An Irish eye on old Shanghai


Last week’s advice to “never throw out an old photo album” and “check the attic if you had a family member in China during the Victorian era” has turned out, quite unexpectedly, to be topically pertinent.

Another stash of remarkable Chinese photographs, with an Irish connection, has come to light in Dublin.

Adam’s has announced that its auction on March 3rd will include private albums compiled by an Irishman who served with the colonial-era Shanghai Municipal Police during the early 20th century.

The police force maintained law and order in the port city which, although not officially a colony, was effectively run by the British Empire from the 1840s until the second World War. Officers were mainly recruited from Britain and Ireland, including from among the ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary.

The albums, brought home to Ireland by a Dubliner who was a senior officer in the force between 1905 and 1930, contain some 600 photographs depicting Chinese society, culture and architectural landmarks.

The collection offers a unique insight into a way of life swept away by Mao Tse-tung’s revolution and illustrates daily life, dress codes and local customs such as the practice of binding women’s feet.

Ronan Flanagan from Adam’s said “many photographs of pre-Communist China were destroyed under Mao so those taken out of China by westerners are very rare”.

The photographs also illustrate the interaction between colonial officials and the local Chinese. Streetscape images show Shanghai shopfronts with misspelt English-language signage erected by Chinese merchants for the benefit of foreigners. The collection includes a selection of graphic and shocking images of Chinese prisoners being tortured and punished (including men and women wearing the “cangue” – a wooden neck frame – or suspended in bamboo cages). Other images portray public executions, by means of strangulation and beheading, watched by both Chinese and western people. Even the milder images have the power to shock such as those of a young man being restrained while a laughing barber cuts off his pigtail. It was a punishment designed to humiliate.

These photographs, of considerable historical and cultural significance, are being sold as one lot with a conservative estimate of €2,000-€3,000 and are likely to generate considerable interest when they go on public view at Adam’s St Stephen’s Green saleroom. The auction will be broadcast online with bidding expected from collectors and possibly museums in China and especially Shanghai, which is now one of the world’s biggest and wealthiest cities with a population of 23 million.

Chinese collectors have been repatriating relics of their country’s cultural heritage at auctions worldwide for the past decade. These photographs are among the most fascinating, poignant and disturbing mementos to have come to market. Viewing is strongly recommended.

London art sales

In London this week, buyers spent a staggering £281 million (€325 million) snapping up Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist paintings at auctions in Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

Sotheby’s said the top-selling lots were Pablo Picasso’s Femme Assise Près D’Une Fenêtre, which sold to a telephone bidder for £28.6 million (€33.5 million); and Claude Monet’s water lily painting Nymphéas avec reflets de hautes herbes which sold for £9 million (€10.6 million), below its pre-auction estimate. A second painting by Monet, a snow scene titled Le Givre à Giverny – which the National Gallery of Ireland attempted to buy for £2,000 in 1943 only to be gazumped by the Earl of Jersey – achieved £8.7 million (€10.2 million) .

At Christie’s, the top lot was the Italian artist Modigliani’s painting of his wife wearing a hat, titled Jeanne Hébuterne (au chapeau), which made £26.9 million (€31.6 million). Après Le Déjeuner by French painter, Berthe Morisot made three times the estimate and sold for £6.9 million, (€8 million) a world-record price for a female artist at auction.