Lot 373. An outstanding and rare rhinoceros horn 'Chickens' libation cup, signed by You Kan (active 1660 - 1720), Qing dynasty, Kangxi period (1662-1722); 5 1/2 in., 14 cm. Estimate 250,000 — 350,000 USD. Lot sold 540,000 USD. Photo: Sotheby's.
the composition clearly inspired by Chenghua 'chicken' cups in doucai porcelain, the horn of deep golden russet tone and of tapered truncated form, carved in masterly fashion with a cockerel standing proudly over his brood of animated chicks, with the mother hen bending down to lovingly bear up further chicks on the far side, all against rockwork and sprays of chrysanthemum, begonias and various plants, the interior finely carved with further rockwork and an undulating spray of chrysanthemums or asters near one end, the rockwork continuing to the underside of the base and framing a neat square seal reading You Kan, in stylised attenuated zhuanshu script.
Note: Only two closely related vessels carved and signed by You Kan appear to be recorded, one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Jan Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, pl. 250, formerly in the collection of Dr. Ip Yee; and one sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1st November 2004, lot 951.
The carving of this vessel is especially fine with the cockerel, hen and chicks strategically placed to take advantage of the pale and fibrous inclusions of the material. The cockerel appears majestic and strong while the chicks are delicately carved to make them feather light and soft. The carving is executed with perfection, creating a finish that is gem-like. The artist has successfully transferred a subject matter well known from paintings into a three-dimensional composition. See a scroll painting by the Tang artist, Huang Quan, who belonged to the Imperial Painting Academy, illustrated in Osvald Siren, Chinese Painting, Part I, vol. III, New York, 1956, pl. 136, which may have been the inspiration for You Kan’s masterpiece.
The ‘cock, hen and chicks’ motif is said to symbolize domestic harmony but is also a representation of official success. According to legend, the five chicks represent the five sons of Dou Yujun, who was revered as the ideal parent. Each of Dou’s five sons achieved exceptional success in their civil service examinations and became high officials.
Porcelain ‘chicken cups’ of the Chenghua period (1565-87), such as those in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and included in the Special Exhibition of Ch’eng-hua Porcelain Ware, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2003, cat.nos. 132-137, always were among the most desirable collectors’ items, and were copied in the Kangxi period.