Passion for Porcelain: The Harish Dhillon Story

The journey of a man who collected exquisite Chinese porcelain artefacts, which feature in Saffronart’s upcoming Asian Art sale.


On 9-10 August, Saffronart is set to conduct an auction of Asian Art, featuring Chinese porcelain from the 17th–20th centuries, Nepalese thangkas, Tibetan paubhas and exquisite bronze sculptures. The main highlight in this sale is a comprehensive collection of Chinese porcelain acquired by Dr. Harish Dhillon (1941 – 2015).

A former headmaster at the Lawrence School of Sanawar, Dhillon was a man of many interests. He taught English for 47 years, in three different schools, and was well-known in the field of education in North India. Dhillon was also an established writer, having authored close to 16 books of fiction and non-fiction. He also frequently wrote for The Tribune, a well-regarded newspaper in Chandigarh, and served as their editorial consultant after retiring from teaching. However, he is most fondly remembered for his passionate collecting of ancient Chinese porcelain artefacts, which are on auction.

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Chinese porcelain lots on auction in the Asian Art sale

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Blue and White Garlic Mouth Vase, China, bearing Six Character Guangxu Mark, Circa 1900

An enthusiastic bibliophile, Dhillon’s interest in Chinese porcelain stemmed from extensive reading and research on the art form through various books. He would follow up on this information by writing to collectors and institutes seeking and exchanging information. As such, his knowledge on the subject was largely self-taught, yet astute.

Dhillon soon developed a discerning eye for original and fine quality Chinese porcelain. A teacher’s salary did not allow him to spend much initially, but he saved up and gradually built his collection piece by piece. Several of his pieces were acquired during his travels, from varied and diverse sources. He bought pieces from antique dealers in places like Dehradun, as well as from reputed auction houses and stores such as Harrods in London.

A few such prized possessions had historically important provenances. Lot 20—a Blue and White Porcelain Cup—was originally part of the Hatcher Cargo, one of the largest cargos of Chinese porcelain recovered from a sea wreck, around the port of Jakarta in 1983. It was discovered by Captain Michael Hatcher and his crew who brought up 25,000 pieces of unbroken porcelain, mostly blue-and-white late Ming and early Qing wares from the Jingdezhen kilns.

 

Similarly, lot 9—a Blue and White Porcelain Cup with Saucer—was part of the famous “Nanking Cargo”, the cache of 150,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain and 125 pure gold ingots recovered from the Geldermalsen, an immense cargo ship of the Dutch East India Company that sank off the coast of Jakarta in 1751.

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Dhillon’s home in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh

 

These two pieces took a place of special pride in Dhillon’s collection.

A perfectionist, Dhillon would obsess over how a porcelain piece was presented in his home. In addition to matching the decor to the blue and white of the pieces, he installed strategically placed light fixtures over them to ensure that they were well-lit against brick red walls. This set-up was recreated from the pictures he saw in literature on Chinese porcelain and succeeded in achieving museum-quality settings for his display.

Dr. Harish Dhillon is remembered by those closest to him as a man of warmth, wisdom and adventure with a keen eye for priceless art and antiquities. The lots in the Asian Art sale are testament to this passion.

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