An extremely rare and large blue and white 'Dragon' moonflask, Qing dynasty, 18th century

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Lot 534. An extremely rare and large blue and white 'Dragon' moonflask, Qing dynasty, 18th century; Height 15 1/2 in, 39.4 cm. Estimate: US$300,000 - US$500,000. Lot Sold 920,000 USD© Sothebys

skillfully potted with a broad, gently compressed, rounded body rising to a waisted neck and lipped rim, the neck flanked by a pair of archaistic chilong-form handles, each side of the body exquisitely and richly painted in shades of cobalt blue with a frontal five-clawed dragon, limbs outstretched and soaring sinuously around a ‘flaming pearl’ amidst flaming wisps and stylized clouds, all above rolling and cresting waves, the neck with a central bat roundel flanked by clouds between a lappet band and a border of further rolling waves below the rim, the base white-glazed.

Property from the Collection of Robert Youngman.

Provenance: Sotheby's London, 13th June 1989, lot 263.
Weisbrod Chinese Art, Ltd., New York.
Christie's New York, 20th March 2001, lot 245.

Exhibited: Michael B. Weisbrod, Inc., New York, 1992.
Inaugural Exhibition of the Robert F. Reiff Gallery of Asian Art, Middlebury College Museum of Art, Middlebury, Vermont, September 2005.
Azure Skies and Pure Snows, Middlebury College Museum of Art, Middlebury, Vermont, September-December 2007.

Note: In form and decoration, the present moonflask draws inspiration from early Ming dynasty prototypes, a period traditionally recognized as among the greatest for the production of Imperial blue and white porcelain. For an early Ming dynasty moonflask of more oblate form, lacking handles and the dragon in profile, see one from the Qing Court Collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing illustrated in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], vol. 1, Beijing, 2002, pl. 89. Another early Ming dynasty example with a flattened spherical body and bulb mouth from the collections of Edward T. Chow and T.Y. Chao, included in the exhibition Zhongguo ming tao Riben xunhui zhan [Exhibition of famous Chinese ceramics touring Japan], National Museum of History, Taipei, 1992, pls 118-121 is illustrated on the slip case and again in Sotheby’s: Thirty Years in Hong Kong, 2003, Hong Kong, pl. 205.

Ming dynasty moonflasks began to be copied on a large scale in the Yongzheng period (1723-35), when the whole repertoire of Yongle forms was reproduced. The Yongzheng versions generally follow the Ming shapes rather closely, either with little or no foot, similar to the present example, or with a central raised boss or garlic-head mouth. During the Qianlong reign (1736-95), the potters of the Imperial kilns appear to have been more interested in diversifying handle shapes than the vessel's silhouette. It was during this time that handles in the form of archaistic animals, birds, and plants were applied to moonflasks. Even the painting style of the early Ming period was consciously recreated during the Qing dynasty. The porcelain painters of the 18th century were so enamored with the appearance of early 15th century blue and white that they developed a special painting manner to imitate the accidental imperfections of their models, namely by recreating the so-called 'heaped and piled' effect of darker spots of cobalt blue through deliberate uneven dotting. 

The design of the present flask with a frontal dragon is very rare. Examples of this type with a Qianlong seal mark include: one in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, illustrated in Qingdai ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Qing porcelain], Shanghai, 1994, pl. 159; another with the dragon clutching the pearl, from the Wang Xing Lou Collection, is published in Imperial Perfection. The Palace Porcelain of Three Chinese Emperors, Hong Kong, 2004, pl. 20, a third flask with very similar decoration but on a splayed foot sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 3rd April 2018, lot 3204. Compare also a larger version, set with chilong handles, sold in our London rooms, 7th November 2007, lot 407. 

Moonflasks painted with a slightly different design, for instance, with the frontal dragon reserved in a central roundel, are also known.  See one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the Qing Court Collection, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Blue and white Porcelain with Underglazed Red (III), Hong Kong, 2000, pl.132, where the piece is mentioned in reference to a Qianlong order of 1738 to copy a Xuande blue and white flask. Two Qianlong flasks of this design sold in our Hong Kong rooms, one 29th October 2001, lot 543 and the other 8th October 2009, lot 1701. See also a blue and white moonflask with dragons in profile sold in our London rooms 6th November 2013, lot 16.

Although no other examples of 'dragon' moonflasks lacking a Qing dynasty reign mark appear to be known, there are many examples of unmarked Ming-style moonflasks. For example, see the moonflask painted with birds on a flowering branch formerly the collection of Richard de la Mare, then the Su Lin An Collection and, most recently the Meiyintang Collection, sold three times: first in our London rooms, 2nd April 1974, lot 369; then twice in our Hong Kong rooms, 31st October 1995, lot 325 and again 7th April 2011, lot 76. See also a 'peony' moonflask sold in these rooms, 24th March 2018, lot 1522.

Sotheby's. Important Chinese Art, New York, 20 mars 2019, 10:00 AM