Arcadian Beauty
Regina Krahl

In the Song dynasty (960-1279), probably more than in any other period of China’s history, culture and education were considered the most important prerequisites of the elite and valued higher than office and rank. Advancement in society was certainly desired and sought, but at the same time spurned, and the state’s most outspoken critics were often celebrated as sages. Even if the post of a high official in the service of the Emperor was considered the ultimate achievement, a modest and humble existence far away from it all, in harmony with nature, was at the same time one of society’s fundamental ideals.

The cow herd with his water buffalo, the fisherman in his boat, the brush wood gatherer under gnarled pine trees are idyllic scenes endlessly repeated in paintings and evoked in poetry and prose. In the First Prose Poem on the Red Cliff Su Dongpo (Su Shi, 1037-1101), for example, writes, referring to himself and his friends (in the translation of A.C. Graham, in Cyril Birch, ed., Anthology of Chinese Literature, New York, 1965, p. 382):

Fishermen and woodcutters on the river’s isles, with fish and shrimps and deer for mates, riding a boat as shallow as a leaf, pouring each other drinks from bottlegourds; mayflies visiting between heaven and earth, infinitesimal grains in the vast sea, mourning the passing of our instant of life, envying the long river which never ends! Let me cling to a flying immortal and roam far off, and live for ever with the full moon in my arms! But knowing that this art is not easily learned, I commit the fading echoes to the sad wind.”

Yet not only the recluse, who lived indeed as a farmer in forced exile, as Su Dongpo did at the time he wrote these lines, expressed such thoughts. We hear similar eulogies of the secluded realm uncorrupted by civilization from the scholar-official, who held a high government post at the Song court, like Fan Chengda (1126-1193), who in many poems revelled in the joys of the country-dweller, for example in Late Spring (in the rhymed translation of Gerald Bullett, ibid., p. 387):

Few come this way, and if a stranger should,
See how the birds dart off, into the wood!
Shadows of dove-grey dusk the hills obscure,
And gathering reach my fagot-builded door.
In a boat light as a leaf, still visible,
My lad-of-all-work plies his single scull.
Alone, I weave my fence, of lithe bamboo,
And ducks go primly homewards, two by two

If the bureaucrat may still have been able to live this dream at least at some point in his life, this was certainly impossible for the Emperor; and yet, the same ideals prevailed even at the imperial palace. The handscroll Awakening under a Thatched Awning, attributed to Emperor Gaozong (1107-1187, r. 1127-1162), the first emperor of the Southern Song in Hangzhou, for example, depicts a calm morning on a deserted lake, where a lonely fisherman is seen stretching his limbs after a night spent on his narrow, reed-covered boat, moored at a deserted rocky outcrop with nothing but shrubs and a willow tree nearby and a distant skyline of hills seen across the misty lake (Qianxi nian Songdai wenwu dazhan/China at the Inception of the Second Millennium: Art and Culture of the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2000, pl. IV-8).

Such blissful, picturesque scenes of life in tune with nature have a strong and universal attraction, and similar ideas flourished in the West since antiquity. The pastoral verses of the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC), the Eclogues, inspired by earlier (3rd century BC) bucolic poems by the Greek poet Theocritus, depict idyllic paradisiacal tableaux of Arcadia (or Arcady), a remote and secluded highland region of ancient Greece, in the centre of the Peloponnese. He postulated the basic harmony of man with nature there, as summed up by E.V. Rieu (ed., Virgil. The Pastoral Poems, Harmandsworth, Middlesex, 1967 [1949], p. 14):

'It was in his Arcady, the pastoral world of his memories and of his fancy, that Virgil found the window which gave him this vision of the truth, and sensed the spirit that pulsates in everything that is, and makes a harmony of man, tree, beast, and rock. Nature is fundamentally at one with man, though towns and politics and war make him a refugee from her and from the truth. It is the shepherd and his sheep that are her nurslings and her confidants. It is they who comprehend, when the ‘woods … make music and the pine-trees speak

In the Renaissance, Virgil’s notion of Arcadia was adapted and romanticised by Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530) in a pastoral romance of that title, which suddenly made this utopia so popular, that visions of an unspoiled idyllic landscape where herdsmen live the simple life close to nature, in unison with each other and their surroundings, sprang up everywhere, in poetry, prose, theatre and painting. Unlike in China, however, they remained pastoral phantasies and had few repercussions directly into everyday life.

In China, this glorification of simplicity, austerity and naturalness went further; it encompassed the arts as well as the crafts. In the visual arts, it found expression in various different ways, for example, in paintings in the intimate format of album leaves and fans depicting contemplative scenes, such as tranquil landscapes and close-up studies of birds or animals; and eventually in an extreme minimalism of form, as in the ascetic renderings of persimmons in different shades of black ink by the monk Muqi (c.1200-1270), or the seemingly spontaneous, rapid brush strokes of the one-time academy painter Liang Kai (c.1140-c.1210) in his rendering of the poet Li Taibo.

In the Song, the celebration of artlessness was more than a flight of fancy or a matter of taste, it was a reflection of an overarching world view. It therefore pervaded many aspects of everyday life and also filtered down to works of art. A ceramic pot, a tray of lacquered wood, a stone pebble, so obviously non-precious and humble, could become revered artefacts. Ceramics in particular were in use in a huge spectrum of society, from monks to drink their tea from, right up to imperial banquets. They could be basic mass-produced wares, but they equally lent themselves to extreme sophistication. Naturally, the hands of master artisans were crucially important in this elevation; yet, there always remained a pinch of unpredictability that was particularly cherished: the rare, fortuitous outcome of a firing, for example, that seemed more like a gift of nature than a man-made success. Song ceramics are among the few works of art, where differences between good but ordinary works and outstanding masterpieces can be very subtle and require connoisseurship to be fully grasped. This relative evaluation of desirability of two basically comparable pieces is as active today as it was in the Song, if not even more so (in the case of black Jian ware tea bowls of Fujian, for example, the price of an exceptional specimen today can be 100,000 times that of a basic piece).

As many Song vessels are deceptively plain, discernment of quality requires close study and some degree of knowledge, as quality can manifest itself in all aspects of a ceramic vessel, details of proportion, subtle notions of tactility, nuances of colour, random patterns of splashes or accidental webs of crazing, and so on. Master potters of guan, Jun or Longquan ware, for example, aimed to achieve results that amaze us like a stone that is coloured or veined in a unique, dazzling manner. Others, like those working in the Cizhou kilns, tried to appeal to our appreciation of a more rustic beauty, and sometimes of calligraphic brushwork.

The same simplicity of form can be detected in carvings of jade and other stones. Small carvings were often turned into fondling pieces, as smooth as pebbles worn down over millennia, and large boulders were only minimally shaped, both aiming to evoke a work created by nature.

The outstanding craftsmanship of the finest works of art paired with the severe minimalism that characterizes their designs gives Song artefacts a timeless, ‘contemporary’ feel that has an immediate appeal to any connoisseur of classic beauty. These works of art are anything but simple in their conception or their execution, but they try to reflect nature in a romanticised, an idealized – Arcadian – form.





Lot 3101. A cinnabar lacquer barbed dish, Song Dynasty (960-1279); 17 cm, 6 5/8  in. Estimate 200,000 — 300,000 HKD (25,480 - 38,220 USD). Lot Sold 400,000 HKD (51,024 USD). Photo: Sotheby's.

with shallow rounded sides rising from a recessed base to a barbed rim crispy divided into seven bracket foliations, the cavetto with defined ridges radiating from a central recessed barbed cartouche, applied overall save for the base with a rich crimson-red lacquer, the base lacquered black.

NotePlain lacquer wares of the Song dynasty are amongst the most beautiful and delicate pieces known in this media. The present dish is striking for its deep red colour and simple yet elegant organic form. It is not only most pleasing to the eye but is also surprisingly light and thin when held in one's hand. This dish is the work of a highly skilled craftsman who has created a masterpiece that represents the refined taste of the Song elite literati.

A very similar eight-lobed red lacquer dish, from the Sedgwick collection, was sold in our London rooms, 15th October 1968, lot 56. Compare also a slightly smaller six-lobed dish of this type with a black lacquer base illustrated in Lee Yu-kuan, Oriental Lacquer Art, Tokyo, 1972, p. 118, pl. 52, where it is noted that the two characters on the base represent the alias of a man who apparently withdrew from society to study and meditate. A rare black eight-lobed lacquer dish, from a noble Japanese family collection formed prior to World War II, is offered in this sale, lot 3108; and a seven-lobed red lacquer dish (or perhaps a stand), from the Dubosc collection, was included in the Eskenazi exhibition Chinese Lacquer from the Jean-Pierre Dubosc Collection and Others, London, 1992, cat. no. 8.

A rare brown lacquer alms bowl, Song dynasty (960-1279)

Lot 3102. A rare brown lacquer alms bowl, Song dynasty (960-1279); 16 cm, 6 1/4  inEstimate 300,000 — 400,000 HKD (38,220 - 50,960 USD). Lot Sold 1,375,000 HKD (175,395 USD). Photo: Sotheby's.

exquisitely modelled with a compressed globuar body rising from a rounded base to an incurved rim, attractively covered overall with brown lacquer.

NoteFashioned to sit perfectly in two cupped hands, this bowl is unusual for its uniformly rounded form which features no foot or base and was probably placed on a stand. Bowls of this form, which formed one of the four essential possessions of Buddhist monks and were used to solicit food from the laity, are best known from the images of Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, who is often depicted holding a related alms bowl in his left hand.

See a larger black lacquer alms bowl with a flat base and a cover, attributed to the Five Dynasties to the early Northern Song period, excavated in 1978 from Futian gongshe, Jianli, Hubei province and now preserved in the Jingzhou Museum, Jingzhou, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji feilei. Zhongguo qiqi quanji [Compendium of Chinese lacquer], vol. 4. Sanguo – Yuan, Fuzhou, 1998, pl. 67. This form experienced a renaissance during the Qianlong period (r. 1736-1795) and was reinterpreted in a wide variety of media; for example see a Qianlong mark and period cloisonné enamel alms bowl decorated with the Eight Buddhist Emblems, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum, Enamels, vol. 2, Cloisonné in the Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2011, pl. 261; and a spinach-green jade alms bowl decorated overall with writhing dragons, from the Thompson-Schwab collection, sold in our London rooms, 9th November 2016, lot 26.

An extremely rare heirloom Longquan celadon bowl, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279)



Lot 3103. An extremely rare heirloom Longquan celadon bowl, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279); 11.3 cm, 4 3/8  in. Estimate 1,800,000 — 2,200,000 HKD (229,320 - 280,280 USD). Lot Sold 2,375,000 HKD (302,955 USD). Photo: Sotheby's.

superbly potted with generously rounded sides rising from a narrow, slightly tapered foot to a softly grooved band below the crisp and gently flared rim, covered overall save for the unglazed footring with a lustrous translucent glaze of soft blue-green tone.

Provenance: Mathias Komor, New York, 1952.
The Georges de Batz Collection, no. 75 (label).
Christie's New York, 30th November 1983, lot 331.
The Rodriguez collection (label).
Christie's New York, 20th September 2005, lot 279.
Sotheby's New York, 23rd March 2011, lot 506.

ExhibitedChinese Ceramics and European Drawings from the Georges de Batz Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1953, no. 75.

Note: With its elegant form and unctuous glaze, the present bowl is a fine example of the high-Song taste for pure colour and understated refinement. Towards the end of the 12th century, the traditional lime glaze was replaced by a lime-alkali glaze, creating a higher viscosity and softer gloss. Multiple layers of glaze were often applied to capture a jade-like effect; a technique that was probably adopted from the Guan wares of the period. The glaze of the present bowl is a thick lustrous bluish green, often referred to as the kinuta glaze by the Japanese who were especially fond of these wares which were considered masterpieces of the Longquan potter. 

A slightly smaller bowl of this type, excavated in 1974 at Quzhou, Zhejiang province, from the tomb of Shi Shengzu and his wife, dated to the 10th year of Xianchun (corresponding to 1274), is published in Dated Ceramics of the Song, Liao and Jin Periods, Beijing, 2004, pl. 6-19; and another, recovered from the Sinan ship wreck off the coast of Korea, was included in the Special Exhibition of Cultural Relics Found off the Sinan Coast, National Museum of Korea, Seoul, 1977, cat. no. 8. Further examples, all of slightly smaller size, include one from the collection of Sir Percival David and now in the British Museum, London, published in Illustrated Catalogue of Celadon Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 1997, Revised Ed., pl. 252; one, previously from the Lord Cunliffe collection, included in the exhibition Heaven and Earth Seen Within. Song Ceramics from the Robert Barron Collection, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, 2000, cat. no. 59; another was exhibited in Song Dynasty Ceramics: The Ronald W. Longsdorf Collection, J.J. Lally & Co., New York, 2013, cat. no. 10; and a fourth bowl, from the Thomas Barlow Walker collection, was sold twice in our New York rooms, 26th September 1972, lot 682, and 23rd/24th May 1974, lot 321. See also another bowl, but with a broader groove, published in the Illustrated Catalogues of Tokyo National Museum. Chinese Ceramics, Tokyo, 1988, pl. 461.

The form of this bowl, with its gently grooved rim and short foot, may have been inspired by black Jian wares which were popular vessels in tea ceremonies; for example see a brown-splashed bowl in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum's exhibition The Far-Reaching Fragrance of Tea. The Art and Culture of Tea in Asia, Taipei, 2015, cat. no. I-14. 







 Lot 3104. An extremely rare iron figure of an ox, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279); wood stand inscribed by Ruan Heng (1783-1859) and a calligraphic scroll by Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924) dated to 1921; ox 17.1 cm, 6 3/4  in.; scroll 215 cm, 84 5/8  in. Estimate 1,000,000 — 1,500,000 HKD (127,400 - 191,100 USD). Unsold. Photo: Sotheby's.

cast in the form of a calf sturdily standing foursquare, portrayed with the head slightly raised and a pronounced snout marked with a gently upturned mouth, all below a pair of curved horns issuing from the forehead, the attractively pitted patina of the beast contrasting with the rounded contours of the well-proportioned muscular body, the wood stand with a shaped outline and resting on four short hemispherical feet, the flat surface of the stand with three cavities to house three of the ox’s legs and a protruding rounded fitting to support the shorter front right leg with the broken hoof, the curved sides inscribed by Ruan Heng and succinctly expressing the Ruan family’s high esteem of the rare figure and the state of its missing front hoof; the handscroll dated to 1921 with a painterly sketch in ink of the iron figure, followed by a long colophon titled Record of the Ancient Iron Ox expressing the calligrapher's adoration of the figure since seeing it for the first time in the late 1860s, signed by Tomioka Tessai "at the age of 86" (suggesting that the scroll can be dated to 1921).

Provenance: Collection of Ruan Heng (1783-1859).
Kyukyodo, Kyoto (letter dated to 1916).
Collection of Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924).

Note: The present iron calf, sturdily cast with a slightly raised head and an upturned mouth, epitomises the simple elegance of the aesthetics of the Song dynasty. The patinated surface, not dissimilar to that of a scholar’s rock, highlights its age and enhances its charm. The calf was rediscovered in the Qing dynasty and was kept and cherished by the literati Ruan family. The inscription by Ruan Heng on the old fitted wood stand dates the calf to the Southern Song. It further states that the calf, although discovered in a tomb with a broken leg, was nonetheless treasured by the Ruan family. The calf later found its way to the artist Tomioka Tessai in Kyoto, who expressed his fondness in a long colophon following a painterly sketch of the amiable calf.

Only a small number of ancient iron animal figures can be found in either public or private collections, probably due to the material’s susceptibility to rust. The present object can be compared to an iron ox of similar size and also with a muscular body and simple outlines, acquired in 1911 by Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919) in Hunan province. That animal appears to be an adult ox with a proportionally smaller head. It has an oxidised surface and can be dated to the Song dynasty or later.  It is preserved in the Freer Gallery of Art (accession no. F1911.590a-b), together with a parcel-gilt iron reclining dog from the Tang dynasty gifted by John Gellatly (accession no. LTS1985.1.342). 

In ancient China, buffaloes or oxen played an important role in agriculture and transportation. Pottery figures of buffaloes or oxen first appeared no later than the Han dynasty, but those made of metal are relatively rare. See a larger bronze figure of a standing ox (29.5 cm) excavated from the Tang tomb of Shi Siming (703-761), modelled with short straight horns and appearing to be an adult ox, published by Beijing Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics, ‘Beijing Fengtai Tang Shi Siming mu[Tang Tomb of Shi Siming at Fengrai in Beijing]’, Chinese Cultural Relics, 1991, no. 9, p. 32 and fig. 14. Compare also a bronze ox, adopting a slightly more dynamic posture and dated to Song dynasty or earlier, gifted by Ernest Erickson Foundation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, included in Ancient Chinese Art: The Ernest Erickson Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1987, cat. no. 59. 

The present figure was in the collection of Ruan Heng (1783-1859, zi Meishu, sobriquet Zhongjia, origin from Yizheng, Jiangsu province, between Nanjing and Yangzhou), who was the younger paternal cousin of the prominent literatary figure Ruan Yuan (1764-1849). His extensive literary works in various genres were published in Chuncaotang congshu[Collectanea from the Springtime Cottage], Zhuhucaotang shichao [Verse collection from the Pearl Lake Cottage], Zhuhucaotang biji [Notes from the Pearl Lake Cottage] and Yingzhou bitan [Notes from the Boat to the Fairy Isles]. He also edited an enormous 200-volume work on the study of Mencius, Qijing Mengzi kaowen bing buyi, as well as several anthologies of contemporary regional poets. Zhuhucaotang (Pearl Lake Cottage), a study and library located on the Ruan family estate (now within Yangzhou city) was probably of special importance to Ruan Heng, who owned a related seal and named his collection of works after the cottage. For more information on the cottage, see Yangzhou fu zhi [Gazeteer of Yangzhou Prefecture], vol. 31, p. 44. 

The calf later entered the collection of a renowned Japanese scholar and painter from Kyoto, Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924), who named the present piece ‘Iron Ox’. Tessai’s love of the object is evident in his handscroll which comprises of a painting of the piece and an essay entitled Record of the Ancient Iron Ox. According to the essay, Tessai first saw the present piece “fifty years earlier” in the late 1860s in Kyoto, and he often reminisced about the encounter afterwards. He mentioned various owners before him, who greatly admired its rare elegance and treasured it despite its rustic appearance. The essay ends with one of his seals and his signature “Old Man Tessai, Hyakuren, at the age of 86,” suggesting that the handscroll can be dated to 1921. 

Tomioka Tessai (originally named Hyakuren, zi Muken and sobriquet Yuken, later known as Tetsugai or Tetsu Dojin) was born and raised in Kyoto, where he also spent most of his adult life. Tessai received a literary education focusing on Kokugaku (national study), Buddhism, Confucianism, especially the school of Wang Yangming. In the 1860s, during the Meiji Restoration, he supported the transition from the shoganate to imperial rule. After the Restoration in 1868, in order to learn about local customs, geography and history, he travelled extensively throughout Japan and served as chief priest at various Shinto shrines. Tessai studied painting since the age of 19, but only became a painter after his return to Kyoto in 1881, at the age of 44. Regarded as the last great Japanese Nanga ‘Southern-style’ painter, Tessai demonstrated in his works a distinct individual style which hints at the Southern Song literary tradition, the influence of Ming and Qing scholarly paintings, as well as inspiration from nature. His paintings and calligraphy, treasured in Japan, are held in many museums, including the Tessai Museum in Takarazuka.

An exceptional and extremely rare heirloom guan lobed brush washer, Southern Song dynasty 1127-1279)












Lot 3104. An exceptional and extremely rare heirloom Guan lobed brush washer, Southern Song dynasty 1127-1279); 14 cm, 5 1/2  inEstimate on requestLot Sold 81,351,000 HKD (10 377 144 USD). Photo: Sotheby's.

superbly potted with shallow rounded sides subtly divided into eight fluted lobes and rising to a foliate rim of corresponding form, all supported on a flat base raised on a gently tapering foot, exquisitely enveloped in a radiant and translucent bluish-green glaze permeated with a crackle forming an attractive network of crazing, the glossy glaze gently thinning with a subtle tinge of red at the rim and raised flutes, simultaneously pooling along the delicate recesses to a more gelatinous and lustrous blue-green colour, the underside with seven spur marks revealing the pale grey body and encircled by the unglazed footring burnt brownish-orange in the firing.

ProvenanceCollection of Edward T. Chow (1910-1980).
Sotheby's London, 16th December 1980, lot 295.
Collection of T.Y. Chao (1912-1999).
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 18th November 1986, lot 29.

ExhibitedSelected Treasures of Chinese Art, Min Chiu Society Thirtieth Anniversary Exhibition, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1990-1991, cat. no. 108.
Song Ceramics from the Kwan Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1994, cat. no. 2, also illustrated on the cover.

LiteratureLi Zhiyan and Simon Kwan, The Muwen Tang Collection Series, vol. 11: Song Ceramics, Hong Kong, 2012, cat. no. 1.

The Edward T. Chow Hangzhou guanyao Mallow Flower Washer
Regina Krahl

Guan ware is the Southern Song potters’ answer to Ru, the imperial ware of the North. These two wares have defined taste in ceramics like hardly any other wares before or after. These seemingly modest, crackled greenish-glazed stonewares were copied in every period, from the moment they had been created, right up to the present, but never reached. They have gained quasi mythical status.

We know that guan was produced in Hangzhou, the Southern Song (1127-1279) capital, but we do not know all that much else about it. Hangzhou had been declared only a ‘temporary’ capital and was embraced reluctantly by the Song ruling house, who did not want to leave any doubt about their intent to regain control over the northern regions they had lost to the Jin (1115-1234). When the Song moved there, Hangzhou did not offer any of the amenities the court had taken for granted. Suitable palace structures took time to be built, levels of comfort of any kind only slowly improved, and the provision of goods and services could only gradually be assured. The supply of ceramics to the court was only one small aspect of the immense logistic challenges facing the administration, but not the least complex. As the region did not produce any ceramics of a suitably high standard, manufactories able to produce ceramics of the highest order, unmatched world-wide, had to be built up from scratch.

We do not know whether potters from the Ru kilns of Baofeng in Henan followed the Song – forcibly or voluntarily – to the South, but it seems quite possible, since after the move of the ruling house the Ru manufactories declined to the level of provincial workshops, while other kiln centres, such as Ding in Hebei, Jun in Henan or Yaozhou in Shaanxi continued to produce high-quality wares also for the court of the Jin, without any immediately obvious stylistic or qualitative decline. In the South, different raw materials, kiln structures, firing methods and – at least partly – differently trained artisans, made a seamless continuation impossible, and that proved to be a lucky constellation, since it enabled development into a new direction.

Today, Ru and guan ware – the preferred choices of the Song ruling house before and after the relocation – are equally celebrated and equally rare, and probably always were. Yet, it would be difficult to compile a Catalogue Raisonné of the worldwide patrimony of heirloom guan wares, as we were able to do for heirloom Ru wares in last season’s Song catalogue (Hong Kong, 3rd October 2017, pp. 66-77). While Ru represents a fairly consistent body of wares that are closely related in shape, manufacturing method, glaze type and overall style, this is not the case for guan. Although all Hangzhou guan wares are monochrome stonewares with celadon-coloured glazes, just like Ru, the variety of types made for the court in the Southern Song capital is phenomenal. It suggests a lengthy process of experimentation and ambition in Hangzhou, which enriched the palette of ceramic masterpieces, but made it that much more difficult to grasp what guan really is.

We can note a use of different body materials; a wide variety of forms including purely ‘ceramic’ shapes and ones copying other materials; an immense range of sizes from small cups to massive vases; a large palette of successful glaze tones from shades of beige and grey to intense bluish green; an appearance of glazes without any crazing or with thin-meshed, with wide-meshed or with layered ‘ice’ crackle; as well as different firing methods, with and without spurs. Although a kiln producing top quality guan ware, Laohudong, has been located and excavated in Hangzhou, given this variety, it is difficult to believe that it was the only kiln working for the court. And the subsequent connoisseurs’ literature has further obscured the fringes, so that, where beige-coloured wares are concerned, it is now difficult to know where guan ends and ge begins. This, luckily, does not affect the present piece.

In spite of this wide spectrum, the potters of the official kilns in Hangzhou nevertheless perfectly captured in their creations – like great artists and artisans anywhere – the spirit of their times. The Song dynasty (960-1279) was marked by two contrasting Confucian concepts of thought, one conservative, personified in particular by Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), who advocated a revaluation of ancient tradition as a source for moral principles and a guideline for righteous behaviour; the other reformist, propagated by Wang Anshi (1021-1086), who proposed idealistic reforms to achieve an ideal social order, and himself practiced an exemplary simple, frugal lifestyle.

It would seem that these two schools of thought are also reflected in the period’s aesthetic ideals. Two very different trends can certainly be perceived among guan wares, where two styles seem to rival with each other: on the one hand, the evocation of the past through archaistic works that follow in shape and design archaic jades and bronzes and tend to be stately and imposing; on the other hand, a proposition of something radically new, a contemporary style that convinces through clarity and precision of its outlines and proportions, and minimalism in shape and design. Such works – like the present washer – convey a fresh and airy spirit that can equally be detected among the monochrome lacquerwares of the period, an art form that had only just begun to be appreciated. With this new aesthetic concept Song arts and crafts were incredibly advanced, about a millennium ahead of their times, as this style brings to mind ‘Bauhaus’ ideals of simplicity and functionality, as they became dominant in 20th-century Germany and beyond. This also explains why they remain to be so influential on artists and artisans today.

While one might think that in the Song, works evoking the past would have been ranked higher than innovative items, it is interesting to note the relative grading of old and new styles at the Song painting academy during the reign of Emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1126). Wai-kam Ho relates the guidelines set for grading exams, where students were given the task to interpret in their paintings a given poetic quote (Wai-kam Ho et al., Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting. The Collections of the Nelson Gallery – Atkins Museum, Kansas City, and The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1980, pp. xxviii-xxix): A ‘Lower Grade’ was given to ‘the ability to make imitations or copies that are close approximations to the true character of the original’; a ‘Middle Grade’ to those, in whose paintings ‘the seeming imitation of old masters [was] amplified and transcended’, while the ‘Highest Grade’ was reserved for students who were able to perform the task ‘without imitating any ancient masters’. In other words, even the intrinsically conservative arbiters of taste at the Song painting academy ranked highest the ability to create something new, providing of course that it fulfilled certain criteria, among which they stipulated that ‘forms and colors are rendered naturally’.

The present washer, with its emphasis on tonal variation and patterns of crazing reminiscent of those manifested by nature in beautiful stones, embodies this modernity. Hardly a shape could evoke the stylistic identity of the Southern Song as well as the mallow shape with its soft and pleasing outline, without any sharp edges. The simplicity of newly devised Song forms is already evident in Ru ware, for example, in the Northern Song (960-1127) washer from the collection of Alfred Clark, sold 4th April 2012, lot 101 (fig. 1), to which this guan example would seem to be a Southern Song echo.

Formerly collection of Alfred Clark. An outstanding Ru guanyao lobed brush washer (no. 29), Northern Song dynasty; 13.5 cm., 5 1/4 in. Sold for 207,860,000 HKD at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 4th April 2012, lot 101Photo Sotheby's

Cf. my post An outstanding Ru guanyao lobed brush washer, Northern Song dynasty

Its soft outline evokes contemporary lacquer ware rather than metal prototypes, even though close lacquer comparisons are rare. Mallow-shaped lacquer dishes generally are depicted with the ‘petals’ overlapping in S-shaped curves, but one similar black lacquer dish is in the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo, albeit with seven petals: see the Museum’s exhibition Sō Gen no bi. Denrai no shikki to chūshin ni/The Colors and Forms of Song and Yuan China. Featuring Lacquerwares, Ceramics, and Metalwares, Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo, 2004, cat. no. 19 (fig. 2).


Black lacquer foliate dish, Northern Song dynasty © Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo 

With its combination of seven rough spur marks and an unglazed foot ring, on which it does not seem to have been standing in the kiln, the present dish was probably produced fairly early in the Southern Song, when different methods of firing were tried out, as related washers and dishes generally show either an unglazed foot, or a glazed foot and spur marks.

Only one close companion piece appears to have been published, a washer in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, of very similar shape and size, also with an unglazed foot and seven spur marks, but the glaze fired to a more opaque greyish green and showing a denser crackle, and the body fired to a darker brown. In spite of damage to its rim, that washer has been repeatedly illustrated and exhibited by the Museum, and had been sent by the Chinese Government to the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-6, and is included in the Illustrated Catalogue of Chinese Government Exhibits for the International Exhibition of Chinese Art in London, Shanghai, 1935, vol. II, pl. 80; is it also illustrated in Gugong Song ci tulu. Nan Song Guan yao/Illustrated Catalogue of Sung Dynasty Porcelain in the National Palace Museum, Southern Sung Kuan Ware, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1974, pl. 56; it was included in the Museum’s major guan exhibition in 1989, published in Song guanyao tezhan/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Sung Dynasty Kuan Ware, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1989, cat. no. 94; and more recently in the exhibition Gui si chenxing. Qing gong chuanshi 12 zhi 14 shiji qingci tezhan/Precious as the Morning Star. 12th-14th Century Celadons in the Qing Court Collection, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2016, cat. no. II-30 (fig. 3). The National Palace Museum also owns a related washer of water caltrop shape, with the petal-shaped sides pointed at the rim, ibid., cat. no. II-28.


Guan lobed brush washer, Southern Song dynasty © Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei

Comparisons are otherwise extremely rare; but it is interesting in this context to look at a probably slightly later vessel of this mallow flower shape, the famous, somewhat larger piece in the Sir Percival David Collection in the British Museum, no. A46. This piece lacks spur marks, has shallower sides and thus represents a dish more than a washer, and has a more opaque, milky blue-green glaze; see Illustrated Catalogue of Ru, Guan, Jun, Guangdong and Yixing Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, rev. ed., London, 1999, p. 64 and back cover (fig. 4).

Guan lobed dish, Song dynasty, Sir Percival David Collection, PDF A46

Guan lobed dish, Song dynasty, Sir Percival David Collection, PDF A46. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The present washer is superbly potted, crisply shaped and yet fluid in its outlines, the thick glaze thinning towards the rim, the surface inviting the finger to follow the curves. The very glossy glaze has the most exquisite blue-green colour, a gelatinous lustre and a pleasing, satiny texture. The simplicity of the shape and the absence of any decoration are severe on the craftsmen as they are not forgiving of any defects; but they serve to highlight the elegant web of the luminous crackle. The piece appears as if carved from a boulder of a lustrous jade-like stone. New official commissions of such seemingly modest ceramics suggested cultured patronage rather than wasteful consumption and at the same time conveyed evidence of a continuation of imperial taste and style from the Northern to the Southern Song. 

Pieces such as this guanyao washer enjoyed an unbroken history of appreciation by sophisticated connoisseurs, both for actual use or just for delectation. Their appeal was of course not lost on the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795), one of China’s greatest self-proclaimed art lovers. The Huojidang [Archives of the Imperial Workshops] for the Qianlong period tell us that in 1744, one guanyao mallow-shaped washer with zitan stand, which the Emperor ranked as ‘top quality’, was ordered to be sent to the Qianqinggong, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, one of the main palace buildings in the Forbidden City, after a fitted brocade box and wrapping cloth had been made for it; in 1745, the Emperor had another such washer sent to the Yuanmingyuan Summer Palace, to be stored there in a treasure box; in 1749, he ordered that a drawer be made for the stand of such a washer, perhaps to house a small album of paintings and poems by the Emperor himself, as we know he had done for a piece of Ru ware; and in 1773 four such washers with zitan stands were apparently displayed on curio shelves in the Jingyanggong, Palace of Great Brilliance, one of the side halls of the Forbidden City, which today also houses a display of works of art. 

In more recent times, this washer belonged to two of the most important Asian collectors of Chinese art in the twentieth century, Edward T. Chow (fig. 5) and T.Y. Chao (fig. 6), and figured in two of the most memorable sales in Hong Kong, which have made auction history. Edward T. Chow (1910-1980), one of the most renowned dealers and collectors of Chinese art, began at an early age to work in this field and to assemble his collection, first in Shanghai, later in Hong Kong, and eventually in Switzerland. His expert knowledge of Chinese art, his high aesthetic standards and his relentless demand for quality made him one of the favourite addresses for the major collectors of the time, such as Sir Percival David, King Gustaf Adolf of Sweden, Eiichi Ataka, J.M. Hu, or Barbara Hutton, many of whom he managed to advise and as such to play an important role in the formation of collections as, for example, also the Meiyintang collection. The sale of his own collection in three parts at Sotheby’s Hong Kong and London in 1980 and 1981 created a splash in the art world and heralded an explosion of prices in this field. The Edward T. Chow collection remains one of the most coveted provenances for a piece of Chinese art.


Portrait of Edward T. Chow (1910-1980)


Portrait of T.Y. Chao (1912-1999)

T.Y. Chao (1912-1999), shipping magnate and leading real estate developer of Hong Kong, had collected Chinese art for decades prior to the Chow sales and besides porcelains, also sought out classical paintings and calligraphies as well as jades. An exhibition of one hundred Ming and Qing porcelains from his collection was held at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1978. Recognizing the rare opportunity the Chow sales provided, he became one of the major buyers there, despite the very high prizes. Many pieces from the Edward T. Chow sales therefore re-appeared on the market in 1986 and 1987, when the T.Y. Chao collection itself was offered in two auctions, also at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, echoing the success of the Chow sales. 


A black lacquer lobed dish, Song dynasty (960-1279)




Lot 3106. A black lacquer lobed dish, Song dynasty (960-1279); 17.6 cm, 6 7/8  in. Estimate 150,000 — 200,000 HKD (19,110 - 25,480 USD). Lot Sold 600,000 HKD (76,536 USD). Photo: Sotheby's.

delicately constructed with shallow everted sides rising from a recessed base to a six-lobed rim, divided by small ridges evenly radiating around the cavetto, further encircled with metal, Japanese wood box.

Lacquerware made between the late Tang and the early Song dynasties is characterised by simple, well-proportioned flower shapes with more or less deep indentations. These quiet, pleasing forms that were used for dishes, bowls and cup stands set a stylistic trend that reverberated throughout the period and strongly influenced ceramic designs. The present delicately lobed shape, resembling a prunus blossom and often modelled with five to seven petals, is one of the most classic Song forms amongst lacquerware as well as ceramics.

See two closely related examples from the collection of Sakamoto Gorō, sold in these rooms, 8th October 2013, lots 141 and 144. A red lacquer dish of this type, but of larger size, from the Lee Family collection and included in the exhibition Dragon and Phoenix, The Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne, 1990, cat. no. 15, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 3rd December 2008, lot 2109. See also a similar lacquer dish discovered amongst a group of lacquerware attributed to the Tang dynasty, excavated at Jianli county, Hubei Province, published in Wenwu/Chinese Cultural Relics, 1982, no. 2, p. 93, pl. 8, fig. 4. Compare also a persimmon-glazed Dingyao dish of smaller size (12.6 cm) and with subtler indentations, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Selection of Ding Ware. The Palace Museum's Collection and Archaeological Excavation, Beijing, 2012, pl. 89, together with another covered in a transparent ivory glaze, pl. 73.

An extremely rare imperial heirloom Dingyao ribbed cylindrical tripod incense burner, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127)




Lot 3107. An extremely rare imperial heirloom Dingyao ribbed cylindrical tripod incense burner, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127)13.9 cm, 5 1/2  inEstimate 3,000,000 — 4,000,000 HKD (382,200 - 509,600 USD). Lot Sold 7,920,000 HKD (1,010,275 USD). Photo: Sotheby's.

of archaistic lian form, superbly potted with a wide cylindrical body supported on three short cabriole legs, the exterior of the body encircled with nine evenly spaced thin raised ribs, veiled overall save for the unglazed rim and a circular disc on the interior with a translucent ivory-coloured glaze gently pooling on the underside, the rim mounted with a copper-coloured metal band.

Provenance: Collection of Alfred Schoenlicht (d. 1955), The Hague.
Sotheby's London, 13th December 1955, lot 60.
Collection of Dr Carl Kempe (1884-1967).
Sotheby's London, 5th November 2008, 498. 

ExhibitedInternational Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935, cat. no. 1171.

Literature: H.F.E. Visser, Asiatic Art in Private Collections of Belgium and Holland, Amsterdam, 1947, pl. 128, no. 228.
Bo Gyllensvärd, Chinese Ceramics in the Carl Kempe Collection, Stockholm, 1964, pl. 448.

NoteAdapted from an archaic bronze form, this exquisite incense burner belongs to a classic group of ceramic incense burners and is a particularly rare example of its type. Although this unassuming silhouette was produced in various proportions and arrangements of raised ribs, it is extremely unusual to find the ribs so evenly spaced and perfectly formed as on the present. The delicate rings not only accentuate the beauty of the form and glaze but also attest to its maker’s command over the medium. 

Five Ding incense burners belonging to this group, which illustrate the individuality of each potted piece, were included in the exhibition Gugong lidai xiangju tulu/A Special Exhibition of Incense Burners and Perfumers Throughout the Dynasties, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1994, cat. nos 35-39, together with a roughly contemporary Jingdezhen copy, cat. no. 44, a later Dehua copy, cat. no. 67, and a ‘Guang ware’ copy, probably from Guangzhou, cat. no. 71, all from the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Three of the five Ding incense burners in Taipei were also included in the exhibition Dingzhou hua ci. Yuan zang Dingyaoxi baici tezhan/Decorated Porcelains of Dingzhou. White Ding wares from the collection of the National Palace Museum, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2014, cat. no. II-5.6.7, all with fitted wooden covers with Yuan (1279-1368) or Ming (1368-1644) jade carvings as finials, a type known to have been commissioned by the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735) from the palace workshops.

Further incense burners include one, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Selection of Ding Ware. The Palace Museum Collection and Archaeological Excavation, Beijing, 2012, pl. 41, together with a smaller version excavated from Tomb 1 in Yangjiawan, Changsha, Hunan province, and now in the Hunan Provincial Museum, pl. 40; another in the Tianjin City Art Museum, Tianjin, published in Tianjin Shi Yishu Bowuguan cang ci/Porcelains from the Tianjin Municipal Museum, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 26; and another illustrated in Hsien-ch’i Tseng & Robert Paul Dart, The Charles B. Hoyt Collection in the Museum of Fine Arts: Boston, vol. II, Boston, 1972, pl. 29. See also an incense burner, from the collection of the Chang Foundation, sold in our London rooms, 11th December 1984, lot 169, and again in these rooms, 3rd October 2017, lot 10, from the Le Cong Tang collection; another from the Carl Kempe collection and illustrated in Bo Gyllensvärd, Chinese Ceramics in the Carl Kempe Collection, Stockholm, 1964, pl. 447, sold in our London rooms, 14th May 2008, lot 238; and a much smaller fragmentary example recovered from the Ding kiln site in Quyang, Hebei province, illustrated in Zhongguo gu ciyao daxi. Zhongguo Dingyao/Series of China’s Ancient Porcelain Kiln Sites: Ding Kiln of China, Beijing, 2012, pl. 108.

This group of incense burners reflects the major impact on the arts that resulted from a drastic political shift during the early Song dynasty, from a society ruled by a hereditary aristocracy to one governed by a central bureaucracy of scholar-officials selected through civil service examinations. The resulting rise of Neo-Confucian ideals emphasised the importance of history in the pursuit of virtue. The increased interest in antiquities led to a revival of archaic jade and bronze forms that Song potters skilfully adapted into their repertoire. The present incense burner finds its roots in gilt-bronze tripod wine vessels (zun) of the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), generally supported on bear-shaped feet, fitted with ring handles and supplied with a cover, such as an example decorated with animals, that is engraved with an inscription identifying it as a wine vessel (jiu zun) and dating it in accordance with the year 26 BC, illustrated in Li Xueqin, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji: Gongyi meishu bian [Complete series on Chinese art: Arts and crafts section], 5: Qingtong qi [Bronzes], vol. 2, Beijing, 1986, pl. 217, together with another gilt-bronze wine zun with matching tripod stand in the Palace Museum, Beijing, pl. 236, which is decorated with a triple raised band in the centre and single bands at the rim and base, and attributed to the reign of Guangwudi, AD 25-57.

The ribbed tripod form was also adopted at other official kilns that produced wares for the court, for example, the Ru kilns in Baofeng, Henan province, see Wang Qingzheng, Fan Dongqing & Zhou Lili, Ruyao de faxian/The Discovery of Ru Kiln, Hong Kong, 1991, pls 59 and 66, for a piece from the collection of Sir Percival David, now in the British Museum, London, and one from the Palace Museum, Beijing respectively; and at the Hangzhou guan (‘official’) kilns, see a piece in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s exhibition Gui si chenxing. Qing gong chuanshi 12 zhi 14 shiji qingci tezhan/Precious as the Morning Star. 12th-14th Century Celadons in the Qing Court Collection, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2016, cat. no. II-2, where the author mentions, p. 67, related examples excavated from both the Laohudong and the Jiaotanxia kiln sites in Hangzhou.


A very rare heirloom black lacquer barbed dish, Southern Song dynasty





Lot 3108. A very rare heirloom black lacquer barbed dish, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279)23 cm, 9 inEstimate 2,500,000 — 3,000,000 HKD (318,500 - 382,200 USD). UnsoldPhoto: Sotheby's.

the delicately lobed and rounded sides rising from a slightly recessed base to a broad flaring foliate rim, the lacquer of a warm deep toffee tone, the base with a Yu Zhang mark in red lacquer within a double lozenge, Japanese wood box.

Provenance: A Japanese noble family collection, prior to World War II.

Note: This dish has delicate rounded sides divided into seven bracket foliations, rising from a recessed centre with corresponding foliate edges to an everted rim of conforming outline. The thin wooden core is lacquered a deep black, and its base marked Yu Zhang in red lacquer within a double lozenge. Taking a 'water caltrop' shape, the dish evokes a lotus in full blossom, an impression gracefully reinforced by a stylised, overlapping floral pattern on its back rarely seen on heirlooms.

Elegant simplicity is characteristic of Song lacquerware, best exemplified by works of yise or monochrome lacquer. While the preferred choice was black, other colours such as red, brown, ochre and yellow could also be seen. Archaeological excavations have recovered a substantial amount of monochrome lacquerware in Song tombs, suggesting its great popularity among the nobility as an expensive object of use, whether for daily or funerary purposes.

The Song and Yuan dynasties have exerted a formative influence on the development of lacquerware in China. The lacquerware from the period, whether excavated, privately collected or preserved as heirlooms, all points to a dynamic contemporary dialogue between lacquer, ceramics, gold and silver as media of artistic production, a cross-influence that has come under scholarly attention.

A slightly smaller seven-lobed dish also with a bracket-lobed centre, in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., is illustrated in N.S. Bromelle and Perry Smith, eds, Urushi, Proceedings of the Urushi Study Group, June 10-27, 1985, Tokyo, Tokyo, 1988, p. 212, fig. 12. X-ray radiography has revealed it to be created with the dry lacquer technique on a fabric core that was stretched over a mould. Another slightly smaller black lacquer dish of the same seven-lobed form, from the collection of the Tokyo National Museum, was included in the exhibition Toyo no Shikkogei/Oriental Lacquer Arts, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1977, cat. no. 430 (fig. 1), together with a larger octafoil red lacquer dish, pl. 482; the seven-lobed example is illustrated again, in colour, in Hai-wai Yi-chen, Qiqi/Chinese Art in Overseas Collections: Lacquerware, Taipei, 1987, pl. 42. There is also in the Tokyo exhibition a red lacquer example with eleven brackets, a circular centre and fluted sides that do not fully conform to the bracket foliations of the rim; see Toyo no Shikkogei, op. cit., cat. no. 482. This piece is now in the Museum für Lackkunst, Münster, Germany, and is published again, in colour, in Monika Kopplin, ed., The Monochrome Principle: Lacquerware and Ceramics of the Song and Qing Dynasties, Munich, 2008, p. 113, pl. 22. Another red dish of this type with nine bracket foliations and a circular centre, from the collection of Sir Harry and Lady Garner, was included in the exhibition Chinese Art under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1968, cat. no. 282.


Black lacquer barbed dish, Southern Song dynasty © Collection of the Tokyo National Museum Image: TNM Images Archives

An outstanding and exceptional heirloom Junyao purple-splashed 'bubble' bowl, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127)







Lot 3109. An outstanding and exceptional heirloom Junyao purple-splashed 'bubble' bowl, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127); 9 cm, 3 1/2  inEstimate 20,000,000 — 30,000,000 HKD (2,548,000 - 3,822,000 USD)Lot Sold 24,120,000 HKD (3,076,747 USD).Photo: Sotheby's.

exquisitely potted with steep rounded sides rising from a short foot to a gently incurved rim, unctuously applied overall save for the foot with a sky-blue glaze draining to a mottled mushroom tone at the rim and pooling short of the foot, the lustrously reflective interior liberally adorned with vibrant splashes of copper forming a reddish-purple transmuting to three lavender haloes encircling attractive leaf-green patches, the exterior further extensively decorated with three richly variegated purple splashes accentuated with green dapples, the unglazed foot revealing the dense pale grey body burnt a brownish-orange in the firing.

Provenance: Collection of Edward T. Chow (1910-1980).
Sotheby's London, 16th December 1980, lot 265.
Collection of Sakamoto Gorō (1923-2016).
Sotheby's London, 7th June 2000, lot 93.

The Edward T. Chow 'Bubble' Bowl

This spectacular small bowl, with its captivating colours and a breathtakingly glossy sheen veiled over the interior, is an exceptional paradigm of the most coveted qualities of a ‘Jun’ ‘bubble’ bowl and arguably the greatest example in private hands. The characteristic vibrant hues of ‘Jun’ ware have always been held in high esteem since the Song dynasty and a blue-and-purple colour combination, whilst not common, is very rarely complemented with highlights of leaf-green as seen on the current bowl. Such unusual and ravishing a juxtaposition is arguably unprecedented and one that has never been equalled again.

This vessel is often referred to in the West as a ‘bubble’ bowl – and aptly so – by virtue of the shiny reflection in its interior, which evokes the optical illusion of a globular soap-bubble rising from the rim of the vessel. Set against the remarkably flamboyant and glossy glaze on the interior of this current bowl, this optical illusion of a thin opalescent soapy surface is all the more striking. There is no question that the current bowl, with its millennial lustre and brilliance preserved, ranks among the most desirable and iconic extant examples of its type.

‘Jun’ ware, with its type site represented by the Juntai kilns in the former region of Junzhou, modern-day Yuxian, Henan province, was produced by many different manufactories in Henan, including the Ru kilns at Qingliangsi in Baofeng, probably from the end of the Northern Song period (960-1127) until at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In comparison to the other important Song wares, the bodies of ‘Jun’ wares are more thickly potted, which is a contributing factor to the more simplistic forms – as well as the viscous glazes. As water from the glaze is absorbed by the porous biscuit in the firing, the glaze appears thicker, lending itself to a more substantial covering.

Far from being a mere application of different glazes, the captivating purple-and-blue colour combination seen on ‘Jun’ wares is in fact a multi-layered optical illusion steeped in unpredictability. The bright sky-blue ground derives not from a pigment but from an optical illusion that mirrors the blue of the sky; microscopic glass droplets are formed from the firing of the glaze and subsequently scatter and cast off blue light. The dramatic purplish-red splashes, on the other hand, are achieved through an application of copper-based pigment splashes and washes, often with a brush, which then merge with the dried milky sky-blue ground before being fired in a reduction kiln. Very rarely does the concentrated copper pigment re-oxidise and transmute to shades of green as it does on both the interior and exterior of the present bowl, where attractive leaf-green dapples and patches are whimsically encircled by lavender haloes.

Since the shades of the sky-blue ground and purplish-red splashes vary from piece to piece, no two ‘Jun’ vessels are alike and the unpredictability of the final outcome - as though created by nature - plays a vital role in its desirability, particularly amidst the Song ruling elite. The Northern Song dynasty witnessed great political, social and economic changes that led to a ferment of ideas across the board, dramatically carving out a different intellectual climate and aesthetic sensibility defined by simplicity, modesty and naturalism, marking a far cry from that of most erstwhile ruling classes in China and beyond. Devoid of extravagant materials, lavish designs and abidance by stringent guidelines, the seemingly simple small stoneware bowl, probably used for drinking wine, is rich in individuality, asymmetry and abstraction, enticing one for an intimate inspection of its timelessness and spontaneity – in which the lush colours of nature are deeply imbued.

Although many fine ‘bubble’ bowls with fewer purple splashes are known, few show a glaze of such breathtaking vibrancy as the present piece. As comparisons, two of the best extant examples come to mind, both also with deep overall purple colouration inside and a more distinctly painted purple ‘pattern’ outside. The first one, also formerly in the collection of Edward T. Chow, was sold in our London rooms, 16th December 1980, lot 264, again in these rooms from the T.Y. Chao collection, 19th May 1987, lot 209, and at Christie’s New York from the Jingguantang collection, 16th September 1998, lot 359 (fig. 1); the second one, reputedly from the collection of Alfred Schoenlicht, included in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition China Without Dragons: Rare Pieces from Oriental Ceramic Society Members, London, 2016, no. 72, was sold in our London rooms, 8th November 2006, lot 55, and again recently in these rooms, 3rd April 2018, lot 3605 (fig. 2).

Junyao purple-splashed bubble bowl, Northern Song dynasty, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 19th May 1987, lot 209

Junyao purple-splashed bubble bowl, Northern Song dynasty, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 19th May 1987, lot 209.

From the Collection of Alfred Schoenlicht, Nijkerk. An Exceptionnaly Fine and Superb Junyao Purple-Splashed Bubble Bowl, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127); 9 cm, 3 1/2 in. Sold for 14,520,000 HKD (1,502,447 EUR) (1,849,993 USD) at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 3rd April 2018, lot 3605. Photo: Sotheby's.

Cf. my post: An Exceptionnaly Fine and Superb Junyao Purple-Splashed Bubble Bowl, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127)

A related bowl in the Palace Museum, Beijing, with fewer purple splashes and apparently a paler blue glaze is illustrated in Jun ci ya ji. Gugong Bowuyuan zhencang ji chutu Junyao ciqi huicui/Selection of Jun Ware. The Palace Museum’s Collection and Archaeological Excavation, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2013, pl. 36; and a slightly smaller bowl also in the Palace Museum and decorated with less purple on the blue glaze, is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Porcelain of the Song Dynasty, Hong Kong, 1996, vol. 1, pl. 222. Other ‘bubble’ bowls with sparser purple splashes are, for example, in the Baur Collection, illustrated in John Ayers, The Baur Collection Geneva: Chinese Ceramics, Geneva, 1968-1974, vol. I, nos A 31 and A 32; in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from the Eumorfopoulos collection, published in Rose Kerr, Song Dynasty Ceramics, London, 2004, pl. 26 front; and in the Sir Percival David collection in the British Museum, illustrated in Stacey Pierson, Song Ceramics: Objects of Admiration, London, 2003, pl. 20.

The current bowl was formerly in the collections of two of the most renowned collectors and dealers of Chinese art in the 20th century, Edward T. Chow (1910-1980, fig. 3 right) and Sakamoto Gorō (1923-2016 fig. 3 left), shown together in this 1970s photo. Few individuals have shaped the market for Chinese works of art as prominently as Edward T. Chow, a dealer-collector who had worked in Shanghai and Hong Kong before settling in Switzerland. With a connoisseurship on Chinese art, discernible eye and relentless demand for quality, he was one of the favourite addresses for the major collectors of the time, such as Sir Percival David, King Gustaf Adolf of Sweden, Eiichi Ataka, J.M. Hu, or Barbara Hutton, many of whom he managed to advise and as such to play an important role in the formation of collections, as for example, the Meiyintang collection.


Sakamoto Gorō and Edward T. Chow at Chateau-Banquet in Geneva, circa 1970s.

Sakamoto Gorō (1923-2016) was a celebrated dealer whose career in the Asian art world spanned almost 70 years. A series of sales from his personal collection – ranging from lacquer and porcelain to stone sculpture and Buddhist bronzes - have been offered in our rooms over the years and the successes warrant the fact that his collection remains one of the most coveted provenances for a piece of Chinese art. The Clark Ding Basin, which holds the third highest price for Song ceramics sold at auction (after the two Ru guanyao washers sold in these rooms in 2012 and 2017 respectively) also came from the collection of Sakamoto Gorō.

“The Northern Song is famed as an age […] of magnificent painting and calligraphy, of matchless ceramics […] The scholar-official elite […] patronized the craftsmen who made, to their tastes, the ceramics and all the beautiful objects they collected, treasured, and used in their daily lives.”1

If Frederick W. Mote’s insight provides a peephole into the new high culture of the Northern Song, the current ‘bubble’ bowl, with its unparalleled spectacular sheen and illustrious provenance, must serve as a tangible window into a renaissant aesthetic that was marked by modesty and naturalism - hitherto avant-garde - but has evidently stood the test of time.

1 Frederick W. Mote, Imperial China 900-1800, Cambridge, 1999, reprint, Cambridge, 2015, p. 151.

A rare white jade figure of a deer, Song dynasty (960-1279)



Lot 3110. A rare white jade figure of a deer, Song dynasty (960-1279)5.8 cm, 2 1/4  inEstimate 2,000,000 — 3,000,000 HKD (254,800 - 382,200 USD). Unsold. Photo: Sotheby's.

the animal crouching with one foreleg raised and the others tucked underneath its body, the head proudly held upwards and its antlers sprung smoothly backwards, finely modelled with alert, almond-shaped eyes and flaring nostrils, the even white stone accentuated with clean, prominent russet streaks, wood stand.

Notehis exquisite jade carving of a crouching deer is carved from a river pebble of soft white colour, highlighted with attractive dark russet streaks. This naturally occurring contrast in the colour of the stone accentuates its translucency and purity. The skilled artisan succeeded in capturing the lively spirit of the creature, whilst conveying the Daoist essence of longevity and immortality. The silky finish of the present piece gives it an extremely tactile quality.

It is extremely rare to find a Song dynasty jade carving of a deer, but there is a closely related example in the British Museum, London. It is also carved from a pebble of white jade, with the same posture of head held high and slightly tilted backwards, antlers resting on the back, left front leg half raised and the rest folded underneath the body. It is incised with fine lines to denote the fur and with tiny stars dotted on its body to represent the deer’s spots, differing slightly from the current jade deer. The British Museum example has been extensively published, including the exhibition catalogue Chinese Jade Animals, Hong Kong, 1996, cat. no. 110, and in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade. From Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, pl. 26: 13, in which Rawson mentioned that the incised star feature may place it at a later date. A related but much larger celadon jade deer was unearthed at Beijing Normal University in 1962, dated to the Northern Song Dynasty, with lingzhi-shaped horns, four legs all tucked underneath the body, yet with a silky finish like the present piece. It is published in Zhongguo yuqi quanji [Complete collection of Chinese jade], vol. 5, Shijiazhuang, 1993, pl. 122, and is now in the Capital Museum, Beijing.

Jade carvings of deer can be found as early as the Tang dynasty, when they began to be widely associated with Daoist notions of immortal worlds, amongst other mythical animals such as dragons and phoenix. Compare a Tang-dynasty example of a crouching deer, of celadon jade, in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, smaller in size and with a flat, oval-shaped horn on the top of its head, illustrated ibid., pl. 38. The British Museum, London, has a plaque of a crouching deer, dated to the Tang dynasty, with a similar posture of lifting its front left leg, slightly larger in size, with a fan shaped horn on its head, published in Rawson, op.cit., pl. 25:5.

A rare heirloom Jian russet-streaked 'nogime temmoku' bowl, Southern Song dynasty(1127-1279)




Lot 3111. A rare heirloom Jian russet-streaked 'nogime temmoku' bowl, Southern Song dynasty(1127-1279); 12.2 cm, 4 3/4  in. Estimate 1,000,000-1,500,000 HKD (127,400 - 191,100 USD)Lot Sold 2,500,000 HKD (318,900 USD). Photo: Sotheby's.

well potted with deep rounded sides rising from a short straight foot to a thin concave groove below the rim, unctuously covered with a lustrous black glaze with russet 'hare's fur' running from the rim and pooling along the groove, the glaze stopping neatly above the foot revealing the dark brown body, the rim bound with metal; together with a lacquer cupstand with deep rounded sides collared with a six-lobed mallow-form flange, all supported on a flared foot, covered overall save for the interior of the stand and flange in black lacquer, the interior lacquered red, Japanese wood box. 

Note: 'Hare's fur' glazed bowls of this radiant type, which have been passed from hand to hand over the centuries in Japan, are rare. The humble appearances of these tea bowls made them appropriate for use in Buddhist temples, and they were held in great esteem in the Song dynasty (960-1279). Dramatically contrasting to the white foam of whipped tea, bowls enveloped in this lustrous black glaze were greatly appreciated and soon gained popularity beyond the monastic circles. Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-1125), well known for his love for tea, stated that black-glazed tea bowls, especially those decorated with 'hare's fur' like the present example, were the most desirable. Together with whipped tea, Song dynasty 'Jian' tea bowls are believed to have arrived in Japan in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) when Zen Buddhism was introduced, and have since then been greatly treasured.

A similar bowl was included in the exhibition Karamono temmoku [Chinese temmoku], MOA Art Museum, Atami, 1994, cat. no. 6. This exhibition catalogue, where a few important heirloom temmoku tea bowls preserved in Japan were juxtaposed with a large sample of excavated specimens from the kiln site, impressively documented the wide range of qualities and the excellence of the examples collected in Japan. Another bowl with a similar glaze effect in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was included in the exhibition Hare's Fur, Tortoiseshell, and Partridge Feathers. Chinese Brown- and Black-Glazed Ceramics, 400-1400, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass., 1996, cat. no. 83. Only one sherd with a similar glaze effect is illustrated in J.M. Plumer, Temmoku. A Study of the Ware of Chien, Tokyo, 1972, p. 59, pl. 8.

A rare Cizhou white-ground painted bowl, Song dynasty (960-1279)


Lot 3112. A rare Cizhou white-ground painted bowl, Song dynasty (960-1279); w. 11.5 cm, 4 1/2  inEstimate 500,000 — 700,000 HKD (63,700 - 89,180 USD). Unsold. Photo: Sotheby's.

potted with a deep U-shaped body supported on a short splayed foot and gently tapering inwards at the mouth, the exterior freely painted in dark brown on an ivory-white slip with undulating reeds extending across the vessel, all veiled under a clear glaze.

Provenance: Sotheby's Hong Kong, 29th October 1991, lot 12.
Sotheby's New York, 23rd March 2011, lot 523.

Property of the Le Cong Tang Collection.

Note: Freely painted with an attractive design of undulating reeds, this cup is characteristic of wares produced at the Cizhou type kilns in Ci county, Hebei province. A layer of white slip was applied over the body, which was then painted with dark brown pigments in rapid brushstrokes before being enhanced by a coat of clear glaze. Such vividly contrasting brown-and-white design is reminiscent of calligraphy and ink paintings and thus vessels such as the present would have been highly sought after by the literati during the Song dynasty (960-1279).

Bowls of this type are known in a variety of sizes, proportions and designs; for one of related form, compare a larger bowl painted with floral scrolls, with a fitted cover, from the collection of Madame Paul Pechère, included in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition The Arts of The Sung Dynasty, London, 1960, cat. no. 93; and another painted with peony leaf sprays, attributed to the Jin dynasty, from the Avery Brundage collection and now preserved in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, exhibited in Freedom of Clay and Brush through Seven Centuries in Northern China: Tz’u-chou Type Wares, 960-1600 A.D., Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, 1980, cat. no. 66. See also two small jars rendered in this painterly style, but of ovoid form and decorated with three large floral sprays, sold in these rooms, the first from the T.Y. Chao collection, sold 18th November 1986, lot 18, and the other, 5th April 2017, lot 3201.

An exceptionally large and rare inscribed jade figure of a buffalo, Song dynasty, the inscription dated to the bingyin year of the Qianlong period (in accordance with 1746)







Lot 3113. An exceptionally large and rare inscribed jade figure of a buffalo, Song dynasty, the inscription dated to the bingyin year of the Qianlong period (in accordance with 1746); 40 cm, 15 3/4  in.  Estimate 15,000,000 — 20,000,000 HKD (1,911,000 - 2,548,000 USD). Unsold. Photo: Sotheby's. 

miniminally worked to conform to the natural contours of the impressively substantial boulder, depicting a recumbent buffalo with its head turned to its left to face backwards and a tail tucked under its hind leg, the beast marked with subtle rounded outlines forming the muscular body and further rendered with a pair of small furled ears and long curved horns, the underside of the boulder incised and filled in with gilt with a fourteen-character inscription translating as 'The spirit of Chou (buffalo) provides the foundation for food, brings joy to tens of thousands of people, and forms the basis of the harvest year by year', dated to the bingyin year of the Qianlong reign (in accordance with 1746) and followed by two seal marks reading Qianlong chenhan (‘the Qianlong Emperor’s literary and artistic work’) and Xintian Zhuren ('ruler who believes in Heaven'), the variegated yellowish-celadon stone extensively mottled with reddish-brown and black patches.

Provenance: Collection of Natasha du Breuil (1891-1966), assembled in Beijing and Tianjin in the 1930s and 1940s, and thence by descent.
Christie's London, 11th November 2003, lot 65.

A Jade Buffalo Treasured by the Qianlong Emperor

This monumental and unique jade carving of a water buffalo is an extraordinary legacy of the Song dynasty. It was originally created as a display object of presence and power, yet endued with the spirit of nature, enabling a wealthy patron to transport his mind away from the cares of the city to the tranquillity of nature. Treasured through the ages, it was later in the collection of the Qianlong Emperor, who had it inscribed in 1746 with imperial seals and a poem, the essence of which strongly points to its use in an important annual agricultural ritual.

Water buffaloes were revered from early on in Chinese history and depicted in a variety of media including bronze and jade. Some of the earliest surviving jade examples include a small figure depicting a reclining and forward-facing animal, attributed to the late Shang dynasty (13th-11th centuries BC), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession. no. 1976.297.2, a jade water buffalo carved in flat relief in the Mrs Edward Sonnenschein collection, Chicago, illustrated by A. Salmony, Carved Jade of Ancient China, 1938, pl. XXIII (8) and an example in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, illustrated by Jessica Rawson, 'Animal Motifs in Early Western Zhou Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections', Chinese Bronzes: Selected articles from Orientations, 1983-2000, Hong Kong, 2001, p. 20, fig. 12. Jade carvings of animals excavated from Shang tombs during the Song dynasty no doubt had an influence on contemporaneous works.  

Water buffaloes were revered in Song poetry and painting. A poem by the statesman and literati Su Shi (1037-1101), epitomises this:

Long ago I lived in the country,
And knew only sheep and buffalo.
Down smooth riverbeds [riding] on the buffalo's back,
Steady as a hundredweight barge,
A boat that needs no steering, while banks slipped by,
I stretched out and read a book: she didn't care.

Buffaloes were a popular subject matter in Song dynasty paintings. There is a number of famous examples in museum collections, such as Yan Ciping, Buffalo and Boy in Autumnal Landscape, included in the exhibition Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1981, cat. no. 3. Anonymous paintings include an album leaf of water buffaloes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession no. 51.150.1, and another sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 27th November 2017, lot 935.

Bo Liu argues in ‘The Multivalent Imagery of the Ox in Song Painting’, Journal of Song-Yuan Studies, University of Berkeley, vol. 44, 2014, that paintings of buffaloes thrived in the Song dynasty for a numbers of reasons: firstly, because such paintings gave scholar officials temporary relief from their daily working lives in the city, providing them with a temporary sense of withdrawal while viewing the painting; secondly, because such paintings were popular with the emperor because they implied his worthiness to rule, and thirdly, because herding was increasingly used as a metaphor for attaining enlightenment by Chan artists. Large scale sculptures of water buffaloes such as the current lot are much rarer than images of buffaloes in paintings, but are likely to have served the same purpose – to transport the owner to a bucolic paradise.

In contrast to antiquity, when animal sculptures were created for burial, the post-archaic period saw the emergence of a new tradition of such animal sculptures being created for pleasure and utility rather than for ritual or burial. This is epitomised by a rare bronze figure of a water buffalo, closely related to the ox included in this sale as lot 3104, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession no. 1985.214.92.

Excavated animal figures from the Song dynasty are rare, though a small stone paperweight in the form of a stylised buffalo was recovered from a Southern Song tomb at Zhejiang Zhuji county, illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, British Museum, London, 1995, p. 356, fig. 10. Like the current buffalo, its naturalistic recumbent pose encapsulates the more secular treatment of the animal sculpture. Accompanied by another stone paperweight and other items used for writing, it was clearly a valued possession of a wealthy individual in life, rather than an object created for the tomb. 

Song dynasty jade carvings of buffaloes of any size are rarer than representations of other animals, and the exceptional size of the current sculpture makes it all the rarer. However, several examples are recorded in museum and private collections, including a small greyish-white jade figure of a buffalo in the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung, included in the exhibition Chinese Jade Animals, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1996, cat. no. 109, and illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, op. cit, p. 370, fig. 26:14, where she notes the rarity of figures of buffaloes among pre-Ming jade animal carvings and argues that the smoothness and relaxed appearance appears to derive from the painting tradition, and that a ‘vogue for pastoral imagery was instrumental in the carving of jade buffaloes’.

Several Song dynasty jade carvings of mythical animals also exhibit a similar style of craftsmanship as on the current buffalo – the naturalistic carving with monumental simplicity of form, spontaneously created so close to the shape of the original pebble or boulder. This can be seen in the precise turn of the head and recumbent posture on the current buffalo, and on other smaller Song jade animals, including a greyish-white jade figure of a mythical beast from the Hei-Chi collection, playfully rendered in an archaistic style characteristic of the period, included in the exhibition Chinese Jade Animals, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1996, cat. no. 83, and sold in these rooms, 8th April 2010, lot 1992. It shares a similar circular perforation in the body. See also a celadon and russet jade ram from the Hei-Chi collection, included in the exhibition Chinese Jade Animals, op. cit., cat. no. 92, and sold in these rooms, 8th April 2010, lot 1990. Both jade carvings, though much smaller than the current buffalo, demonstrate the same structural approach to the carving, the use of bold arc and powerfully defined lines to etch out the form of the animal while remaining integrally close to the pebble or boulder itself. See also a jade mythical animal in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Jadeware II, Hong Kong, 1995, pl. 58, where the naturalistic treatment of the animal depicting turning its head, and the characteristic networks of veins on the stone, closely resemble that on the current figure.

The following inscription is intricately incised on the base, together with the seals Qianlong chenhan and Xintian Zhuren, both important seals used on paintings created by the Qianlong Emperor:

The spirit of Chou (buffalo) provides the foundation for food, brings joy to tens of thousands of people, and forms the basis of the harvest year by year.

The essence of this inscription strongly points to the buffalo itself being used in an important annual agricultural ritual.  It is recorded that the Qianlong Emperor commissioned a large bronze ox to be placed at Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace in 1755. The back is inscribed with an eighty-character inscription relating to the legendary Emperor Yu having cast an iron buffalo to control the floods. It is likely that he was consciously looking to emulate the past, not only due to his reverence and interest in it, but also to endure stability and prosperity in the present. What is interesting is that it demonstrates his commitment to the traditional belief in the power of objects to have an effect on nature itself.

On the first auspicious day of this month, the Son of Heaven conducts the rites and entreats the supreme deity for a bumper harvest. He brings the plough personally, placing it between the guard and the driver, and commands the three dukes and nine princes to assist him in tilling the field.

This excerpt from Li Ji (Book of Rites) by Confucius provides the background to the annual sacrifices proscribed for the Son of Heaven to ensure a healthy harvest. The Xiannongtang altar complex was created in 1420 during the Yongle era, and annual sacrifices were made there. The Qianlong Emperor is recorded as having been particularly serious about the practice, conducting it 58 times and ordering a renovation of the whole complex with additional buildings created. On the third lunar month he would personally plough three furrows within the grounds. This is shown in an engraving by Isidore Stanislas Helman in the 1780s, illustrated in From Beijing to Versailles – Artistic Relations between China and France, Urban Council, Hong Kong, 1997, pp. 248-249, no. 95.

The precise inscription on the current buffalo clearly makes reference to this ritual, so important to the Qianlong Emperor, suggesting it was actually brought to ritual sacrifices at the Xiannongtang, where its additional potency as a treasured object of antiquity would enhance the effectiveness of the ritual, or kept as an object of contemplation in the halls of the palace, to remind him of the importance of the ritual.

The buffalo was originally in the collection of Natasha du Breuil (1891-1966), a renowned White Russian antiques dealer who moved to Beijing in 1918 after the Russian Revolution and operated between Beijing and Tianjin before eventually moving to Hong Kong after 1949.


A rare russet-splashed dark brown-glazed truncated vase, tulu ping, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127)



Lot 3114. A rare russet-splashed dark brown-glazed truncated vase, tulu ping, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127)h. 14.8 cm, 5 7/8  in.  Estimate 2,500,000 — 3,000,000 HKD (318,500 - 382,200 USD)Unsold. Photo: Sotheby's.

sturdily potted with a body of compressed form tapering to a flat base, surmounted by rounded shoulders and a short waisted neck and flared rim, applied overall with a lustrous dark brown glaze extending onto the interior of the neck and falling neatly just above the base, further liberally decorated with russet-brown splashes of varying sizes, the base with an unglazed outer ring revealing the grey ware and applied with blackish-brown glaze in the centre.

Provenance: Collection of Dr Johannes Hellner (1866-1947), Stockholm.
Christie's New York, 20th March 2001, lot 202.
Sotheby's New York, 23rd March 2011, lot 517.

Property of the Le Cong Tang Collection. 

Exhibited: Bo Gyllensvärd, Kina och Norden: i form och glasyr ur Hellnerska samlingen/Chinese and Scandinavian Ceramics: A Selection from the Hellner Collection, Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, 1970, cat. no. 39.

LiteratureBo Gyllensvärd, Oriental Ceramics. The World's Great Collections, Tokyo, 1982, vol. 8, pl. 159.

Note: The russet-coloured spontaneous splashes applied over the lustrous dark brown glaze must have evolved naturally from the experimental nature of competing Song dynasty kilns which produced black and brown-glazed wares for the thriving domestic and export tea ware market. On the present vase, the applied matte, iron-red glaze contrasts dramatically with the brilliant dark brown glaze beneath. The use of this glaze technique is particularly effective on this truncated form of vase, as the thin, viscous glaze and splashes condense around the small, flat mouth-rim, gathering lightly around the shoulders, gradually elongating as the glaze drapes around the sides. As no two 'splashes' can be the same, the random, serendipitous character of this decorative technique must have been a large part of its appeal to the Song literati.

Vases of this form and decoration are rare. Compare a closely related example with a shorter neck, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. III (ii), 2006, no. 1510. A similar example, although of smaller dimension and more vigorously applied splashes, is illustrated in Sekei toji zenshu/ Ceramic Art of the World, Tokyo, 1977, vol. 12, p. 244, pl. 246.

Dr Johannes Hellner (1866-1947), a Swedish jurist and politician, was the Foreign Minister during World War I. After retiring from all official obligations, Hellner began to study and acquire Chinese ceramics in 1925, and in 1928 he co-founded Kinaklubben, which became the Swedish branch of the Oriental Ceramic Society in the early 1930s. While monochrome pieces from the Ming and Qing featured prominently, the primary focus of his collection was on Tang and Song ceramics.

A rare Longquan celadon lobed brush washer, Song dynasty (960-1279)


Lot 3115. A rare Longquan celadon lobed brush washer, Song dynasty (960-1279); 14.5 cm, 5 5/8  in. Estimate 700,000 — 900,000 HKD (89,180 - 114,660 USD). Lot Sold 875,000 HKD (111,615 USD). Photo: Sotheby's.

with shallow sides flaring at an angle from a short tapered foot to a rim gently divided into six lobes with small grooves, evenly covered overall save for the footring with a luminous bluish-green glaze with faint crackles on the interior, the unglazed footring revealing the buff body burnt brownish-orange in the firing.

Note: The serenity of the form and glaze of this washer embodies the fresh aesthetic of the scholar-officials of the Song dynasty (960-1279) which was characterised by simplicity, modesty and naturalism. The luminous glaze, delicately draped over the body to complement its graceful silhouette, draws from the rim and pools gently in the well in an effect that simulates ice on a bright winter’s day. Such reference to nature is also indicated by its lobed form which resembles a flower, a popular shape in ceramics and lacquerware for its association with longevity and a fulfilling life. The gently lobed rim and attractive angled form reflects the close dialogue between monochrome lacquer and ceramics during this period.

Longquan celadon washers of this type are rare; see one, the glaze of a slightly greener tone, included in the exhibition Longquan Ware: Chinese Celadon Beloved of the Japanese, Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum, Nagoya, 2012, cat. no. 53; and another covered with a bluish-green glaze with light brown crackles, sold at Christie’s London, 10th December 1990, lot 114A, and again in our New York rooms, 23rd March 2011, lot 510. 

Dishes of similar form were produced at a number of kilns; see a Guan example, from the collection of Stephen Junkunc III, sold at Christie’s New York, 22nd March 2007, lot 385; and again in these rooms, 5th April 2017, lot 1106; and another from the Lord Cunliffe collection, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 30th April 2001, lot 648. Compare also Ding versions of this dish, but with a much narrower foot, such as a brown-splashed black glazed example, from the collection of Mr and Mrs Alfred Clark, Idemitsu Museum of Arts and Francisco Capelo, sold four times at auction, in 1975, 2002, 2010 and most recently in these rooms, 3rd October 2017, lot 4, from the Le Cong Tang collection; and a Ding-type persimmon-glazed dish, from the Harry Nail and Hans Popper collections, sold in our New York rooms, 13th/14th September 2016, lot 107.

A black lacquer 'chrysanthemum' dish, Song dynasty (960-1279)



Lot 3116. A black lacquer 'chrysanthemum' dish, Song dynasty (960-1279); 27.7 cm, 10 7/8  inEstimate 1,200,000 — 1,800,000 HKD (152,880 - 229,320 USD). Unsold. Photo: Sotheby's.

the sides delicately fashioned with forty-six narrow fluted lobes resembling the petals of a chrysanthemum bloom, all supported on a countersunk base, lustrously lacquered overall in reddish brown, the base further inscribed in red with a yu (jade) character.

Note: The present lacquer dish, with its elegant shape in line with the aesthetics of the Song dynasty, would have reminded any Chinese, whether from the ruling class or belonging to the scholar gentry, of the understated blooms of chrysanthemums, a flower with delicate fragrance symbolising the subtle virtue of a gentleman.

See a larger example with an everted rim (30.5 cm), inscribed to the base with the characters Wu xing dong ji and attributed to the Northern Song dynasty, included in the exhibition The Colors and Forms of Song and Yuan China: Featuring Lacquerwares, Ceramics, and Metalwares, Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo, 2004, cat. no. 13, together with a dingyaomoulded dish of chrysanthemum shape in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum, cat. no. 15.