the fall of the dynasty," Mason says, "there was a conscious attempt to revive fine quality craftsmanship. Many of the palace workshop craftsmen were still active and found a ready market in creating works for wealthy merchants, officials, and others." Without a specific provenance, he notes, it is often very difficult to distinguish between the eighteenth- and twentieth-century examples.
In the case of this double wrist rest, however, the provenance is unequivocal: the American who owned it served in China during World War II, lived there for many years afterwards, and acquired the wrist rest directly from the carver. This may bring into question the dating of a nearly identical double rest that sold at Christie's in 2009 as late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, and of a "nineteenth century" single rest of very similar design that sold at the Dallas Auction Gallery last year.
Graydon R. Sikes, a specialist at Cowan's, observes that the subject matter is "secular" while bespeaking the traditional Chinese reverence for nature and incorporating traditional Chinese symbolism-bamboo for longevity and the scholar, crickets for good luck, and a cicada for immortality or rebirth.
The strength of the Chinese art market is evident throughout the auction world these days. As Sikes notes, "The influx of new Chinese collectors willing to spend vast sums on their cultural heritage has bolstered the market to record highs. During the Cultural Revolution much of this material was destroyed and artisans and artists largely ceased activity. So there's a great void in China for antiques, but there's a wealth of material in old collections across the United States." Large and small auction houses are seeing the results: During the week that Cowan's was holding its highly successful inaugural Asian sale in Ohio, Eldred's in Massachusetts was seeing a more than 20 percent increase in the prices paid at its annual summer Asian sale, particularly by Chinese buyers for Chinese works. Not two weeks later Freeman's in Philadelphia sold its highest-selling single lot ever-a Qing dynasty "double dragon" white jade seal at $3.5 million.
Above: Double wrist rest, Chinese, mid-twentieth century. Carved ivory and polychrome; length 10 ½ inches. Photographs courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Cincinnati, Ohio.