Lot 292. A very rare and important large Longquan celadon carved double-gourd vase, Ming dynasty, 15th century; 22¼ in. (56.5 cm.) high. Estimate USD 400,000 - USD 500,000. Price realised USD 420,000. © Christie's Images Ltd 2007
Heavily potted in a generous double-gourd shape, the upper and lower body well carved with a dense design of leafy peony meander bearing large graceful blossoms, that on the lower body between two bands of different kinds of overlapping petals, and that on the upper body between foliate diaper borders, and the two separated by a rope twist band and a flange at the waist, with a band of chrysanthemum scroll below the mouth rim and a band of overlapping dogtooth pattern encircling the foot, all under a glaze of olive-green tone.
Provenance: Private American collection.
Note: In China, the double-gourd or bottle-gourd, hulu, has traditionally provided a very popular form for vases and ewers. In addition to their attractive shape, bottle-gourds are associated with a number of different auspicious wishes. Because natural gourds have many seeds, they have been regarded as symbols of extensive progeny. Indeed, one of their attributes is believed to be bringing hundreds of sons, hulu baizi. See Terese Tse Bartholomew, Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2006, p. 61. The pronunciation of the Chinese word for bottle-gourd varies in different parts of China, and in some areas it is close to fulu - fu being blessings, and lu being an official salary - hence it is associated with good fortune and wealth.
Double-gourds are also one of the symbols of longevity or immortality. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that one of the Eight Daoist Immortals, Li Tieguai is usually depicted carrying a double- gourd in which he carried medicines. Indeed, there are many stories about double-gourds from which magical potions or creatures appeared, in addition to which gourds were believed to be able to absorb all evil vapors, safe-guarding those who carried them.
Natural gourds could be used as containers by removing their contents and drying them. Because vessels produced in this way were predominantly filled with medicine, alcohol or food, they were seen as symbols of plenty and of good fortune. Bartholomew, ibid., has also noted that the Daoist philosophical view equates the fact that the gourd is only useful after it has been hollowed out, with the notion that human beings are only of use to others after they have been purged of their delusions and desires. The double-gourd also represented to Daoists the harmony of heaven and earth as represented by the upper and lower bulbs of the vessel. Indeed, some later porcelain double-gourd vases have a globular upper bulb and a cube-shaped lower bulb - reflecting the circular heaven and square earth of traditional representation.
Double-gourd vases are rare among Longquan celadon wares. A few are known from the Yuan dynasty, and these tend to be somewhat more elongated than the even rarer Ming dynasty examples. An undecorated Yuan Longquan double gourd is illustrated by Ma Xiaoqi in Zhongguo gu taoci yanjiu, Zhongguo gu taoci xuehui, vol. 12, Beijing, 2006, p. 239, fig. 13. Another plain Yuan dynasty Longquan double-gourd vase excavated in 1984 at Qingtianxian, Zhejiang is illustrated by Zhu Boqian in Celadons from Longquan Kilns, Taipei, 1998, p. 181, no. 154. A Yuan Longquan double-gourd vase with sprig-relief decoration in the collection of the Museum of Chinese History in Beijing is illustrated ibid., p. 180, no. 153, while Yuan Longquan vases with similar sprig-molded decoration are in the collection of the Topkapi Saray in Istanbul. See J. Ayers and R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum Istanbul, vol. I, London, 1986, p. 222, nos. 202 and 203.
None of the published Yuan dynasty examples is as generously proportioned as the current vase, however a much smaller Longquan double-gourd vase dated to the Ming dynasty given to the Sichuan Provincial Museum in 1988 by a Mr. Li Yimeng is illustrated in Longquan Celadon - the Sichuan Museum Collection, Macau Municipal Council, 1998, pp. 194-5. This vase, although less tall than the current example, has similarly generous proportions. The Sichuan vase is also interesting in that the decoration of cash on the upper bulb is in relief, while the floral scroll on the lower bulb is carved into the body. A further generously proportioned, small, Ming dynasty Longquan double-gourd vase, plain except for iron splashes, is illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, p. 479, no.16:44.
The peony scroll that provides the main decoration on the current vase is a considerably more refined version of the scroll that has been carved in relief on the body and cover of a large Yuan dynasty guan jar in the Philadelphia Museum of Art illustrated by Margaret Medley in Yüan Porcelain and Stoneware, London, 1974, pl. 70A. It is undoubtedly significant that the peony scrolls on both the current double-gourd vase and the Philadelphia jar are both carved in such a way that the ground is removed to leave the floral scroll in low relief on the surface of the vessel. This technique was considerably more difficult and time-consuming than either carving the design into the surface of the piece, or sprig-molding the decorative elements and applying them to the sides of the vessel. An earlier version of the technique of carving away the ground, leaving the peony scroll in low relief, can also be seen on the massive Longquan vase in the Percival David Foundation, which bears a dedicatory inscription dated to AD 1327, illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Imperial Taste: Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, San Francisco, 1989, pp. 50-1, no. 24. A similar large Yuan dynasty vase with this type of decoration is illustrated by J. Ayers and R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum Istanbul, vol. I, op. cit., p. 291, pl. 209. While another similar vase was excavated from the wreck of a Yuan dynasty ship that foundered off the Korean Sinan coast. See National Museum of Korea, Special Exhibition of cultural Relics found off Sinan Coast, Seoul, 1977, pl. no. 23. Both the Istanbul and the Sinan vases have damage to their necks and mouths.
Decoration on which the ground is cut away leaving the design in low relief can be seen on a small number of Longquan vessels dated to the early-mid 15th century. For a bowl which has a lotus scroll in this technique on the exterior and another floral scroll simply incised into the body on the interior see J. Ayers and R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum Istanbul, vol. I, op. cit., p. 230, no. 487. A similar low-relief technique, but with a striated ground can be seen in the cavetto of a dish in the same collection illustrated vol. I, op. cit., p. 326, no. 345, and dated by the authors to late 14th-early 15th century. This dish is also interesting because it has around its rim a rope-like band, similar to the one that encircles the waist of the current double-gourd vase.
It is significant that the floral scrolls on each of these early Ming celadon vessels have smaller, neater, individual elements than those on their Yuan dynasty predecessors. The smallness of scale of the elements can also be seen on two early Ming Longquan bowls with carved floral scroll decoration. One of these is in the collection of the Percival David Foundation in London, and is decorated with an 'split lotus' scroll. See Illustrated Catalogue of Celadon Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, rev. ed., 1997, pp. 26 and 31, no. 224. The other was excavated from a Longquan kiln site and is illustrated in Longquan qingci yanjiu, Beijing, 1998, pl. 25, no. 2.
The floral scroll on the current double-gourd is not only skilfully executed and attractive, it is also auspicious. The design is of peony scrolls or meandering peonies. Peonies are probably the most popular of all the botanical motifs used on the Chinese decorative arts, and have traditionally been associated with royalty, having been cultivated in the imperial gardens as early as the Sui and Tang dynasties. Hence the peony is often called the 'king of flowers'. One of the many names given to the peony in Chinese is fuguihua, or 'flower of wealth and honour', which comes from the writings of the famous Song dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi (1017-73). The fact that the peonies on the current vase are represented on a meandering vine-like stem, when one of the words for vine is man, which is a pun for wan, meaning ten thousand, provides a symbol for the phrase fugui wandai, or 'may wealth and rank continue for ten thousand generations'.
The current celadon double-gourd vase is extremely similar in size, shape and decoration to another example (Fig. 1) in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco illustrated by He Li in Chinese Ceramics, London, 1996, p. 248, no. 514. It is interesting to note that in AD 1393 an imperial edict was sent to both Raozhou, the administrative district in which the imperial Jingdezhen kilns were located, and also to Chuzhou, the administrative district for the Longquan kilns. This edict instructed both districts to manufacture ceramics for the palace. See Gugong Yuankan, 1994, no. 1, p. 36. This has led He Li to suggest that a high-quality vase such as the example in San Francisco may have been made for the court. The same argument can, of course, be applied to the current vase.
Christie's. Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, New York, 22 March 2007