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Lot 2023. A white jade archaistic incense burner and cover, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795); l. 14 cmEstimate: 500,000 - 700,000 HKD. Lot sold: 630,000 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

of rectangular section, the straight sides with tubular corners rising on four round feet, flanked by a pair of animal mask loop handles suspending loose rings, the exterior worked in low relief with abstract archaistic dragon scrolls between cicada lappets and chevron bands, the domed cover of corresponding shape and surmounted by a coiled dragon finial, framed by four coiled chilongs at the corners, the stone of an even white tone, wood stand.

Property from the collection of Sir Quo-Wei Lee.

Note: Intricately carved around the body with dragons and taotie masks, this censer encapsulates the Qianlong Emperor’s devotion towards China’s past and his efforts to revive celebrated traditions. This piece is modelled after archaic bronze containers made in the Shang (16th century- c.1046 BC) and Western Zhou (c.1046-771 BC) dynasties, which are believed to have been used for storing artists’ materials. Cheng Te-kun in “The t’u-lu colour-container of the Shang-Chou period”, B.M.F.E.A., no. 37, 1965, pp 239-250, discusses the bronze prototypes of this piece and suggests that pigments were stored in the hollowed tubes, while the central compartment would have contained water. In the Qing dynasty the original function was abandoned, and vessels of this type were instead used as incense burners in three-piece garniture sets. The ‘Three Accessories’ (sanshi) included a censer (lu), a box (he) and a vase (ping), which are together homophonous with the words for wealth, longevity and peace.  

A similar white jade censer and cover in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Jadeware (III), Hong Kong, 1995, pl. 156; one from the Avery Brundage collection, in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, is illustrated in René-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argencé,Chinese Jades in the Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco, 1977, pl. LV (left); another in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was included in the Museum’s exhibition Radiance and Virtue: The R. Norris Shreve Collection of Chinese Jade and Other Oriental Works of Art, Indianapolis, 1983, cat. no. 29; and a fourth censer, from the collection of Sir John Woolf, included in the exhibition The Woolf Collection of Chinese Jade, Sotheby’s, London, 2013, cat. no. 21, was sold in our London rooms, 16th December 1987, lot 470.

See also a spinach-green jade censer and cover of this form, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated as part of a three-piece altar garniture set in Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum. Jade, vol. 10, Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2011, pl. 111; another in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, published in Ming Wilson, Chinese Jades, London, 2004, pl. 52; a third with phoenix-shaped handles, illustrated in Robert Kleiner, Chinese Jades from the Collection of Alan and Simone Hartman, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 74; and a further example with strap handles, from the Avery Brundage collection in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, published op.cit., pl. LV (right).

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Lot 2042. A white jade archaistic 'taotie' incense burner and cover, Qing dynasty, 18th century; 15.5 cmEstimate: 500,000 - 700,000 HKD. Lot sold: 630,000 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.

the rounded sides rising on three legs, flanked by a pair of animal mask handles suspending loose rings, the exterior worked in low relief with a band of stylised taotie masks, the domed cover similarly carved with archaistic scrolls and surmounted by a ruyi-shaped finial set with three loose rings, the stone of an even white tone.

Property from the collection of Sir Quo-Wei Lee.

Provenance: Sotheby’s London, 1st July 1969, lot 69.

Note: This censer follows the Song dynasty (960-1279) tradition of creatively reinterpreting archaic ritual bronze designs into relatively small jade vessels. In the case of the present censer, the taotie masks have been rendered with lingzhi-shaped mouths, a motif repeated on the cover.

While tripod censers carved with taotie masks are numerous, those with multiple loop rings on the cover are unusual; compare a slightly larger censer of similar form, but the cover with further taotie masks and with a dragon knob, sold in our New York rooms, 23rd April 1987, lot 191; one also carved with phoenix-shaped handles, from the Avery Brundage collection, in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, illustrated in René-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argencé, Chinese Jades in the Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco, 1977, pl. LIV; and another sold in these rooms, 31st October 2004, lot 10.

Sotheby's. Eclectic. Hong Kong, 14 July 2021