A rare 'Horse and Groom' rhinoceros horn libation cup, Qing dynasty, 18th century. Photo: Sotheby's

superbly carved in openwork and deep relief with a herd of horses in the pasture, one side with three horses standing amid a variety of trees including wutong, willow and pine, watched by two grooms standing behind a rocky outcrop forming the handle, the reverse with two further horses standing behind rocks while another rolls on its back near the base, all below jagged cliffs and a rising moon in the distance, the interior similarly carved in openwork with a gnarled pine branch issuing from the rocky crags, the horn richly patinated to a deep chestnut colour; width 17.1 cm., 6 3/4  in. Estimation 2,000,000 -3,000,000 HKD - Lot. Vendu 4,600,000 HKD

Provenance: Collection of Edward T. Chow.
The beautifully carved decoration on this cup depicts a scene that is visually pleasing and at the same time conveys an important message. The tradition of depicting horses showing their beauty, strength and freedom in motion and to celebrate their spirit and nobility is evident in this piece.  Traditionally, horses have been associated with official aspirations and carefree horses were symbols of officials free from their daily duties and routine. This depiction of the horse may also suggest an honest scholar-official who has not compromised his integrity for political or financial gain. The carving may have been inspired by the famous painting by Zhao Mengfu titled Horse and Groom in the Wind, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and illustrated in James Cahill, Hills Beyond a River, New York and Tokyo, 1976, pl. 8. The theme of grooms attending to horses was especially popular, and appears as early as the Song dynasty. See the famous  work by Li Gonglin titled Five Horses and Grooms publishedibid., pl. 88.

While rhinoceros horn cups carved with horses remain rare, a fine example decorated with the motif of Muwang bajuntu (Picture of the Eight Stallions of Emperor Wuwang), from the collection of Thomas Fok, is illustrated in Thomas Fok, Connoisseurship of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 168, where it is noted that the piece is an unusual example of its kind. Another cup depicting grazing horses by a river bank and signed by the master carver You Kan (1660-1720), was sold in our New York rooms, 19th March 2007, lot 374; and a third cup with the horse motif, in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, is published in Jan Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pl. 238. Compare also a cup finely carved with two horses within a lush river landscape, from the collection of Kenyon V. Painter, Cleveland, sold in our New York rooms, 18th September 2007, lot 10; and a further cup with a single large horse with its head lowered towards a scholar and drinking from a stream, sold at Christie’s London, 8th November 2011, lot 12.

Sotheby's. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art. Hong Kong | 08 Oct 2013