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Photo: Bonhams.

An exceptionally rare rhinoceros horn 'boys and goat' libation cup, 17th-18th century

An exceptionally rare rhinoceros horn 'boys and goat' libation cup, 17th-18th century

Lot 48. An exceptionally rare rhinoceros horn 'boys and goat' libation cup, 17th-18th century. Estimate HK$500,000 - 800,000 (US$64,000 - 100,000). Sold for HK$ 3,700,000 (€398,943). Photo: Bonhams.

Exquisitely carved as a naturalistic large lotus leaf flaring towards the rim to form a deep vessel, the exterior further carved with smaller leafy branches of lotus bud and lotus leaves, all borne on long stems grasped by two men with one men sitting on a recumbent goat and the other accompanied by a boy, the horn of an attractive rich honey tone darkening to a warm dark brown tone towards the bottom. 17.5cm (7in) wide

ProvenanceP.D. Krolik, prior to February 1970 on loan to the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery
Sotheby's London, 24 February 1970, lot 70
An important European private collection, and thence by descent

Published and IllustratedJ.Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pp.74-75, pl.41

Note: The present cup is exceptionally rare in belonging to a very small group termed 'caryatid cups' in rhinoceros horn libation cups in which the cup is held aloft by a human or animal figure. According to J.Chapman, this very small group numbers only four known libation cups, including the present lot; see J.Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pp.74-75, pl.41. Of the other three known examples, two are illustrated by J.Chapman, ibid., pp.73-74, pls.39-40, the first from the Marcel Lorber collection, in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and the second in the Van Veen collection, Holland. 

This outstanding work of art would have required a complex and challenging craftsmanship, demonstrated in the master carver subtly linking the stem of the lowest part of the lotus leaf to the back of the man's head in order to provide strength and support, while ingeniously arranging his right hand to grasp the narrow stem of the leaf so that the linkage would not appear to be noticeable. The naturalistic carvings of the lotus leaves and figures in various levels of relief further display the technical virtuosity of the carver, conveying a sense of sophistication and liveliness, achieving what could be described as a masterpiece of rhinoceros horn carving. 

The word lotus is a pun for 'continuous' (lian 連) and the boy is a symbol for a wish for a son; together, they represent the blessing of continuously giving birth to distinguished sons (liansheng guizi 連生貴子). Moreover, the goat represents the spirit or birth of light and life as a homophone of yang 陽 at the same time is also a symbol of filial piety.

 

A very rare rhinoceros horn 'Ode to the Red Cliffs' carving of figures in a sampan, 17th-18th century

Lot 49. A very rare rhinoceros horn 'Ode to the Red Cliffs' carving of figures in a sampan, 17th-18th century. Estimate HK$140,000 - 160,000 (US$18,000 - 20,000). Sold for HK$ 2,980,000 (€321,311). Photo: Bonhams.

The long boat deftly carved in openwork with a leisurely scene depicting the poet Su Dongpo and his two guests seated in the cabin gazing into the far distance, surrounded by a table scattered with cups, chopsticks, and tiny rice steamers, the other end of the boat carved with a young servant boiling tea and a boatman rowing the sampan, the horn of a dark amber tone with traces of cinnabar lacquer. 13cm (5in) long

Provenance: An important European private collection, and thence by descent

Published and Illustrated: J.Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pp.110-111, pl.106

NoteMost rhinoceros horn carvings are made into cups and vessels, and very rarely are they carved as works of art made for other purposes or simply to be admired. This playful piece of carving masterfully captures the naturalistic postures and facial expressions of the five figures, delightfully conveying a sense of dynamism and liveliness emanating from the figures even as they are carved sitting still within the boat. 

The subject matter commemorates the work of the renowned poet Su Shi (1037-1101) and his most celebrated poem 'Ode to the Red Cliffs', which refers to the visits to the scenic site of the Red Cliffs by Su Shi with his companions Huang Tingjian and the monk Foyin. This image of the poet travelling in a boat with his companions was very popular during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and was frequently used as decoration on various media including porcelain, jade and rhinoceros horn. However, whilst other depictions of episodes from the 'Ode to the Red Cliffs' are known in rhinoceros horn carvings, these are found only as relief decoration on libation cups and not in the round as the present lot; see J.Chapman, ibid., pp.210-212, pls.289-291; and T.Fok, Connoisseurship of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, Hong Kong, 1999, nos.130 and 132-133, and 137. 

No other similar examples appear to have been published; compare however related rhinoceros horn carvings of Zhang Qian in a boat, late Ming dynasty, in the Qing Court Collection, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Hong Kong, 2002, nos.118-120 and 122; and see another related example, 17th/18th century, which was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 30 November 2011, lot 2913.

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A rhinoceros horn carvings of Zhang Qian in a boat, late Ming dynasty, in the Qing Court Collection. Image Courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing 

A very rare finely-carved raft-form rhinoceros horn pouring waterdropper, late Ming early Qing dynasty, 17th-18th century 

A very rare finely-carved raft-form rhinoceros horn pouring waterdropper, late Ming early Qing dynasty, 17th-18th century. Sold for 13,540,000 HKD  at Christie's Hong Kong, 30 November 2011, lot 2913© Christie's Images Ltd 2011

 

 

 

An archaistic rhinoceros horn rhyton cup, 17th-18th century

 

Lot 50. An archaistic rhinoceros horn rhyton cup, 17th-18th century. Estimate HK$200,000 - 300,000 (US$26,000 - 38,000). Sold for HK$ 2,500,000 (€269,556)Photo: Bonhams.

The elegantly proportioned vessel in the form of a ewer, supported on a spreading foot, the deep sides flaring towards the everted rim encircled by a single band of confronted mythical beasts, deftly carved in high relief with three sinuous chilong clambering up the handle and the rim, the material of rich dark amber tone. 13cm (5in) high

Provenance: An important European private collection, and thence by descent

Published and Illustrated: J.Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pp.150-151, pl.181

NoteThe present libation cup is inspired in form by archaic bronze ritual wine vessels, zhi, but differs in having a spout and handle. It is very rare to find a rhinoceros horn libation cup of similar form; compare however a similarly shaped pale green jade cup, carved with a high-relief chilong handle and a single band of archaistic motif, 17th/18th century, formerly in the collection of Somerset de Chair, which was sold in these Rooms, 27 November 2014, lot 11. The archaic influence is further reinforced by the low-relief border carved with stylised confronted dragons; for related decoration of such archaistic dragons see a rhinoceros horn ewer and cover, by Bao Tiancheng, late Ming dynasty, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Hong Kong, 2002, no.117.

a-pale-green-jade-rhyton-cup

A pale green jade rhyton cup, 17th-18th century. Sold for HK$ 400,000 (€41,976) at Bonhams Hong Kong, 27 November 2014, lot 11. Photo Bonhams.

The superb quality of the horn and unusual natural 'wave' patterns were prized by the master carver who chose to display them by restricting the carving to the general archaistic form, the narrow low-relief border and high-relief handle. 

A related but much smaller archaistic rhinoceros horn libation cup, gu, 17th/18th century (7.4cm high), was sold in our London Rooms, 11 May 2017, lot 302.

115564557

 

A rare archaistic rhinoceros horn libation cup, gu, 17th-18th century. Sold for £26,250 (€29,317) at Bonhams London 11 May 2017, lot 302. Photo Bonhams.

Cf. my post: A rare archaistic rhinoceros horn libation cup, gu, 17th-18th century

 

 

 

A very rare rhinoceros horn 'Zhang Qian in a raft' pouring vessel, 17th-18th century

 

A very rare rhinoceros horn 'Zhang Qian in a raft' pouring vessel, 17th-18th century

 

Lot 51. A very rare rhinoceros horn 'Zhang Qian in a raft' pouring vessel, 17th-18th century. Estimate HK$500,000 - 800,000 (US$64,000 - 100,000). Sold for HK$ 937,500 (€101,083). Photo: Bonhams.

Naturalistically carved as a long hollow log raft tapering at the prow into a spout, elaborately carved in high relief at the centre of the raft with the figure Zhang Qian seated amidst dense branches of flowers and peaches, the figure holding a book in his right hand, all above whirling waves meticulously carved in low relief on the underside, the horn of an attractive dark amber tone. 21cm (8 1/4in) long

Provenance: An important European private collection, and thence by descent

Published and Illustrated: J.Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pp.79-80, pl.50

NoteThis type of 'raft' vessel is one of the most challenging rhinoceros horn carvings, which would have been carved from the thick skirt of the horn on the shorter curve with pieces of solid horn carefully scooped out below the figure while a small pillar is precisely retained to support the bridge on which Zhang Qian sits. The tip is pierced into a spout, which suggests that these vessels would have been used as wine containers or water droppers. Together with the elaborate reticulated carvings of the branches and the swirling waves underneath, it would have required scrupulous attention to detail and masterful craftsmanship from the carver; for a discussion of these raft vessels, see J.Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pp.77-80.

The present lot depicts the story of the Han dynasty statesman, traveller and explorer Zhang Qian, floating down the Yangtze river in a boat to explore the Western Regions, Xiyu 西域, and later playing an integral role in establishing an east-west route opening China to the world of commercial trade and major trade routes such as the renowned Silk Road. 

This 'Zhang Qian on a raft' pouring vessel belongs to a small group of rhinoceros horn carvings, which are similar in the general form of a hollowed log but with variations in the appearance of the raft and depictions of Zhang Qian who variously holds a book, a ruyi sceptre, a lotus and a fly whisk. Examples of these Zhang Qian raft vessels are held in important museums and private collections including: one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the exhibition Jiangxin yu xiangong. Ming Qing diaoke zhan (Uncanny Ingenuity and Celestial Feats: The Carvings of Ming and Qing Dynasties, Taipei, 2011, no.30; three in the Qing Court Collection, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Hong Kong, 2002, nos.118-120; four in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, with one illustrated by J.Chapman, ibid., pl.47; one in the Shanghai Museum and another in the collection of

, illustrated by T.Fok in Connoisseurship of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, Hong Kong, 1999, nos.70 and 71; and two others in private collections, illustrated by T.Fok, ibid., nos.73 and 74. 

This very special group of rhinoceros horn carvings may have been inspired by the well-known silver example formerly in the collection of Lady David, inscribed with a poem and artist's seal Bishan denoting Zhu Bishan, a silversmith active during the 14th century, illustrated in Chinese Art Under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Cleveland Museum of Art, 1968, no.37.

A larger rhinoceros horn log-raft with a similar carving of Zhang Qian, by You Tong, late Ming dynasty, was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8 April 2014, lot 3014; and another example, 17th/18th century, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 30 November 2011, lot 2913.

A superbly carved rhinoceros horn log-raft cup, by You Tong, late Ming Dynasty

A superbly carved rhinoceros horn log-raft cup, by You Tong, late Ming Dynasty. Sold for 10,840,000 HKD at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8 April 2014, lot 3014Photo Sotheby's

Cf. my post: A superbly carved rhinoceros horn log-raft cup, by You Tong, late Ming Dynasty

A very fine rhinoceros horn 'Yu Qiao Geng Du' libation cup, 17th-18th century

A very fine rhinoceros horn 'Yu Qiao Geng Du' libation cup, 17th-18th century

 

Lot 52. A very fine rhinoceros horn 'Yu Qiao Geng Du' libation cup, 17th-18th century. Estimate HK$400,000 - 600,000 (US$51,000 - 77,000). Sold for HK$ 3,220,000 (€347,188). Photo: Bonhams.

Of conical form, superbly carved with a continuous riverscape consisting of a fisherman and a woodcutter seated beside a swiftly flowing river while a scholar studies inside a pavilion on the other side of the river, above a farmer carrying a hoe crossing a bridge, all amidst meticulously carved gnarled pine and wutong trees with the pine tree trunks forming an openwork handle on one side of the horn, the horn of a rich toffee tone. 16.5cm (6 1/2in) wide

Provenance: An important European private collection, and thence by descent 

Published and Illustrated: J.Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pp.202 and 204, pl.279 

NoteThe present cup depicts a continuous landscape with a fisherman, woodcutter, farmer and scholar, representing the 'Four Noble Occupations' which comprise the Chinese four-layered traditional social structure. While this subject matter was much favoured during the Ming and Qing dynasties, also appearing in other media including paintings, porcelain and jade carvings, it is very rarely found in rhinoceros horn carving; compare, however, a related smaller rhinoceros horn libation cup, 18th century, carved with only two of the 'Four Noble Occupations', the fisherman and woodcutter, which was sold at Sotheby's London, 14 November 2000, lot 35.

A carved rhinoceros horn libation Cup, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century

A carved rhinoceros horn libation cup, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century. Sold for 9,600 GBP at Sotheby's London, 14 November 2000, lot 35.

The complex decoration on the present lot, employing both elaborate openwork technique as well as meticulous relief carving in various levels, is strikingly sophisticated and successfully conveys a sense of liveliness, demonstrating the virtuosity of the master carver.

A very rare rhinoceros horn 'lotus leaf' libation cup, Qianlong four-character mark and probably of the period (1736-1795)

A very rare rhinoceros horn 'lotus leaf' libation cup, Qianlong four-character mark and probably of the period (1736-1795)

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Lot 53. A very rare rhinoceros horn 'lotus leaf' libation cup, Qianlong four-character mark and probably of the period (1736-1795). Estimate HK$350,000 - 400,000 (US$45,000 - 51,000 ). Sold for HK$ 1,375,000 (€148,255). Photo: Bonhams.

Superbly carved in the form of an open upturned lotus leaf curling at the edges to form a deep vessel, supported on five spreading feet, the horn of a gold-honey tone, ivory stand. 10.8cm (4 1/4in) wide (2)

Provenance: An important European private collection, and thence by descent 

Published and Illustrated: J.Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pp.147, 242, and 244, pls.171 and 357

NoteIt is extremely rare to find an undecorated rhinoceros horn cup with the same shape as the present lot. This charming and delightful cup displays an outstanding craftsmanship, as the undulating and smoothly curved frilled edges were created in the process of softening and manipulating the horn into the naturalistic shape, elevated on the five deftly carved feet, conveying a sense of both elegance and vitality. The master carver in leaving the horn surface polished yet undecorated emphasised the pure form and natural quality of the horn.

J.Chapman in The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pp.242-243, when discussing the present lot, states the following: 'Notice that the seal is framed all around in a double line in the same way as occurs in porcelains of the period'. The author goes on to say that 'the five-footed bowl is almost certainly a copy of a jade piece and shows the ultra-sophisticated taste of Qianlong'. Compare a related white jade lotus-leaf shaped washer, Qianlong, illustrated in Classics of the Forbidden City: Scholar's Paraphernalia, Beijing, 2009, pp.104-105, no.90.

There are very few Qianlong marked rhinoceros horn carvings; compare two libation cups in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and a brush holder in the Van Veen Collection, Holland, which according to the author has a much less convincing mark, illustrated by J.Chapman, ibid., pls.353-356.

Bonhams. FINE CHINESE CERAMICS AND WORKS OF ART, 28 Nov 2017, 14:00 HKT -HONG KONG, ADMIRALTY