A spectacular 'ying xiong' rhinoceros horn libation cup, late Ming-early Qing dynasty, 17th Century

Lot 370. A spectacular 'ying xiong' rhinoceros horn libation cup, late Ming-early Qing dynasty, 17th Century; 6 3/4 in., 17.2 cm. Estimate 40,000 — 60,000 USD. Lot sold 240,000 USD. Photo: Sotheby's.

possibly derived from Han and Tang period gilt-bronze 'parrot' or 'hawk' cups, the truncated tapering horn carved with a gigantic powerful eagle perched on the back of a mythical leonine bear to form the rebus yingxiong (representing heroic virtue), the oval hollowed interior cavity of the cup set in the back of the bird in which the tail-feathers flute upwards from an overhanging curved lip emerging behind the feathery nape of the head as it turns in profile towards its left, the exterior strikingly depicted with the strong downward curve of the furled wings on either side, their leading edge incised with elegantly tapering scrolls and framing the 'S'-shaped curve of the neck accented with registers of overlapping short feathers below the fully rounded cheeks, bulging eyes and powerful beak of the eagle, as it captures a feather in its beak to groom its luxuriant crest, the rest of the exterior similarly swathed in lush tail feathers with curling tips, the vicious claws poised with latent power over the back of a recumbent mythical bear to form the foot of the cup, its claws similarly pulled up beneath the body and bifurcated tail, set with scales at the haunches, the dragon-like head turned to the right in a snarl and framed by curling brows and long crest.

NoteThe eagle, ying, and the bear, xiong, are frequently combined as an iconographic motif in Chinese art, as homonyms for the character of a hero, yingxiong; as frequently recalled in the phrase yingxiong duli, 'solitary hero, alone in glory and nobility'. During the 18th century, the archaised representations of these animals are frequently found in combination with conjoined tubular vases to form so-called 'champion' vases in jade, gilt-bronze and boxwood. However 'champion' vases are extremely rare in rhinoceros horn, and the present cup is almost unique in having the motif on a libation cup-form, where the emphasis is solely on the beasts in non-archaising style.

Compare two small rhinoceros horn 'champion' vases, illustrated Fok, Connoisseurship of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, Hong Kong, 1999, nos. 43 and 44, the first in the Dora Wong collection, and the second in the Shanghai Museum. Compare also a series of four small cups depicting almost complete but stylised perching birds, most likely a typical 17th century conceit, ibid., nos. 173, 174, 177 and 179, but none of these bears the large-scale conception and power of the present cup. It is also particularly interesting to compare the head of the eagle, in the superb sculptural modeling of the cheeks and eyes, with the famous Wanli period 'deer' cup in the Shuisongshi Shanfang collection, no. 175, signed by Bao Tiancheng, the great master.

Sotheby's. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, including Property from the Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 19-20 march 2007