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Lot 138. A Magnificent and Extremely Rare Large Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Dish, Late Yuan-Early Ming Dynasty, 44.5cm. Est. £400,000-600,000 / HK$3,860,000-5,790,000. Lot sold 1,568,750 GBP. Photo: Sotheby's

LONDON.- Following an outstanding year in Chinese art, Sotheby’s Important Chinese Art auction in London on 10 May 2017 showcases a selection of notable Chinese ceramics and works of art across the disciplines of imperial porcelain, lacquer, jade and Buddhist sculpture. Skilfully crafted and spanning China's long and rich history, they offer a glimpse into the evolving tastes of both the imperial court of China and international markets. Leading the sale is an exceptionally rare and large carved cinnabar lacquer dish from the late Yuan/early Ming period. Featured in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition ‘The Arts of the Ming Dynasty’ in 1957, the dish also boasts an enviable provenance, having been owned by a series of distinguished collectors including Sir Percival and Lady David and Percy D. Krolik. The auction is preceded by Menagerie, a delightful English private collection of animals, birds and sea creatures carved and modelled from a variety of materials, including jade and bronze. Comprising 100 lots, each brimming with auspicious associations and reflective of Chinese culture through the ages, this sale is highlighted by an exquisite white jade carving of two boys clambering playfully on an elephant to symbolise happiness and good fortune. 

SALE HIGHLIGHTS 

Important Chinese Art 10 May, 2pm 

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Lot 138. A Magnificent and Extremely Rare Large Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Dish, Late Yuan-Early Ming Dynasty, 44.5cm. Est. £400,000-600,000 / HK$3,860,000-5,790,000. Lot sold 1,568,750 GBP. Photo: Sotheby's.

of circular form, the shallow rounded sides resting on a short foot, the interior superbly carved in deep relief through the thick red lacquer with a design of flowering branches of peony to the centre, surrounded by chrysanthemum, prunus, another blossoming fruit tree, camellia, another kind of peony, prunus, pomegranate, viburnum or hydrangea, gardenia and lotus accompanied by arrow-head, blade-like leaves of wild rice and three-petalled blooms of big floating heard, each plant carefully picked out with incised details, all reserved on a yellow ground, the underside similarly carved, the base lacquered in dark brown, incised Zhang Cheng mark

Provenance: Collection of Sir Percival (1892-1964) and Lady David.
Sotheby’s London, 29th May 1962, lot 173 (£650).
Bluett & Sons Ltd., London.
Collection of Percy D. Krolik.
Sotheby’s London, 24th February 1970, lot 77 (£1900).
Spink & Son, London.
Collection of L.A Basmadjieff.
Sotheby’s London, 14th March 1972, lot 36 (£1600).

ExhibitedThe Arts of the Ming Dynasty, Oriental Ceramic Society, London, 1957, cat. no. 227.

Literature: Fritz Low-Beer, ‘Lacquer of the Ming Dynasty’, Oriental Art, vol. IV, no. 1, Spring 1958, p. 13, fig. 1.
B. J. St. M. Morgan, ‘Carved Lacquer in the Krolik Collection’, Oriental Art, vol. XIII, no. 4, Winter 1967, p. 251, fig. 1. 

An Eye for Quality: An Extraordinary Lacquer Dish from the Collection of Sir Percival David
Regina Krahl

This dish represents one of the finest examples from the period when lacquer carving in China experienced its absolute peak. The sensitive, naturalistic rendering of the flowers, the complexity and yet harmony of the luxuriant interwoven flower design, the impeccable craftsmanship of the carving, and of course the monumental dimensions of this piece are hard to surpass. The century or so from the late Yuan (1279-1368) to the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644) witnessed the evolution of the art of carved lacquer ware in south China from a decorative craft to a branch of imperially produced artefacts of the highest order, in parallel to a similar development of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. The escalation of skills at the respective workshops allowed the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424) to exploit both porcelain and lacquer ware as a means of diplomatic exchange. Lacquer ware of this period is, however, infinitely rarer than contemporary porcelain, because its laborious manufacturing process does not lend itself to series production, but is dependent on the ability of individual craftsmen. We therefore know the names of some lacquer carvers from that period, even though it remains difficult to attribute works to their hands.

Like with porcelain, it was in the Yuan dynasty that dishes of such massive size began to be created, and they continued to be produced to imperial order until the Xuande reign (1426-1435), but thereafter monumental works of this kind were practically abandoned. Equally, the superb thick lacquer layer assembled for this dish from numerous individual coatings was only rarely recreated in later periods. The soft, well-polished finish and the smooth, rounded outlines of the various motifs are also characteristic of the wares created at that time; the exuberance and complexity of the present design, however, are exceptional. About a dozen different plants with carefully matched blooms and leaves are most intricately interlaced, with stems passing under and over leaves, sometimes with three elements superimposed upon one another, the whole carefully laid out and neatly filling all available space while still revealing yellow ground throughout – all contributing to evoke a lush garden in bloom.

On the base, the present dish bears the needle-engraved signature Zhang Cheng zao (‘made by Zhang Cheng’). Zhang Cheng is known from the Gegu yaolun [The Essential Criteria of Antiquities] by Cao Zhao of 1388, where he and Yang Mao, both of Xitang in Jiaxing district, Zhejiang province, southwest of modern Shanghai, are mentioned as carvers of red lacquer who became famous at end of the Yuan dynasty (Sir Percival David 1971, p.146 and p. 303, fig. 42a). While a number of fine pieces with their respective signatures are preserved, Yang Mao, according to Wang Shixiang “does not seem to measure up to Zhang in craftsmanship” (Wang 1987, p. 18). Unfortunately, even the Gegu yaolun already talks of imitations, and Zhang Cheng inscriptions were certainly also added to later works; therefore scholars so far have been reluctant to attribute any pieces directly to his hand or even to try to identify his style.

One of the few lacquer pieces repeatedly published as being carved by Zhang Cheng is a small dish with gardenia design from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Hong Kong, 2006, pl. 3; and a box and cover with Zhang Cheng signature and a further inscription in pagspa, the Yuan official script, and thus firmly attributed to the Yuan dynasty, was included in the exhibition Two Thousand Years of Chinese Lacquer, The Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong and the Art Gallery, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1993, cat. no. 34.

Although Zhang Cheng is generally regarded as a Yuan dynasty craftsman, he most likely lived well into the Hongwu (1368-1398) and perhaps even the early Yongle period. The local gazetteer of Jiaxing of 1685 states that when the Yongle Emperor heard of his work, he summoned him to the court, but by that time Zhang Cheng was already dead. His son Zhang Degang, who had followed him in business, thus answered the call to the capital in place of his father, in order to take up the post himself. He was made Vice Director of the Yingshansuo, an office that formed part of the Ministry of Works [Gongbu], and according to Jessica Harrison-Hall, the Guoyuanchang [Orchard Factory], the imperial lacquer factory that began production after the move of the capital to Beijing, was established with Zhang Degang as its head; it is this factory that among other masterpieces produced the famous Xuande-marked lacquer table preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Clunas and Harrison-Hall 2014, p. 107).

It therefore seems that Zhang Cheng’s activity as one of China’s foremost lacquer craftsmen extended well beyond the late Yuan dynasty, and that his son continued his style well into the Yongle or even the Xuande period. Such continuity would explain the unbroken stylistic development of carved lacquer ware from the late Yuan to the early Ming dynasty, as well as our difficulties in dating these fine lacquer wares with greater precision. It this context, it may be significant that Zhang Cheng inscriptions and imperial reign marks of the Yongle (1403-1424) and Xuande (1426-1435) periods can be found on similar or identical pieces – as is the case with the present design: An even larger dish carved with the same pattern and in the same style as the present piece, but inscribed with both these reign marks, is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (fig. 1, see below).

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Lacquer dish with flowers, Xuande mark and period (1426-1435), Ashmolean Museum: Purchased, 1981 (EA1981.9). © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Whereas the Yongle carved lacquer style seems more firmly identified through pieces with reign marks, little is known about lacquer workshops in the Hongwu period, and a Hongwu attribution of lacquer wares is still extremely rare, even though the Gegu yaolun, which was composed in the Hongwu reign, devotes a complete section to this medium. The existence of a high-class production of imperial quality already at this period is suggested by an important Ming document recording gifts from the court of the Yongle Emperor to the Ashikaga Shogun of Japan, starting right in the first year of the Yongle reign and continuing at least until 1407. It records a total of 203 pieces of carved red lacquer to have been presented to the Japanese ruler, of which the most important gift of fifty-eight pieces in 1403 was described well enough to allow for identification of some types.

Given the time-consuming process of building up a thick enough layer of lacquer by adding and preparing multiple thin coatings, each of which needs to dry before it can be polished and the next one applied, and finally carving the design into it – a process that can stretch over years – it is considered improbable that those pieces could have been completed within the first year of the reign. It equally seems unlikely that such work could have been done in the unruly times of the short Jianwen period (1399-1402), particularly as the Emperor is known to have ordered all work that was not vital to be stopped. The types of lacquer included in the first list of gifts to Japan in 1403, which can be identified, thus ought to be of Hongwu date.

In line with these considerations, Lee King-tsi and Hu Shih-chang have proposed some distinguishing features between Hongwu and Yongle carved lacquers and have tried to identify Hongwu pieces (Lee & Hu 2001 and 2005-6). They have also studied the various lacquer pieces inscribed with a finely carved and gilded Xuande reign mark over a partly effaced, thinly scratched Yongle mark. They have identified over thirty such pieces, and have ascribed nine pieces with Yongle and/or Xuande reign marks to the Hongwu period, including the Ashmolean dish (fig. 1) and even the V&A lacquer table. They suggest, for example, that flower-decorated pieces of the Hongwu reign characteristically show mixed seasonal flowers, while those of the Yongle period tend to show only a single flower. Dishes with a combination of flowers such as seen here are in fact extremely rare.

Lee and Hu propose that on lacquer, Yongle marks were not added at the workshops, but later in the reign, after the pieces had been moved from Nanjing to the new capital, Beijing. This would explain why pieces from the Hongwu reign could also bear a Yongle reign mark, why the calligraphy is less accomplished than one would expect from an imperial workshop, and why the thin needle engraving follows that of the Zhang Cheng marks. The exact reason why some Yongle-marked items are also inscribed with a Xuande reign mark is still unresolved. It is possible that new lacquer pieces could simply not be provided quickly enough, when the new emperor ascended the throne, so that existing ones were re-attributed.

While Yuan wares generally feature a bolder, somewhat rougher style, and dishes usually have a grooved rim and a guri (tixi) design around the outside, Yongle pieces tend to display the more quiet, homogeneous perfection demanded of imperial wares, whether for use at court or as diplomatic gifts to foreign rulers. The present dish displays a more controlled and assured manner of execution than most Yuan pieces, yet evokes a more lively sense of movement in the arrangement of its flowers than typical Yongle carvings. It would therefore seem to fit best in between, and may also have to be placed into the Hongwu reign. Although it can of course not be proven that the present dish was made by Zhang Cheng, its exceptional quality, its general style, and the way the signature is inscribed certainly give no reason to dispute such an attribution.  

Only one companion piece, of the same design and similar size as the present dish, but perhaps uninscribed, appears to be recorded, probably in a Japanese private collection and included in the exhibition Tōyō no shikkōgei/Oriental Lacquer Arts, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1977, cat. no. 513; the only other dish of this design that appears to be preserved, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from the Beurdeley collection, of even larger size and inscribed with a Xuande superimposed over a Yongle reign mark, was offered in these rooms 15th July 1980, lot 211, and included in the exhibition Ming. Fifty Years that Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014, catalogue fig. 87 (fig. 1), where a Hongwu date was put forward as the most probable.

Stylistically related lacquer wares include, for example, two smaller dishes carved with layered designs of peonies and camellias, respectively, both attributed to the Yongle period, included in The Complete Collection of Treasuresop.cit., pls 20 and 21; carved lacquer pieces of comparable size include a box and cover attributed to the Yuan dynasty, a dish attributed to the Yongle period, another box of the Xuande reign, and a box cover attributed to the early Ming dynasty, ibid., pls 6, 17, 57 and 64, all from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing.

The present dish has now returned to Sotheby’s London for the fourth time in over half a century. It has a most illustrious history, having successively formed part of three important collections, including that of Sir Percival and Lady David. Sir Percival, whose uncanny eye for quality is impressively documented in his collection of Chinese ceramics, now in the British Museum, was in this case, too, ahead of his time. Having generally been drawn to pieces with inscriptions, he was probably intrigued by the signature on this clearly exceptional piece, although at the time early carved lacquer was still much of a mystery.

When the dish was included in the Oriental Ceramic Society’s Ming exhibition sixty years ago, Fritz Low-Beer, one of the greatest lacquer connoisseurs and collectors of the time, wrote in his review of the exhibition (Low-Beer, op.cit., p. 12), “We owe thanks to the organizers who collected fifty-five lacquer objects for the O.C.S. exhibition, The Arts of the Ming Dynasty. Never before has Ming lacquer been so prominently displayed in Britain. Interest in this branch of Chinese art began only a few years ago and our knowledge remains scanty. We do not possess any significant examples of Ming lacquer which we might attribute with absolute certainty even to the entire period, not to mention to any of its reigns.” In the exhibition, none of the lacquer pieces were dated in the catalogue entries, but the present dish formed part of the “1st group” of lacquers characterized as “Deeply carved in fourteenth-fifteenth century style” and “all attributed to this early period”, a daring proposition at the time. While illustrating the present dish in his review together with only three other pieces, Low-Beer nevertheless felt obliged to state “I have no definite opinion as to when and where this interesting dish was made.”

Percy D. Krolik had assembled an important collection of Chinese decorative arts, partly sold at Sotheby’s London in 1970, including a group of cloisonné wares that was described by Edgar Bluett in Oriental Art, Winter 1965, and some archaic jades, today in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Luben Alexandrov Basmadjieff, of Bulgarian origin, owned some important early Ming blue-and-white porcelains that were sold at Sotheby’s London in 1972.

Short Bibliography: Sir Percival David, Chinese Connoisseurship: The Ko Ku Yao Lun: The Essential Criteria of Antiquities, London, 1971.
Harry M. Garner, ‘The Export of Chinese Lacquer to Japan in the Yüan and Early Ming Dynasties’, Archives of Asian Art, vol. 25, 1971/2, pp. 6-28.
Wang Shixiang, Ancient Chinese Lacquerware, Beijing, 1987.
Lee King-tsi and Hu Shih-chang, ‘Inscriptions on Ming Lacquer’, Bulletin of the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong, no. 10, 1992-3, pp. 28-34; reprinted in Layered Beauty. The Baoyizhai Collection of Chinese Lacquer, Art Museum, Institute of Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2010, pp. 191-200.
Li Jiufang, ‘Carved red lacquer ware and red ware by Shi Dabin, Ming Dynasty’, Palace Museum Journal, no. 4, 1997.
Lee King-tsi and Hu Shih-chang, ‘Carved Lacquer of the Hongwu Period’, Oriental Art, vol. XLVII, no. 1, 2001, pp. 10-20, reprinted in Layered Beauty, op.cit., 2010, pp. 171-82.
Lee King-tsi and Hu Shih-chang, ‘Further Observations on Carved Lacquer of the Hongwu Period’, Oriental Art, vol. LV, no. 3, 2005-6, pp. 41-7; reprinted in Layered Beauty, op.cit., pp. 183-90.
Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, eds, Ming. Fifty Years that Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014.

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Lot 124. An Extremely Rare Copper-Red Dish, Xuande Mark and Period 17.5cm Est. £300,000-400,000 / HK$2,900,000-3,860,000; Photo: Sotheby's.

The beautiful, rich red glaze of this dish cannot be better described than with the term ‘crushed strawberries’. Monochrome copper-red glazes were perfected during the Yongle (1403-1424) and Xuande (1426-1435) reigns, but the large number of discarded sherds at the Jingdezhen kiln sites impressively highlights the difficulties experienced by even the highly accomplished imperial potters of that time to achieve satisfactory results. After the Xuande reign, the copper pigment was therefore almost completely abandoned until it was revived on a grand scale, but never again to similarly striking results. This piece marks the pinnacle of Chinese copper-red porcelain production. 

(Cf. my post An extremely rare copper-red dish, Xuande mark and period (1426-1435)

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Lot 125. A Pair of Fine and Rare Imperial Yellow-Glazed Dishes, Zhengde Marks and Period, 15.3cm. Est. £50,000-70,000 / HK$483,000-675,000. Photo: Sotheby's. 

This pair of dishes is striking for their rich yellow glaze, a colour that was strictly reserved for wares for the imperial court. This ‘imperial yellow’ glaze was produced at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen throughout the Ming dynasty and was achieved by adding ferric oxide (3.5 %) to the lead silicate base, making this glaze a direct descendant of the yellow lead glazes of the Tang dynasty. Deceptively simple in form and colour, light-coloured monochrome porcelains required the highest level of skill and precision in the purity of the clay, potting, glazing and firing. Due to the minimalist nature of the pieces, where form and glaze worked together in perfect harmony, the slightest irregularity would result in their rejection and destruction. 

(Cf. my post A pair of fine and rare imperial yellow-glazed dishes, Zhengde marks and period (1506-1521)

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Lot 137. A White Jade Ruyi Sceptre, Qing Dynasty, 18th-19th Century, 35 cm. Est. £40,000-60,000 / HK$386,000-580,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

the large ruyi-shaped terminal carved in relief with two bats flanking a central shou character below a hanging jade stone and wan, the slender elegantly arched shaft carved with scrolled geometric motifs near the terminal, pierced at the end for threading a tassel, the translucent stone of an even white to pale celadon tone with icy-white inclusions.

NoteFinely finished to a smooth and highly tactile polish, this piece is notable for the delicate low-relief decoration that is limited to the ruyi-head and shaft-end. Such restrained decoration draws attention to and enhances the quality and translucency of the stone. Ruyi sceptres were rarely made in jade prior to the 18th century given the scarcity of large boulders, and only became available in larger quantities after the Western campaigns, which subjugated the Dzungars and secured control over the area of Khotan and Yarkand, in present day Xinjiang. Jade boulders from these areas were brought to the court, where the best specimens were selected to be carved by artisans working in the Palace Workshop, in the jade workshops of Suzhou or in those belonging to the Huai and Changlu administrations.

A white jade ruyi sceptre similarly carved on the head with bats and a shou character in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was included in the Museum’s exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Ju-I Sceptres in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1974, cat. no. 4; one from the De An Tang collection, included in the exhibition A Romance with Jade, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2004, cat. no. 20, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29th May 2007, lot 1598; and a larger example, from the collections of His Highness Maharaja Sir Padma Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana and the Princess Rama Malla, was sold in these rooms, 15th May 2013, lot 5.

078L13210_6VB52_2_reshoot

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A White and Russet Jade ‘Longevity’ Ruyi sceptre, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period, from the collections of His Highness Maharaja Sir Padma Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana and the Princess Rama Malla. Sold £866,500 at Sotheby's London, 15th May 2013, lot 5. Photo: Sotheby's.

Menagerie An English Private Collection of Chinese Animal Carvings 10 May, 10.30am 

Animals have a unique place in the human consciousness and experience across cultures, geographies and history. Every culture ascribes characteristics to our fellow creatures and the Chinese culture is no exception, perhaps being one of the most thoughtful and creative in these attributions. This collection, formed in England during the last half century with an eye to the wide variety of creatures, forms and materials used to depict them, is more whimsical than philosophical, yet charmingly shows a respect for the original artistic intent mixed with an admiration of the qualities of the creatures themselves. 

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Lot 5. A White Jade ‘Elephant and Boys’ Group, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century, 11cm. Est. £40,000-60,000 / HK$386,000-580,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

finely carved standing foursquare with its furled ears and curved tusks naturalistically depicted, caparisoned with an elaborate long tasselled saddle rug woven with a shou character on each side, flanked by two playful small boys clambering on the elephant, the smoothly finished stone of an even white colour with russet inclusions.

Carved from a fine white stone of translucent and even tone, this piece is particularly attractive for the sense of movement and liveliness that is captured through the twisting turning poses of the figures and of the elephant. The craftsman has successfully captured various textures in a display of technical proficiency, such as the thick wrinkled skin of the elephant, the intricately embroidered cloth draped over its back and the smooth plump faces of the boys.

This carving is full of auspicious imagery, such as the motif of boys riding or climbing on an elephant representing the wish for good fortune, as the phrase 'ride an elephant' is close in pronunciation to 'good fortune' (jixiang). Additionally, the boy clutching a musical chime symbolises celebration. 

A closely related carving in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum,Jade, vol. 9, Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2011, pl. 136; another from the De An Tang collection, was included in the exhibition A Romance with Jade, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2004, cat. no. 90; and a third of slightly larger size, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 23rd March 1993, lot 962. See also a carving of this type but featuring only one boy, from the collection of Mr Dumas, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th October 2010, lot 2617.

A White Jade ‘Elephant and Boy’ carving, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795), 14

A White Jade ‘Elephant and Boy’ carving, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795), 14.5 cm. Sold 3,860,000 HKD at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8th October 2010, lot 2617Photo: Sotheby's.

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Lot 12. A Fine Archaistic White Jade ‘Double Phoenix’ Plaque, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period (1736-1795), 10.5cm. Est. £15,000-20,000 / HK$145,000-193,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

the plaque finely carved and pierced, the stylised confronted crested birds with long tails, the stone of an even celadon-white colour.

The form of this plaque was inspired by jade double-bird pendants from the Eastern Zhou period (770-256 BC), such as one in the British Museum, London, illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, pl. 17:15, where the author notes that the beaked creatures depicted 'were probably derived from the strange creatures introduced to the Chinese decorative repertoire in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, perhaps from Western Asia', pp. 273-4.

While depictions of the phoenix expanded to be produced in a variety of media during the Song dynasty, the motif did not develop into an established painting genre until the Ming dynasty, when this mythological bird also acquired further symbolic associations. The phoenix began to be considered the embodiment of a just ruler or the arrival of a great man. Symbolic also of the Empress and believed to encourage male progeny, depictions of phoenixes proliferated in the Qing dynasty, often appearing together with dragons. 

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Lot 25. A White Jade Mythical Beast, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century, 8cm. Est. £20,000-30,000 / HK$193,000-290,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

the beast carved recumbent with forelegs outstretched and the bifurcated tail sweeping around either side of the hind legs, the head with large bulging eyes, raised and turned to the left, clasping a leafy lingzhi spray in its ferocious jaws, the stone of very pale celadon-white colour.

Finely carved in the round, this piece is notable for its sense of playfulness which is captured in the beast's facial expression and pose, and accentuated by its large paws and curly locks of fur. Small animal carvings of this type were highly appreciated by the literati who considered them both as utilitarian paperweights and as objects of aesthetic pleasure.

A jade mythological beast is illustrated in Thomas Fok, The Splendour of Jade. The Songzhutang Collection of Jade, Hong Kong, 2011, pl. 124; a larger example was sold in these rooms, 30th March 2005, lot 111; and another was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27th May 2008, lot 1954.

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Lot 32. A Rare Ivory ‘Qilin’ Seal, Ming Dynasty, 15th-16th Century, 7.2cm. Est. £20,000-30,000 / HK$193,000-290,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

of square form, the top of the seal incised with two parallel grooves, surmounted by a qilin crouching on its rear haunches with an upright bushy tail, its scaly body emitting flame scrolls around the limbs, the head looking forward with large bead-shaped eyes and wide flaring nostrils, the ivory patinated to a rich golden-brown colour, suffused with a network of crackles in concentric circles.

A wide range of imaginary creatures with pronounced features began to be made in stone and other durable materials in China during the Han dynasty, coinciding with an increased interest with omens and talismans believed to provide a link with the spiritual world. Jade was associated with immortality, hence it was a particularly suitable material for small carvings of supernatural creatures that were meant to be kept near the body. Mythological creatures in this collection include the qilin, described as a creature with a scaly body and one or two horns, the tail of an ox and the hooves of a horse, which later became symbolic of happiness and male progeny. 

Ivory seals of the Ming dynasty are rare and the Ming attribution of the present piece is confirmed by a related seal dated to 1418 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, from the collection of H.J. Oppenheim and now in the British Museum, London, included in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-6, cat. no. 2935. Another seal, attributed to the late Ming period, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Zhongguo meishu fenlei quanji. Zhongguo zhu mu ya jiao qi quanji, Beijing, 2009, pl. 29.

Further examples of Ming ivory seals include one from the collection of Sir Herbert and Lady Ingram of Driffield Manor, sold in our London rooms, 8th June 1993, lot 155, carved on the top with a lion; and another with a dragon in a pose similar to the present, attributed to the Wanli reign (1573-1620), from the Sir Percival and Lady David collection, included in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition The Arts of the Ming Dynasty, The Arts Council Gallery, London, 1957, cat. no. 363, sold in our London rooms, 14th December 1976, lot 206. See also a meticulously carved seal surmounted by a dragon clutching a flaming pearl, offered in our Hong Kong rooms, 4th April 2012, lot 3201. 

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Lot 43. A White Jade ‘Pig’ Plaque, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century 8.5cm Est. £5,000-8,000 / HK$48,300-77,500. Photo: Sotheby's.

of circular form with a reticulated plaque at the top, carved in low relief on one side with a pig standing foursquare, the reverse carved with one character reading hai (pig), the smoothly polished stone of an even white colour, pierced at the bottom.

The role of various animals in everyday domestic life ranged from transport, such as horses, for working the land with buffalos and rams, and as pets, such as cats. These animals were favoured for their symbolic associations that originated either from their roles, their appearance or the phonetic pronunciation of their names. 

This plaque is special for its depiction of a pig, the twelfth animal of the Chinese zodiac, and may have comprised one of a set of twelve similarly shaped plaques each depicting one of the zodiac animals. Compare a set of twelve zodiac plaques, including one of closely related shape and carved with a pig, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum. Jade, vol. 9, Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2009, pl. 258; and a set attributed to the Daoguang reign, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 17th January 1989, lot 967C.

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Lot 52. A Pale Celadon Reticulated Jade ‘Dragon’ Plaque, Ming Dynasty, Late 15th-16th Century, 10.3cm. Est. £10,000-15,000 / HK$96,500-145,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

the oval-shaped panel intricately carved in openwork of a sinuous coiling five-clawed dragon, amidst a dense background of curling stems issuing floral blooms and leaves, with finely detailed scales and mane, the stone of a pale celadon colour with inclusions.

LiteratureRoger Keverne, Jade, London, 1991, p. 142, pl. 34.

Unlike in the West where the dragon is often depicted as an evil creature, in China it is regarded as a benevolent and auspicious being. As a creature of the sky, the dragon was often depicted moving through clouds and ascending upwards through heaven; hence it became associated with attaining immortality as well as procuring rain. As a creature of the sea, the dragon was the ruler of fish and thus symbolised the Emperor and his infinite power. 

A plaque similarly carved in openwork with a five-clawed dragon, in the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, is illustrated in James C.Y. Watt, Chinese Jades from the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, 1989, pl. 51; and another was included in the Min Chiu Society's 45th anniversary exhibition Auspicious Emblems. Chinese Cultural Treasures, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 2005, cat. no. 3.

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Lot 60. A Soapstone Chilong, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century, 9.5cm. Est. £3,000-5,000 / HK$29,000-48,300. Photo: Sotheby's.

in the form of a recumbent chilong with a leonine head amid ruyi-form clouds, detailed with finely incised scales, depicted with four clambering sinuous young chilong with curling bifurcated tails, all confined within the outline of a large pebble, the stone of a pale orange-brown colour with variegated cinnabar-red tones.

A variety of dragons were developed from the original concept of the celestial dragon including the Spiritual Dragon, shenlong, associated with wind and rain, the Dragon of Hidden Treasures, fucanglong, the Winged Dragon, yinglong, and the Hornless Dragon, chilong

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Lot 81. A Large Celadon Jade ‘Lion and Cub’ Group, 17th-18th Century, 15.2cm. Est. £20,000-30,000 / HK$193,000-290,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

the recumbent beast with head raised clutching a ribbon-tied ball in its jaws, its two cubs playing around its back and large bushy tail, the stone of pale celadon colour with light caramel inclusions around the mane and back of the body.

ProvenanceSotheby's London, 2nd May 1985, lot 235.

Among the animals associated with Buddhism, the lion is one of the most commonly portrayed. Lions were not indigenous to China, but were imported as exotic gifts for the Han (206 BC- AD 220) and Tang (618-907) courts. The symbolism associated with the lion developed with the introduction and spread of Buddhism in China after the fall of the Han dynasty.

Fashioned from a pebble of considerable large size, the carver of this piece has captured a sense of movement and liveliness in the rendering of the two cubs crawling on the back of the lion, who turns its head backward to look at them. Carvings of animals with their young grew in popularity during the Yuan and Ming dynasty and continued to be made in the Qing period.

A similar carving was included in the exhibition The Woolf Collection of Chinese Jade, Sotheby's, London, 2013, cat. no. 117; another attributed to the Ming dynasty, from the collection of Gerard Godfrey, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 30th October 1995, lot 877; and a smaller example was sold in these rooms, 7th December 1993, lot 93. Compare also a carving of a lion and a single cub, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Chinese Jades Throughout the Ages, vol. 12, Hong Kong, 1997, pl. 54; another in the Michael S.L. Liu collection, included in the exhibition Virtuous Treasures: Chinese Jades for the Scholar’s Table, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong KongHong Kong, 2008, cat. no. 104; and a third from the collection of The Hon. Edgar Bromberger, sold in our New York rooms, 12th September 2012, lot 360.