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A rare doucai 'Flowers of the Four Seasons' moonflask. Qing dynasty, Qianlong period - Photo Sotheby's

of flattened globular form with rounded sides rising from a short oval foot to a straight cylindrical neck, set with two lobed arched handles, finely painted on each side in underglaze blue and shades of orange red, rose pink, yellow, aubergine and green enamels with a variety of flowers denoting the cycle of seasons, including a large central peony symbolizing the spring flanked by two lotus and a chrysanthemum evoking the summer and autumn, and a flowering and budding branch of prunus standing for the winter, the boughs arching to form the edges of a large medallion, the sides decorated with interlocked foliate scrolls of lotus and florets extending across the base of the neck, the handles picked out with a composite floral spray and outlined with a blue border, all between a band of pendent yellow-ground ruyi suspending tassels at the rim and a 'classic' scroll encircling the foot, the recessed base left plain; 26.8 cm., 10 1/2 in. Estimation: 1,200,000 - 1,500,000 HKD - Lot. Vendu 3,860,000 HKD

PROVENANCE: A French private estate collection (by repute).

NOTE DE CATALOGUE: Qianlong period vessels decorated in the doucai technique are rare, and moonflasks of this form and decoration are even more unusual. Only one other flask attributed to the Qianlong period, of the same shape and decoration is known: in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 243. Both flasks closely copy a slightly earlier, Yongzheng period, flask in the Shanghai Museum, illustrated in Qingdai ciqi shangjian, Shanghai, 1994, pl. 74. 

This moonflask echoes the past in many ways. The doucai painting style with its delicate drawing in fine blue outlines and its colouration in polychrome washes was the archetypical style of decoration in the Chenghua reign (1465-1487), when the colours were still limited to a few bright shades. It was only around the 1720s, during the Kangxi period, that the wide range of tones, as seen on the present example, became available and started being used on Qing ceramics. The shape of the flask is also inspired by early Ming examples, as mentioned in the notes to the Palace Museum vessel, ibid., p. 205; see a Yongle blue-and-white flask illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji, vol. 12, Shanghai, 2000, pl. 17.

For examples of Qianlong doucai moonflasks of varying form and decoration, see one in the Tianjin Museum, illustrated in Gems of the Doucai, Taipei, 1993, pl. 116, painted with a figural scene in the centre surrounded by formal flower scrolls; another with a dense lotus scroll decoration and hydra-shaped handles on the neck, from the Qing court collection and still in Beijing, included in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, op.cit., pl. 247; and a circular form flask with ruyi handles, painted with large blossoming peonies, chrysanthemums and wintersweets on one side and calligraphy on the other, sold in our London rooms, 14th November 2001, lot 116, with its pair, from the collection of the Rt. Hon. The Lord Margadale of Islay, T.D., at Fonthill House, Tisbury, Wiltshire, England, also sold in our London rooms, 16th June 1998, lot 289.

Sotheby's. Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art. Hong Kong | 09 oct. 2012 www.sothebys.com