A Fine 'jun' sky-blue narcissus bowl, Early Ming dynasty

Lot 100. A Fine 'jun' sky-blue narcissus bowl, Early Ming dynasty; diameter 7 7/8 in., 20 cmEstimate USD 300,000 — 400,000. Lot sold USD 825,000© Sotheby's

of shallow circular form with curved sides, the exterior molded with a raised band featuring evenly spaced drum-nail bosses below the rounded rim, another row of bosses near the foot, all supported by three boldly scrolling ruyi-head bracket feet, covered in a lustrous sky-blue glaze exhibiting a network of 'worm trails', the edge of the rim, the bosses and the base in a mushroom tone, the underside incised si ('four') surrounded by a ring of spur marks, fitted carved wood stand (2).

Provenance: Christie's Hong Kong, 25th October 1993, lot 705. 

Note: 'Jun' ware derives its beauty from the striking and thick opaque glaze of varied bright blue coloration that becomes almost translucent around the rim and the edges of the vessel, where the glaze thins significantly. Although 'Jun' wares are known as one of the five 'classic wares' of the Song period, mold-made flower vessels, such as the present narcissus bowl, are now overwhelmingly attributed both by Chinese and Western scholars to the types made at Yuzhou, Henan province, an area formerly known as Junzhou, from the Jin (1115-1234), Yuan (1279-1368) or the Ming period onwards. Regina Krahl in Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. Three (II), London, 2006, p. 456, notes that 'Jun' is not mentioned in any pre-Ming text, and although it was later ranked among the five 'classic wares' of the Song, the exact identity of Song 'Jun' is still a matter of debate. It was a ware that seems to have appealed particularly to the elite from the Jin Dynasty onwards, when some of the most spectacular and complex pieces were being made.

The present narcissus bowl is possibly one of the finest examples of 'Jun' vessels of this type. It is covered with an especially thick and rich opaque blue glaze of striking blue coloration that characteristically pools forming a prominent edge below the 'drum-nail' bosses around the rim and the base. Although the glaze is of an unusually rich texture it is expertly applied to expose the molded decoration.   

Mold-made vessels of this type are frequently identified with numbers from one to ten on the base. The significance of the numbers inscribed on the vessels remains an enigma. The numbers coincide roughly with different sizes, yi ('one') being the largest and shi ('ten') the smallest version of the shape. This would help to match sets of flower pots and their stands but does not explain the appearance of numbers on the base of vases and bulb bowls, as seen on the present bowl, which generally come on their own. For further information see George J Lee, 'Numbered Chun Ware', Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 21, 1945-46, p. 61, where five 'numbered Jun' vessels from the collection of Ernest B. and Helen Pratt Dane, possibly one of the most important collectors of 'numbered Jun' wares outside China, and now in the Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass., are recorded.

Bulb bowls of this form, with the same numeral on the base, are included in the Illustrated Catalogue of Sung Dynasty Porcelain in the National Palace Museum: Ju Ware, Kuan ware, Chun Ware, Tokyo, 1973, pls. 64-66, both with purple splashes added to the glaze; and two blue-glazed examples inscribed with the numeral yi ('one') are illustrated ibid., pls. 65 and 67, the latter with the so-called 'moon-white' glaze. A blue-glazed bulb bowl with the numeral si ('four'), from the Reach Family Collection and the collection of Dr. W. Kilgenberg, Bonn, was included in the exhibition Chinese Art from the Reach Family Collection, Eskenazi, London, 1989, cat.no. 24, and sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 2nd May 2000, lot 590; and one from the collections of Harcourt Jonhstone and Enid and Brodie Lodge was sold in our London rooms in 1940 and 1972 and again in our Hong Kong rooms, 30th April 1996, lot 306.    

A further larger blue-glazed example can be found in the Idemitsu collection, Tokyo, illustrated in Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, pl. 104; and fragments of what appears to be a slightly smaller vessel is included in the National Museum of History publication The Ancient Kilns of Henan Province, Taipei, 2002, p. 196. Compare also a slightly larger bowl, from the T.Y. Chao collection, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 19th May 1987, lot 210; and a much smaller vessel inscribed with the numeral jiu ('nine') but covered with a closely related brilliant blue glaze, from the J.M. Hu Family collection, sold in these rooms, 26th March 1996, lot 154.

Sotheby'sFine Chinese Ceramics And Works Of Art, New York, 18 March 2008