Under the Tang dynasty, the Chinese empire expanded far to the north, west and south. Foreign craftsmen, clerics, political envoys, merchants and goods entered China and introduced new ideas and fashions that left their most visible marks on the arts of that period.

The two magnificent large figures of a Bactrian camel and a Ferghana horse offered in this sale illustrate the influence that some of the most exotic and majestic animals had on Tang artisans.

Naturalistically modelled to a large scale, their shapes enhanced with lustrous three-coloured glazes, these two sculptures aptly show the impact the real beasts left when they first arrived in China.

Bactrian camels and the fabled horses of Ferghana originally came from remote regions in present-day Central Asia. Fabled for their prowess and spirit, they quickly found their way into the repertory of the artisans who made the very best and naturalistically rendered examples to accompany high-ranking officials and nobility into the afterlife.

A magnificent large sancai-glazed figure of a caparisoned horse, Tang dynasty (618-907)

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Lot 6. A magnificent large sancai-glazed figure of a caparisoned horse, Tang dynasty (618-907). Height 77.5 cm, 30 1/2 in. Estimate: 80,000 - 120,000 GBP(C) 2021 Sotheby's

standing four square, its harnessed head turned slightly to the left, ears pricked, the long mane parted at the forelock and falling to one side, covered in a straw-coloured glaze, the saddle splashed in green, chestnut and straw-coloured glaze, the body glazed in a rich dark chestnut trickling over green-glazed hooves on an unglazed base.

The artist who made this magnificent horse has aptly brought to life the horse's powerful physicality and spirited nature. The stout legs, luscious mane and barrel-shaped body is typical of a Ferghana horse, a legendary breed that originally came to China during the Han dynasty from the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia.

As a symbol of status and wealth, ownership of a valuable Ferghana horse in life as in death reflected the high rank and importance of its owners. In 667 AD, Tang dynasty statues declared the ownership of horses as an aristocratic privilege, forbidding artisans and tradesmen the right to own horses. Horse breeding reached its apex during the Tang dynasty when the most prestigious breeds like the Ferghana horse were introduced to China. The Emperor Xuanzong displayed equal passion for his mounts commissioning paintings from the famed artist Han Gan (c. 706-783). In the Lidai minghua ji (‘Record of famous painters of all periods’; 847), Zhang Yanyuan noted that Emperor Xuanzong ‘loved large horses and ordered Han to paint the most noble of his more than 400,000 steeds’, six of these, all bred from the famed Ferghana stock in Central Asia are described by their respective colors, red, purple, scarlet, yellow, ‘clove’ , and ‘peach-flower’ colored, respectively. The most famous of which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ‘Night-shining White’ (Zhaoyebai) and attributed to the artist. Indeed, it is easy to speculate that Han Gan’s distinctive style which captures the animals in spirited movement, emphasizing their powerful, rounded and muscular forms while retaining an easy naturalism, influenced the artisans who sculpted the present horse.

The dating of this lot is consistent with the result of a thermoluminescence test, Oxford authentication Ltd., no. C198s35.

A magnificent amber and straw-glazed pottery figure of a Bactrian camel, Tang Dynasty

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Lot 7. A magnificent amber and straw-glazed pottery figure of a Bactrian camel, Tang Dynasty (618-907). Height 80 cm, 31 1/2 inEstimate: 80,000 - 120,000 GBP(C) 2021 Sotheby's

realistically modelled standing four square on a rectangular base, with its the head turned back as the animal brays, revealing the applied tufts of hair on the underside of its neck, its the tail flicked over the right haunch, the humps flipped over in opposite directions, the long fur, tail and humps finely detailed with incised lines and covered with a vibrant amber glaze.

Provenance: Christie's New York, 1st June 1990, lot 140.

Note: This magnificent and large figure of a two-humped camel was made to accompany a wealthy deceased on his or her journey in the afterlife. It is a rare testimony of the flourishing trade in precious goods and animals that arrived in China from Central Asia during the Tang dynasty. The Bactrian camel was not indigenous to China but was used by Central Asian merchants to haul goods along the Silk Road. Sturdy and stubborn, resilient and enduring, Bactrian camels were treasured and valuable commodities, and large Imperial camel herds were established under the administration of a special bureau attached to the Tang court. Like Ferghana horses their ownership conveyed status and power in life and death. 

The present camel is impressive for its particularly large size. A camel figure of almost the same size and colouring, also without a harness and saddle, was sold in Christie's New York, 21st March 2013, lot 1163. Another camel of similar colouring and size from the Mottahedah Collection, was sold in our New York rooms, 20th September 2000, lot 85.


A large amber and straw-glazed pottery figure of a camel, Tang dynasty (618-907); 31 in. (78.8 cm.) high. Estimate USD 18,000 - USD 25,000. Price realised USD 32,500 at Christie's New York, 21st March 2013, lot 1163© Christie's Images Ltd 2013 

Cf. my post: A large amber and straw-glazed pottery figure of a camel, Tang dynasty (618-907)

The dating of this lot is consistent with the result of a thermoluminescence test, Oxford authentication Ltd., no. C110r25.

Sotheby's. Chinese Art, London, 12 May 2021