The gods smiled down on a sale at The Canterbury Auction Galleries when buyers from around the globe bid enthusiastically for the collection of ‘God hunter’, author, Kent scholar and leading expert on the subject, Keith Stevens.

 The presale estimate of £100,000 for the collection of 1,400 often unique objects, jade, books, Chinese paintings and other oriental ephemera was eclipsed, raising a total of £192,000 in a mammoth sale lasting over five hours. Ironically it would have been Mr Steven’s 90th birthday. He died in July last year.

“This was an excellent result,” said auctioneer Cliona Kilroy “underling Mr Stevens’ connoisseurship, collecting prowess and scholarly approach to a subject few outside Asia knew so intimately. The fact that several buyers knew Mr Stevens and had visited him at home in Mersham, near Ashford, to see his collection in what they referred to as the Cave of the thousand Buddhas’ and subsequently took the time and expense to travel to the sale speaks greatly of the respect and admiration they had for him.”

The fellow collector who travelled farthest was the Singaporean bidder who purchased a number of lots, taking his personal collection to 800. 

Watched by members of Mr Stevens’ family seated on the front row, the opening lot of the day set the scene for the success of the sale when the first of around 1,000 19th century carved and lacquered giltwood figures in the collection sold for £8,600.  It had been estimated at £3,000-5,000. 

From Fujian Province and purchased by Mr Stevens in Taipei in 1998, the figure was carved in about 1860 and depicted the deified Imperial Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu, (1785-1850), the seated elderly mandarin, bald and with a goatee beard, accompanied by two servants, the male on his left and the female on his right. Lin was a bitter enemy of foreigners who attempted to crush the opium trade. 

Mr Stevens was the author of the definitive book on his specialist subject and in homage to it, the figure chosen to decorate the cover of the sale catalogue was that pictured on the dust cover of the book.

A large Chinese carved polychrome and giltwood seated figure of the celestial Buddha Vairocana wearing a detachable headdress and seated on a opened lotus flower supported by a hexagonal pedestal base, it sold for £4,200, a multiple of its estimate. 

It was purchased by a Hong Kong collector, who paid the same money for a group of four Chinese carved polychrome and giltwood seated figures of the Four Diamond Kings of Heaven: Mo Li Ching, Mo Li Hung, Mo Li Shou, Mi Lo Hai, one holding a dragon and pearl, one a sword, one playing a lute and one holding a palanquin, each on stepped wooden bases. Mr Stevens had purchased them in Hong Kong in 1990 for  £1,450.

The same buyer also paid £2,900 for a large Chinese carved, painted and giltwood standing figure of a Bodhisattva and £2,800 for a standing figure of a celestial Buddha Amitabha, or Emi Tuo Fo, his left hand raised holding a lotus ornament and on lotus pattern base, the latter another multiple of its guide price. 

A Chinese carved, painted and giltwood figure of the Daoist deity Wen Chang Dijun, to whom students pray for success in their exams, was one of the few of the top lots to be purchased by a UK collector. Depicted seated astride a mule and accompanied by two standing attendants on a blue painted rocky base, it sold for £3,200 against an estimate of £800-1,200. 

The collection also included a small number of bronze figures, the prize selling to a Beijing buyer. The figure of Zhunti Pusa, goddess of long life, fertility and wisdom, standing on rectangular base, overturned its estimate to sell for £11,500 to emerge as the most valuable lot in the day’s sale. Thought to have originated from Sichuan, the multi-armed Buddha had been purchased by Mr Stevens in Hong Kong in 1977 for the princely sum of £250. 

A seated figure of a Bodhisattva, her right hand resting on her raised right knee and flanked by two acolytes and with a dragon to base, was featured in an article for "Arts of Asia", in 2003 Keith Stevens and Jennifer Welch titled "Guanyin, Various Forms and Styles of Images of Chinese Bodhisattva". It caught the eye of a bidder in Mainland China and became the second most valuable bronze figure, selling for £8,500. 

Most valuable Chinese scroll painting proved to be the final lot of the sale, an Imperial edict - "Feng Tian Gao Ming" - written on silk brocade of varying colours, which had been issued on New Year's Day in 1796, the first year of the reign of the Qing Emperor, Jai Qing (reigned1796-1820). 

The edict read:  "The Emperor has decreed that the appointment of Courtier and Minister of State to be conferred upon Yuan (5373) (his full name and most of the characters in the first part of the scroll are illegible) after his outstanding service and dedication to duty as the Inspector General of Liang-Huai, Salt Administration, his new appointment is now confirmed.  For her devotion and loyalty to her husband, his wife Liang (4731 - her maiden surname) is granted the title of the Lady of the Third Grade".   It sold for £4,000 and was purchased by the Mainland China buyer already mentioned. 

Mr Stevens’ library of Chinese subject books was offered in 54 lots and raised a total of £22,000, while a feature of his Chinese ceramics was a large number of porcelain spoons. Collected by his wife and divided into six lots, the one most wanted was a group of 30 variously painted and contained in a hardwood display case. They were purchased by a buyer from Malaysia, adding £5,000 to the £13,000 total for the six lots. 

During his time in China, Mr Stevens visited more than 3,500 temples in towns and often remote villages across South East Asia, documenting their layouts, altars, gods, legends and folklore. In the process he recorded what he saw with more than 30,000 photographs, which were offered in the sale as a separate lot and fittingly purchased by another collector from Malaysia who said he intended to continue Mr Stevens’ research. They sold for £3,300. 

Keith Stevens’ interest in China began in his childhood. He was born in Heswall, Wirral, and as a boy, he would sneak away to Liverpool’s Chinatown, in those days bustling with seafaring men whose ships from the Pearl River and Ningbo were unloading their cargoes in the port. The sights, sounds and smells, the people and the large Chinese words written on the walls of businesses enthralled him. 

After military service, he read Modern and Literary Chinese at the London University School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) and also studied at Hong Kong University, joining the British Army again, serving in the Intelligence Corps, spending most of his service in the Far East. 

He later transferred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office including a further five-year posting to Hong Kong before retiring to continue his life-long study of the cults and iconography of Chinese folk religion full-time. 

He was a member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs from 1952; the Royal Asiatic Society in Hong Kong from 1963 and a founder member of the Friends of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong branch in London, established in 1997.

He wrote numerous articles relating to Chinese religious iconography, leading to the publication of two books: the definitive Chinese Gods, The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons, his lifetime work published in 1997 and nine articles on the subject for the specialist Hong Kong-based Arts of Asia magazine. 

Entries of good quality antiques, fine art and collectors’ items are now being accepted for the next two-day sale at The Canterbury Auction Galleries, which is on November 29-30. For more information, please contact the auctioneers on 01227 763337.


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