An Outstanding Mother-Of-Pearl Inlaid Incense Stand. Mark and Period of Kangxi, dated to the Guichou Year, 1673 - Photo Sotheby's

of upright square section, the raised top supported on a bracket-shaped apron continuing to square corner legs shaped with a ribbed section towards the middle on their interior, further ending with incurved hoof feet resting on a raised pedestal base, masterfully inlaid overall with slivers of mother-of-pearl and gold foils on a black lacquer ground, the top with an ethereal scene depicting a lady of rank standing in front of a pavilion by a lake, dressed in long flowing robes looking at a crane, next to a spotted deer, accompanied by two female attendants, one pointing a finger towards her while the other stays behind holding a ruyi, meanwhile a third lady greets two servants arriving on a rocky footbridge carrying hoes and lingzi in a basket, all amid a lush landscape laden with rockery and a variety of trees enshrouded by clouds, with the roofs of other storeyed pavilions emerging from the swirls in the distance, the border detailed with six barbed-shaped panels enclosing landscapes, reserved on eight different florets or cash-diaper grounds, the sides of the top and base decorated with lotus and chrysanthemum scrolls with profuse foliage, the apron and legs exquisitely inlaid on each side with eight different flowering or fruiting sprays, including camellias, pomegranates, pinks and gardenias, opposite daylilies, citrons, carnations and possibly roses to the west side, finger citrons, poppies, grapes and narcissus, as well as hibiscus, plums, nandinia, and peach blossoms to the south,  the east with lilies, arrowheads, asters, and five other sprays including orchids and musk mallows, the north with hydrangeas, crab apples, persimmons and chrysanthemum, peonies, more chrysanthemum, carnations and possibly camellias, the base picked out with a central flower spray surrounded by pinks, jasmine, camellias and osmanthus interspersed with hovering butterflies, all with a subtle iridescence and detailing in pink, gold or pale blue-coloured shells, the underside of the top lacquered in red and dated with an incised eight-character gilt mark; 69.5 by 32.3 by 32.3 cm., 27 3/8 by 11 3/4 by 11 3/4 in. Estimation: 10,000,000 - 15,000,000 HKD - Lot. Vendu 14,100,000 HKD

PROVENANCE: Hosokawa Family Collection.


EXHIBITED: Chugoku no Raden: Chinese mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer works, Tokyo National Museum, 19th June - 29th July 1979, pp. 136-7, cat. no. 97.
Eisei Bunko Ten [11th Eisei Bunko Museum Exhibition], Min, Shin no Bijustsu to kogeï: [works of art of Ming and Qing], Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art, 12th September - 18th October 1981, cat. no. 58.


LITTERATURE: Beatrix von Ragué, Ein Chinesischer Kaiserthron, Berlin, 1982, pl. 54.


A Resplendent Incense Stand by a Master Artist of the Kangxi Emperor’s Court
Hajni Elias

The present incense stand belongs to an exclusive group of dated imperial lacquer furniture decorated in the virtuoso technique of mother-of-pearl inlay, often with the incorporation of gold and silver foil. Commissioned under imperial patronage and the product of the Palace Workshop, these pieces are marvels of meticulous craftsmanship and represent the height of inlay decorated lacquer production under the reign of the Kangxi emperor (r.1662-1722). Inlaid and painted lacquers are amongst the finest products of the Kangxi era and it is not coincidental that the emperor is depicted seated at his favourite lacquered writing table in the court painting Portrait of Emperor Kangxi in Informal Dress at His Writing Table in the collection of the Palace Museum. The stand is of great beauty, and moreover, as this essay will argue, can be attributed to a famous artist in Kangxi’s court, Liu Yuan (c. 1642-91). At present, nine pieces, including this stand, are identified belonging to this group, all bearing an eight-character-dated Kangxi reign mark in gilt, seven of which are in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. Amongst the Palace Museum pieces, six are listed by the Japanese lacquer expert, Yasuhiro Nishioka: a pair of bookshelves dated to 1673: two stands dated to 1674 and 1676 respectively; and two further tables both dated to 1676. While all these pieces were made within a specific short time frame, between 1673-76, a third rectangular table, also from the Qing court collection and still in Beijing, can be found with a slightly later date of 1691. However, the closest comparable example to this magnificent piece is a square form incense stand richly decorated in a similar fashion with differently coloured shell, gold, silver and lead and dated to 1673, formerly in a Japanese private collection and recently sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1st June 2011, lot 3577.

The Chinese scholar, Wei Songqing (1959), describes the decoration rendered on the Palace Museum pieces to include birds, insects, fruits, flowers and figural scenes as well as the ‘dragon and cloud’ motif. He notes the fineness of the pearl inlays, and how the decorative motifs are influenced by the composition and style of contemporary paintings. He also mentions the myriad details and intricate floral and geometric patterns that occupy much of the bordering areas and surfaces.

Nishioka, 20 years after Wei’s study, undertook further research on this group of dated furniture and concludes that the pearl inlays are exceptionally fine, even thinner than paper, with the compositions realistically rendered to include a large variety of flora and fauna and geometric patterns. He suggests that all these dated pieces were made in the same workshop and are possibly by the same artist working for the imperial court.

Furniture expert, Hu Desheng, in his recent publication on Ming and Qing dynasty furniture in the Palace Museum collection notes that the dated lacquer bookshelf (1673) from this group is inlaid with over 137 varieties of patterns, with several dozen brocade motifs within a space of less than a square inch. He further explains that the variety of brocade patterns include 29 by the Qing artist. Hu also mentions that an examination of a removed inlay revealed the thickness to be less than that of a common sheet of newsprint, reflecting the remarkable skill and outstanding technique employed by its maker.


Artefacts and furnishings in China are rarely signed or dated, hence the identity of the craftsman who made the present stand remains a matter of speculation. However, there are a number of clues that strongly suggest that it is the work of the famous court artist Liu Yuan, who enjoyed Kangxi’s patronage and support for his wide-ranging talent. In fact, with the exception of the table dated to 1691 (Liu passed away in 1691), which may be the product of Liu’s school rather than the master himself, for stylistic reasons all other pieces in this group of furnishings are possibly attributable to him.


Liu, zi Ban Yuan, was a native of Xiangfu (present day Kaifeng) in Henan province. A talented painter and calligrapher from a young age, he enjoyed the patronage of Tong Pengnian, a high-ranking official who served as commissioner for the Jiangnan region. Liu made his name designing and producing the book titled Liu Yuan jinghui Lingyan Ge (Lingyan Pavilion Portraits Respectfully Painted by Liu Yuan) that was financed and published by Tong in Suzhou in 1669. This illustrated work was inspired by the group of paintings depicting 24 ministers of Emperor Taizong (r. 626-649) of the Tang dynasty. Taizong had commissioned the original work in 643 from court artist Yan Liben to commemorate his officials for their meritorious service. The paintings were hung on the walls of the Lingyan Pavilion, a small tower located in the south-west corner of the Imperial Palace compound in the capital of Chang’an (present day Xi’an).

Liu’s book played a crucial role in winning Kangxi’s recognition, as shortly after its publication, he was invited to the capital to join the Imperial Academy. Subsequently, he was promoted to the position of vice minister of the Ministry of Works (Gongbu shilan), one of the six ministries (liu bu) of the central government, where he oversaw the activities of the Imperial Palace Workshops. Liu was personally involved with the designing and creation of artefacts in a number of different media, including lacquer, ceramics and inkstones, and produced paintings and calligraphy for the court. Two inkstones signed by him are in the collection of the Palace Museum, both carved with his favourite motif of dragons and clouds.


While Liu is well known for his innovative and exceptional ceramic designs and his influence on porcelain manufacture at the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, his exceptional talent in other media, especially lacquer, is somewhat overlooked. In fact, the Qing scholar official Liu Tingji (c. 1654 - ?) in his work Zaiyuan Zazhi (Miscellaneous Notes from Zai Garden), published in 1715, records Liu’s exceptional ability in making wood and lacquer pieces. Furthermore, the Qingshi gao (Draft History of the Qing) edited by Zhao Erxun and published in 1927, specifically mentions Liu’s involvement in the production of exquisitely decorated wood and lacquer pieces, all bearing his signature designs of figures in landscape, mountains, rivers, birds and flowers. It further notes that the
beauty and accomplishment of his works surpass imperial objects of the Ming dynasty.


Liu was active in the Palace Workshop between 1662-91, a period when the dated inlay lacquer furniture pieces were made. The main composition on the present stand depicts a scene from the Daoist tale of the eight fairies crossing the sea to reach the sacred mountain of Penglai where they could harvest lingzhi fungus for curing illnesses at home. Four of the fairies are shown here with their attendants, one of which is holding a basket filled with the precious lingzhi . Stands of this type were usually made in pairs, hence the decoration on the other stand would have completed the scene from the story. Liu’s stylistic influence is evident from the drawing of the clouds seen on the top and left-hand corner of the composition. They match the cloud motif depicted on the drawings from his Lingyan Pavilion portraits. Other noticeable similarities are the depiction of flowers and butterflies that closely compare to those in his book as well as the decoration painted on ceramics bowls and dishes designed by Liu. For example, see the leafy flowering sprays of camellia on one of his signature bowls, or the floral sprigs on the cavetto of a large yellow-ground charger. 

This incense stand is remarkable for many reasons. It reflects the accomplishment of one of China’s most talented artists, Liu Yuan, and shows the remarkable range of skills he possessed. The stand is also of historical importance, as furnishings are seldom dated and, even more rarely, attributable to a documented artist. For those who enjoy the beauty of inlay lacquer, this stand represents the richness and zenith of a remarkable art form that has an extensive history dating as far back as the Shang and Zhou periods (second and first millennium BC) in China.

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