A very rare tianbai-glazed anhua-decorated vase, meiping, Yongle period (1403-1424). Photo Christie's Image Ltd 2014

The vase is elegantly potted with high rounded shoulders supported on a gently flaring foot encircling the recessed base. It is finely incised on the body with a broad frieze of leafy lotus scroll bearing four large blossoms with four smaller flowers above and below, between four fruiting branches of pomegranate, persimmon, peach and lychee around the shoulders and four flower sprays above the foot. It is covered with a fine 'sweet white' glaze that continues over the mouth rim, the base and bottom of the foot left unglazed revealing the fine white body. 11 1/4 in. (28.5 cm.) high, Japanese wood box. Estimate
HK$8,000,000 – HK$12,000,000 ($1,036,582 - $1,554,872). Unsold

Provenance: A European private collection
Sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 5 November 1997, lot 1368

Exhibited: Chang Foundation, Taipei, Chinese Art from the Ching Wan Society Collections, 1998, Catalogue, no. 5

NotesThis particularly rare and elegant white-glazed meiping dates to the Yongle reign (AD 1403-25). Such was the Yongle Emperor's admiration of white porcelain that excavations at the site of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen suggest that more than 90 of the porcelains made there during his reign appear to have been white wares. It was during the Yongle reign that the famous tianbai or 'sweet white' glaze, seen on the current vase, was developed. This glaze has been admired by connoisseurs ever since for its soft, jade-like, appearance, which so perfectly complements the skilful potting and pure white porcelain body characteristic of this period.

The tianbai glaze has virtually none of the bluish or greenish tinge, which was seen on the earlier qingbai and Shufu glazes made at Jingdezhen in the Song and Yuan dynasties. It was made almost entirely from glaze stone with little or no glaze ash. The glaze was lower in calcium oxide than earlier white glazes, and was higher in potassium oxide. The body of tianbai wares had a higher proportion of aluminium oxide than previous Jingdezhen porcelains and required a higher firing temperature. The result of these changes in composition and firing was a whiter body covered with a purer white glaze than had previously been achieved. The texture of the glaze was also different to that of previous Jingdezhen white wares. The glaze had a silky, unctuous texture, with none of the glassiness seen on qingbai wares. The glaze contained many tiny bubbles, densely distributed in the glaze, which scattered the light as it passed through, imparting an almost jade-like quality. The tiny bubbles which burst on the surface of the glaze also created tiny pin-prick holes, and gave the surface its subtle, characteristic, 'orange-peel' effect.

Very few early 15th century vases of this 'sweet white' type have survived. A larger meiping (33.0 cm. high) was excavated in 1983 from the early Yongle stratum at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, illustrated in Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, pp. 264-5, no. 101. The early Yongle excavated 'sweet white' meiping is undecorated, however, the current vase is subtly enhanced with anhua or secret decoration. Such decoration is almost invisible from a distance, but was intended to be appreciated only by those fortunate enough to examine the piece at close quarters.

The anhua decoration on the current vase is divided into three horizontal bands, with a lotus scroll on the central band gracing most of the surface, between a minor band of fruiting sprays on the shoulders and a band of four floral sprigs encircling the base. Such stylistic arrangement is typical on meiping of this period, though variations in motifs exist. Four similar meiping bearing the current design are preserved in the Ardebil Shrine collection, see Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, 1956, nos. 29.719-722, one of them illustrated, pl. 115, together with its blue and white counterpart, no. 29.409, pl. 51; and another example was sold at Sotheby's London, 13 November 2002, lot 104, then at Christie's Hong Kong, 20 May 2007, lot 1481.

Compare to a second type of design depicting a lotus scroll as the central band, between a leafy scroll on the shoulders and above six lotus sprays encircling the foot, such as an example in the National Palace Museum, illustrated inPorcelain of the National Palace Museum - Monochrome Ware of the Ming Dynasty, Book 1, Hong Kong, 1968, p. 34, pls. 1a-d; another in the Palace Museum, illustrated in Monochrome Porcelain, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 108, no. 99; and a third in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, illustrated inOriental Ceramics, The World's Great Collecitons, vol. 10, Tokyo/New York/San Francisco, 1980, no. 76.

Compare also to a taller anhua-decorated meiping (32.4 cm.) incised with a broad frieze of peony scroll between a band of classic scroll below and ruyi-lappet collar filled with lotus sprays on the shoulder above, sold at Christie's New York, 17 September 2008, lot 245

Christie's. THROUGH CONNOISSEURS' EYES - WORKS OF ART FOR THE EMPEROR, 28 May 2014, Hong Kong - http://www.christies.com/