HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - For over 50 years, one of the last great European collections of Chinese imperial ceramics has lain cloistered with an intensely private family in Switzerland, closed to the eyes of all but a handful of insiders.
Known largely from catalogues by noted sinologist Regina Krahl, the pieces in the Meiyintang collection, carefully acquired over half a century by Swiss pharmaceutical tycoons, the Zuellig brothers, are considered one of the best and last intact major private Western collections of Chinese ceramics.
In April, a small consignment of 80 lots from the Meiyintang (Hall Among the Rose Beds) wares will be put on the auction block for the first time by Sotheby's in what market experts say could be a landmark sale fetching over HK$1 billion ($128 million).
"I don't think we've had a collection of imperial porcelain as important as this one in the last 30 years," Nicolas Chow, deputy Chairman of Sotheby's Asia and the global head of Chinese ceramics, told Reuters in his Hong Kong office.
With the high-end Chinese ceramics art market now on fire given a steadily diminishing supply of great pieces, smashing record after record and even riding the financial crisis relatively unscathed, very strong demand is expected.
"It's the last grand European collection of porcelain to come on the market. After this collection with its particular scope and taste ... there is nothing left of this caliber," said Chow, running his fingers over a Meiyintang centerpiece: a pear-shaped, eight-inch tall Qing vase from the Qianlong reign (1736-95) with a brilliantly painted golden pheasant that could fetch $23 million in the April 7 sale.
Among the other Meiyintang pieces being offered is a rare palace bowl from the Chenghua Ming period (1465-1487), unblemished, with a blue and white pattern of fruiting melons and vines that could fetch up to HK$120 million ($15.4 million).
"With Chenghua, the pleasure is as much sensual as it is visual," said Chow of the bowl's glaze, which was silkily smooth to the touch, its luster undiminished after five centuries.
Considered to be some of the finest objects ever crafted, the delicacy and beauty of Chinese imperial porcelain has captivated emperors and collectors for centuries.
As demand for imperial ceramics has soared on China's economic boom and global ascendancy, fewer and fewer great collections of Chinese ceramics remain offshore as the rate of repatriation of China's cultural treasures has accelerated.
Stringent Chinese laws now bar many cultural relics from being exported once brought into the country, making the flow of ceramics a one-way torrent.
The proliferation of high-quality fakes by skilled artisans flooding the market has made China with solid provenance from venerable, old collections like the Meiyintang especially valuable and coveted by modern-day collectors.
Fired in the legendary imperial kilns of Jingdezhen in southern China's Jiangxi province over many dynasties, the cachet of such historical relics and national pride have fueled Chinese buying both on the world stage and inside China, where a slew of auction houses have sprouted up to ride the market boom.
Last November, a world record $83 million was paid for an ornate Qianlong period fish vase discovered in a British attic, smashing the previous $32.4 million mark for a gourd-shaped "famille rose" Qing vase sold by Sotheby's just a month before.
Chow of Sotheby's, whose grandfather -- renowned dealer-collector Edward Chow -- helped form the Meiyintang selection, hoped it would remind young collectors of a more contemplative period of art connoisseurship, far removed from the ultra-capitalist impulses of the China art market today.
"This is the last great group that was formed in that (old guard) tradition," said Chow, who declined to confirm the identity of the seller in keeping with a request for anonymity.
Others say the Meiyintang's more traditional, understated offerings could herald a turning point for wealthy Chinese buyers who've tended to chase far more ornate and dazzling late Qing trophy pieces that have yielded the very highest prices of late.
"Let's see if the main buyers, who have been the Chinese, will be turned on by this," said Robin Markbreiter, the director of Arts of Asia magazine. "If they are, the trade will say that Chinese tastes are maturing or developing."
Editing by Elaine Lies