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Lot 120. The Skinner Moonflasks. An exceptionally rare pair of Imperial blue and white 'Bajixiang' moonflasks, bianhu, Qianlong seal marks and of the period (1736-1795). Estimate HK$ 20,000,000 - 30,000,000 (€2,300,000 - 3,500,000). Photo: Bonhams.

Each of flattened globular form rising from a short spreading foot to a cylindrical neck flanked by S-shaped moulded foliate handles, the body boldly painted on each main side in vivid shades of cobalt blue simulating the 'heaped and piled' effect, with a raised central boss decorated with a stylised flowerhead encircled by a key-fret border and lotus petal panels, all encircled by radiating lotus lappets enclosing the Eight Buddhist Emblems, bajixiang, within a key-fret border, the neck and foot painted with lingzhi fungus foliate scrolls, the sides decorated with bands of leafy scrolls issuing lotus blossoms, the base with a six-character zhuanshu seal mark, hardwood stands, fitted boxes. Each 49cm (19 1/4in) high (6).

ProvenanceWilliam Skinner Family, Wistariahurst, Holyoke, Massachusetts 
William Cobbett Skinner (1857-1947) and Ruth Isabel (Belle) Skinner (1866-1928) Katharine Skinner Kilborne (1873-1968) 
Belle Skinner Kilborne Taylor (1926-2016) 

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The moonflasks at the Great Hall of the Skinner family home at Wistariahurst, on display either side of the fireplace, beneath portraits of William Skinner and his wife, circa 1930.

NoteImposing blue and white bajixiang moonflasks, Qianlong seal marks and of the period, such as the present lot, are rare and it is exceptional to find a surviving pair. 

 Single moonflasks of this impressive size can be found in important museum collections; see Porcelain of the National Palace Museum: Blue-and-White Ware of the Ch'ing Dynasty, vol.II, Hong Kong, 1968, pp.50-51, pls.15 and 15a-c (measuring 49.3cm high); another from the Qing Court collection is illustrated in The Prime Cultural Relics Collected by Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum: The Chinaware Volume I, Shenyang, 2007, pl.35 (measuring 49.5cm high); a further moonflask in the Nanjing Museum, is illustrated in Treasures in the Royalty: The Official Kiln Porcelain of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Shanghai, 2003, p.295 (measuring 50cm high); another similar moonflask is illustrated in Studies of the Collections of the National Museum of China, Shanghai, 2007, pl.83 (measuring 49.2cm high); a further example is published in Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, pl.949 (measuring 49.2cm high); and another is illustrated in The Tsui Museum of Art: Chinese Ceramics IV Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 1995, pl.75 (measuring 49.6cm high). 

Similar moonflasks were also produced in a smaller size measuring approximately 34.5cm high, such as the one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated by N.Berliner, The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, New Haven, 2010, pl.66; and see also a further large moonflask, Qianlong seal mark and period, with similar design but with the motifs on the front and reverse of the body carved and under a celadon glaze, also around the rims, illustrated in The Tsui Museum of Art: Chinese Ceramics IV Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 1995, pl.87 (measuring 48cm high).  

The shape of the moonflasks is inspired by early Ming dynasty blue and white flasks, which in turn were inspired by early Islamic metal prototypes; see J.A.Pope, 'An Early Ming Porcelain in Muslim Style', in R.Ettinghausen, ed., Aus der Welt der Islamischen Kunst: Festschrift für Ernst Kühnel, Berlin, 1959, pp.357-375. In decoration these imposing moonflasks were also inspired by early Ming dynasty blue and white wares, as exemplified in a blue and white basin, Yongle, from the Avery Brundage collection in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, painted to the interior with a similar design of eight petals enclosing the Buddhist Emblems radiating from a central medallion enclosing a double-vajra. In the Qianlong moonflask, the master potters interpreted the double-vajra to depict a flowerhead and altered the order of the Emblems; see He Li, Chinese Ceramics, San Francisco, 1996, pl.398; and see also the interpretation of the central boss and overall form, related to the Yongle period blue and white flasks, which were flattened on one side, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), Shanghai, 2010, pls.34-37. More directly, the Qianlong period moonflasks were produced after Yongzheng period ones, such as the one in the Qing Court collection, in the Palace Museum, Beijing (museum no.GU00156642).  

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Blue and white Buddhist ablution basin with Eight Treasures, dynasty (1368-1644), Reign of the Yongle Emperor (1403-1424), The Avery Brundage collection, B60P33+, Asian Art Museum of San FranciscoImage courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

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Image courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing

Blue and white ‘bajixiang’ moonflask, Qianlong seal mark and period, 50cm high; Image courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing

Image courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing

Blue and white ‘bajixiang’ moonflask, Qianlong seal mark and period, 34

Image courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing

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Image courtesy of the Shenyang Palace Museum, Shenyang.

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After The Tsui Museum of Art: Chinese Ceramics IV Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 1995, pl.75.

The moonflasks would have graced one of the Imperial halls, conveying a threefold message: in taking its inspiration from early Ming dynasty vessels - the status of the Qing dynasty and its Mandate of Heaven to rule in continuation of the Ming dynasty; in depicting the bajixiang - the Buddhist devoutness of the emperor and auspicious wishes symbolised by the Emblems; and in their imposing size, the skill of the master potters to successfully produce such large vessels in porcelain and therefore the prosperity and prowess achieved at the height of the Qianlong reign.  

Only one other pair of blue and white bajixiang moonflasks, Qianlong seal marks and of the period, appears to have been sold at auction, see Sotheby's London, 15 May 2013, lot 222; a single similar moonflask, Qianlong seal mark and period, was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8 April 2011, lot 3123; and another single similar moonflask, Qianlong seal mark and period, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 1 December 2010, lot 2826. 

A rare pair of blue and white ‘bajixiang’ moonflasks, Qianlong seal marks and period

A rare pair of blue and white ‘Bajixiang’ moonflasks, Qianlong seal marks and period. Sold sold 2,378,500 GBP at Sotheby's London, 15 May 2013, lot 222. Photo: Sotheby's

A Superb Blue And White 'Bajixiang' Moonflask, Seal Mark And Period of Qianlong

A Superb Blue And White 'Bajixiang' Moonflask, Seal Mark And Period of Qianlong. Sold 17,460,000 HKD (2,238,462 USD) to an Asian Trade at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8 April 2011, lot 3123. Photo Sotheby's

A fine Ming-style blue and white moonflask, Qianlong six-character sealmark and of the period (1736-1795) 

A fine Ming-style blue and white moonflask, Qianlong six-character sealmark and of the period (1736-1795). Price realised HKD 18,580,000 (USD 2,402,400) at Christie's Hong Kong, 1 December 2010, lot 2826. © Christie's Images Ltd 2010

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NEW RESEARCH: THE BLUE AND WHITE ‘BAJIXIANG’ MOONFLASKS, QIANLONG SEAL MARK AND OF THE PERIOD, IN THE QING COURT COLLECTION AT THE PALACE MUSEUM, BEIJING
Huang Weiwen
Senior Researcher, Department Of Ceramics, Palace Museum, Beijing.

 

The Palace Museum (Beijing Gugong) was established on 10 October 1925 in Beijing’s former ‘Forbidden City’, the Imperial Court location unchanged throughout both the Ming and Qing dynasties. The collection in the Palace Museum currently comprises some 1,800,000 cultural relics, most of which are well documented and are known collectively as the ‘Qing Court Collection’.1 The Palace Museum, Beijing also includes collections from other Qing dynasty Imperial Palaces, including the Summer Palace, the Chengde Summer Retreat, and the Mukden Palace complex (now known as the ‘Shenyang Palace Museum’). The Qing Court collection houses a very wide variety of objects, mostly of superb quality; they not only allow us to visualise the daily lifestyle at the Imperial Court, but also help us to understand the aesthetic taste of the Imperial family.

During the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795), the economy flourished, and therefore the dynasty was prosperous. The enormous Imperial revenues became the financial backbone of the extravagant lifestyle at the Imperial Court. Owing to the huge Imperial demand for porcelain pieces to be used as Palace furnishings, for religious ceremonies, and as gifts, Imperial porcelain designs which were approved and particularly admired by the emperor were specifically produced at the kilns in Jingdezhen under a successive number of very capable Court-appointed supervisors, including Tang Ying. Under stringent supervision, requiring the potters, painters and enamellers to use the best-quality raw materials regardless of cost, large numbers of extravagant and unique Imperial porcelain pieces were produced. A wide range of Imperial porcelains commissioned and created during the Qianlong period is still housed in the Palace Museum, including both fanggu and new innovative designs in various shapes, exhibiting virtuoso skills in both the potting and in the lavish decoration. At this time, porcelain production reached its all-time zenith in China. These Imperially-commissioned masterpieces reflected both the emperor’s personal taste, his high regard for the finest porcelains; and the essential concomitant that the emperor had himself directly intervened in the production of Imperial porcelain.

The Qianlong emperor treated the official requirements of running his government just as seriously as forming his collection of Chinese art. Among all the art categories on which the Qianlong emperor focussed his connoisseurship, porcelain was the most highly favoured. Not only did he set out to collect finest-quality ceramics of the Song and Ming dynasties, but he also ordered the Imperial kilns to  reproduce them. Ever since he had come to power, the ianlong emperor had devoted himself to the study of porcelain as a form of craftsmanship, noting carefully the achievements in the previous dynasties by the Courtappointed Jingdezhen-kilns supervisor Tang Ying, and inheriting the old Imperial tradition re-established by his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor, of commissioning porcelain. Following this tradition, the emperor questioned every little detail, and was directly involved with every single element of the porcelain production process. The Archive of the Imperial Household Department often recorded that ‘porcelain samples must be presented for the emperor’s personal inspection before they are submitted to be made in the Imperial kilns’. Therefore, many of the porcelains produced during this period reflected strongly the emperor’s personal taste and appreciation. The blue and white ‘Bajixiang’ moonflasks in the Qing Court collection at the Palace Museum are outstanding examples suggesting all these features of direct Imperial involvement.

The circular but flattened form, first seen in this exact shape during the Yongzheng period, was inventoried as a ‘moonhugging  flask’ or ‘horse-hanging flask’ in the Yongzheng Imperial archives, and the production of this precise shape continued into the Qianlong period. The original form, as used in much earlier 15th century porcelain predecessors dating from the Yongle and Xuande reigns of the Ming dynasty, was imported from Central Asia; the characteristic and prominent raised dome at the middle of each main face was recreated in these successor moonflasks three hundred years later. All the recorded Qing dynasty examples of such moonflasks share the following six features regardless of their size: a small mouth, a straight neck, a shoulder decorated with a pair of handles, the overall shape being flattened and circular, a round central dome on both main sides of the body, and an oval foot.

Moonflasks of this type were first made during the Yongzheng period, but production was halted for a short period by Imperial decree in the late Yongzheng period, the Archives recording: ‘Contact Jiangxi porcelain-making place [Jingdezhen], later moonflasks no need to continue firing processes’.2 Production was finally resumed during the second year of the Qianlong reign (1737), with limited numbers being created during the mid-Qianlong period. Examples are usually decorated in blue and white, but several yellow-ground and monochrome varieties are also documented and published. The pair of blue and white ‘Bajixiang’ moonflasks offered in this auction are therefore among the most outstanding examples of such objects produced during this period.

According to the inventory records of the Palace Museum collection, there are twenty-eight blue and white ‘Bajixiang’ moonflasks in the Qing Court collection (see Table 1 for details). Six additional similar moonflasks are on longterm loan to other museums and institutions. The original placement locations in the palaces of these six loaned examples can be traced in the records of the Chen She Dang (Records of Display) and Gugong Wupin Diancha Baogao (Palace Museum Auditing Report).3

The 28 Palace Museum examples mentioned above can be classified into two sizes. The larger versions are around 50cm high; the diameter of the mouth is 8cm wide, and the foot rim measures 16.5cm long and 12cm wide (fig.1). The smaller versions are around 34.5cm high; the diameter of the mouth is 5.5cm wide, and the foot rim measures 12.5cm long and 9cm wide (fig.2). Two of the smaller versions forming a pair, was originally placed on the shelf of ‘One Hundred Curios’ in the southern sector of the Forbidden City, at the
rear of the ‘Studio of Fresh Fragrance’ in the Chong hua gong or ‘Palace of Double Brilliance’ (fig.3),4 as recorded in the Daoguang-period Imperial Archives, Shu Fang Zhai Xianshe Chenshe Dang (Records of Display for the Studio of Fresh Fragrance) (fig.4)5 and in the Guangxu-period Imperial Archives (Shu Fang Zhai Chenshe Dang (fig.5)

Blue and white ‘bajixiang’ moonflask, Qianlong seal mark and period, 50cm high; Image courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing

fig.1 Blue and white ‘bajixiang’ moonflask, Qianlong seal mark and period, 50cm high; Image courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Blue and white ‘bajixiang’ moonflask, Qianlong seal mark and period, 34

fig.2 Blue and white ‘bajixiang’ moonflask, Qianlong seal mark and period, 34.5cm high; Image courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing.

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fig.3 Palace Museum Auditing Report, Palace Museum, Beijing, 1929, vol.3, book 3, p.9, scroll 4., ‘Palace of Double Brilliance’ and other palaces.

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figs.4 and 5 Cover and inside cover of Records of Display for the Studio of Fresh Fragrance, p.28, sixth month, nineteenth year of the Daoguang period (1839).

According to the gezuo chengzuo huoji qingdang: Jiangxi shao ciqi chu《各作承做活計清檔•江西燒瓷器處》(Imperial Palace Workshops Archives: Ceramics Production of Jiangxi), dated Qianlong second year (1737) and recorded by the Imperial Household Department: ‘On the thirteenth day of the tenth month, Secretary Liu Shanjiu, Head of Department Samuha, Tax Officer Bai Shixiu said, Eunuch Mao Tuan, Yu Shijie and Gaoyu, presented an iron-redglazed bowl… By Imperial decree: Vases, bowls and plates produced in the future must copy the quality of the red glaze and use the zhuanshu seal mark, also reproduce the smaller moonflasks, ‘horse-hanging’ flasks, in various glazes…’ (fig.6)6

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fig.6 First Historic Archives of China, Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Archives of the Qing Imperial Household Department, 2005, p.798, scroll 7.

It is therefore evident that the pair of smaller moonflasks located at the rear of the ‘Studio of Fresh Fragrance’ were produced shortly after the tenth month of the second year of the Qianlong reign (1737). Unlike this pair of ‘smaller moonflasks’, the similar but larger moonflasks (50cm high) were originally kept in wooden containers as tongci in the Imperial storerooms at the Forbidden City;7 two examples of these larger moonflasks are recorded as located in the Imperial Storage for porcelains on the western side of the ‘the Palace of Tranquil Longevity’.8

According to the huo ji dang, dated to the Qianlong third year (1738): ‘on the twenty-fifth day of the sixth month, ….the Eunuch Gaoyu presented a blue and white bowl and cover with handles… a Xuande blue and white ‘horsehanging’ flask…By Imperial decree: Send it to Tang Ying to replicate… once done the original porcelain model is to be returned to the storage of the Imperial porcelain wares; for large objects, send only the drawing design; for small objects, carry [them to Tang Ying].’9

The larger moonflasks were therefore designed by enlarging the size of the smaller ones serving as models, an innovation dating after the sixth month of the third year of Qianlong’ (1738). The production, craftsmanship and decorative motifs of both the smaller and larger types of moonflasks are directly related to each other, and the introduction of both sizes date to the very early years of Qianlong’s reign. Other than slight differences in the size, decorative details around the neck and around the handles, almost all aspects of the workmanship and decorative motifs are very consistent. The shape of these moonflasks is very classical; the body potted and glazed pearl white, the blue and white decoration enclosed within key-fret scroll borders, the foot with lotus blossoms. The neck of the larger version is densely decorated with floral scrolls; the smaller size has ruyi-heads. The narrow sides of the vases are decorated with meandering lotus scrolls. The main ‘front and back’ sides each have a circular raised boss at the centre painted with a stylised ruyi-head medallion, enclosed within a small band of lotus lappets, and all within another larger band of lotus lappets painted with the Eight Buddhist Emblems: dharma wheel, conch, parasol, victory banner, endless knot, lotus flower, double-fish and vase. Around the foot are leafy scrolls, and the recessed interior of the foot is glazed white with the blue daqing Qianlong nianzhi six-character zhuanshu seal mark arranged in three columns. The cobalt blue used all over the vase is of a rich hue. The painted decoration deliberately incorporates irregular small dots of very rich blue colour. This consciously simulates the well-known ‘heaped and piled’ effect found almost invariably on 15th century Ming dynasty Yongle and Xuande blue and white wares, where dots of the insufficiently-ground pure cobalt
mineral occur haphazardly throughout the cobalt decoration.

In discussing the actual function of these moonflasks, we must notice the ‘Bajixiang’ motif. ‘Bajixiang’ originates from Tibetan Buddhist teachings, and the motif was first painted on ceramics as early as the Yuan dynasty. In the context of Qing dynasty porcelains, the ‘Bajixiang’ motif is often depicted paired with lotus designs which suggests a reference to religious imagery. The Imperial Court of the Qing dynasty practiced the Buddhist faith; hence it is assumed that these moonflasks were placed in one of the many Buddhist temples in the Forbidden City or in other Imperial Palaces.

Also, according to huo ji dang, hua er zuo (Imperial Palace Workshops Archives of the Flower Department), dated to the Yongzheng fifth year (1727): ‘On the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, Head Eunuch Dong Zigui presented two blue and white moonflasks with handles… Eunuchs Liu Xiwen and Wang Taiping delivered the Imperial order: Arrange appropriate flowers for the moonflasks,… By eleventh day of the fifth month, sixth year (1728), prepare a bouquet of adonis and catharanthus blossoms to accompany the blue and white moonflask, Head Eunuch Samuha is to carry over, pass to Eunuch Liu Xiwen, end. By fifth day of the seventh month, sixth year, prepare a bouquet of adonis and catharanthus blossoms to accompany the blue and white moonflask, Head Eunuch Samuha is to carry over, pass to Eunuch Liu Xiwen, end.’10

Hence it is correct to assume that these moonflasks functioned as flower-holders in the interior of the various Halls and Palaces.

In conclusion: according to the Imperial archives, the blue and white ‘Bajixiang’ moonflasks with Qianlong seal marks and of the period, now housed in the Qing Court collection at the Palace Museum, were produced by Imperial decree of the emperor during the early Qianlong period. These moonflasks successfully highlight both the emperor’s personal taste, and his appreciation of the aesthetic and technical brilliance represented by Imperial porcelain.

TABLE 1. Detailed list of inventory and statistics relating to the Qianlong seal mark and of the period blue and white ‘Bajixiang’ moonflasks in the Qing Court collection, Palace Museum, Beijing.

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NOTES

1. The Palace Museum took seven years to complete the fifth round of stock-taking of the entire collection in 2010. At that time, the inventory contains a total number of 1,807,558 pieces. By using these statistics as a foundation for my work, I spent another three years between 2014 and 2016 audit the inventory list. As of 31 December 2016, the Palace Museum announced publically that the Imperial collection of cultural relics contained 1,862,690 pieces.
2. gezuo chengzuo huoji qingdang: jishi lu《各作成做活計清 檔•記事錄》(Imperial Palace Workshops Archives: Records on Matters), dated Yongzheng eleventh year (1733), fifteenth day of the sixth month, ‘According to message from Yuanming Yuan, Secretary Chang Bao, Head of Department Samuha said, Deputy Palace Supervisor Li Ying to pass on decree, to the porcelain kilns at Jiangxi, no need for the further production of moonflasks.’ First Historic Archives of China, Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Archives of the Qing Imperial Household Department, People’s Publishing House, 2005, p.776, scroll 5.
3. The ‘Palace Museum Auditing Report’ was the published inventory of contents in the Forbidden City compiled by Committee founded in 1924. The inventory was based on the Thousand Character Classics, qian zi wen to identify their locations within the Palace. Each character specifies a certain location within the Palace, for example: the character li is corresponding to the location of the fifth ‘antiques room’ of the Consorts Residence at the inner court of the Forbidden City. By using these qian zi wen characters, one can locate
the original position of the relics in the Palace.
4. Palace Museum Auditing Report, Palace Museum, Beijing, 1929, vol.3, book 3, p.9, scroll 4.
5. Records of Display for the Studio of Fresh Fragrance, p.28, sixth month, nineteenth year of the Daoguang period (1839).
6. First Historic Archives of China, Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Archives of the Qing Imperial Household Department, Beijing, 2005, p.798, scroll 7.
7. Tongci: term used to describe a method of wrapping Imperial porcelain for transportation used by Jingdezhen kilns during the Qing dynasty. Large amounts of porcelain from the Imperial kilns were lined and wrapped with straw and then inserted into wooden containers for transportation to the capital, hence known as tongci.
8. Palace Museum Auditing Report, Palace Museum, 1929, vol.5, book 1, p.12, scroll 2.
9. First Historic Archives of China, Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Archives of the Qing Imperial Household Department, Beijing, 2005, p.281, scroll 8.
10. First Historic Archives of China, Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Archives of the Qing Imperial Household Department, Beijing, 2005, p.785, scroll 2.