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Lot 58. An exceptionally rare gold-ground famille-rose five-piece altar set (wugong), Seal marks and period of Qianlong (1736-1795). Height of tallest 14¾ in., 37.3 cm. Estimate: 600,000 - 800,000 USDLot sold: 988,000 USD. © Sotheby's 2021

comprising a censer, a pair of candlesticks, and a pair of beaker vases, the robustly potted censer of globular form rising from three cabriole legs to a waisted neck and galleried mouth, the shoulder set with a pair of gently curved upright handles with rectangular apertures, the candlesticks each with a bell-shaped base supporting a slightly compressed globular section and a wide drip-tray with slightly flared sides, with a rising tapering column surmounted by a smaller drip-pan, the beaker vases each of archaistic gu form with a bell-shaped base rising to a central bulb surmounted by a trumpet neck, each vessel finely painted in bright enamels with the 'eight Buddhist emblems' surrounded by stylized lotus blossoms borne on foliate scrolls between various borders including keyfret, ruyi collars, bands of fleur-de-lis, or other motifs, all reserved on a brilliant gilt ground extending to the interior, each with a six-character horizontal seal mark in iron-red, wood boxes.

ProvenanceCollection of Dr. Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935), acquired in China. 

Collection of John Arthur MacLean (1879-1964), received as a gift from the above circa 1920, and thence by descent.  

Exhibited: Akron Art Institute, Akron, Ohio, 1948 (on loan). 

Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, until 1964 (on loan). 

Five Golden Offerings to the Buddha

Regina Krahl

The Qianlong period (1736-1795) is unmatched in the opulence of its works of art and hardly any kind of porcelain could better embody the essence of the artefacts made to surround the Emperor in the various palace and temple halls of the Forbidden City and other residences than this five-piece garniture that is lavishly covered in gold, even including insides and bases. Yet gold-ground fencai pieces are among the rarest porcelains of the period. Gold was hardly ever used on porcelain other than to imitate real gold or bronze, to pick out handles, borders and other details, or to paint on monochrome glazes. Extant items of the period with an overall gold ground are numbering, it seems, not much more than two dozen.

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Dorothy Lilian Blair (1890-1989), Assistant Curator of Oriental Art, Toledo Museum of Art with colleague in front of the present lot prior to 1964.

In spite their rarity today, the Qianlong Emperor appears to have been extremely attached to such sets, several of which might still be in the Palace Museum today in addition to the one companion set which has been published. Historical records preserved in the First Historical Archives of China, Beijing list no less than sixteen deliveries of gold-ground sets of wu gong (‘five offering vessels’), starting in the year 1735, but dating mostly from the 1780s and ‘90s, destined for the Temple Hall of the Forbidden City and for the Emperor’s summer residence in Yehol (Rehe), and one set even for the Emperor’s travelling palace in Suzhou on the occasion of his last Southern inspection tour in 1784, see below.

1735 Tribute Records – (servant) Shan Tai delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong

Qianlong 45th year (1780) Tribute Records – (servant) Eerdengbu delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong (deliver to Rehe)…

Qianlong 47th year (1782) Tribute Records – (servant) Eerdengbu delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong (deliver to temple hall)…

Qianlong 48th year (1783) Tribute Records – (servant) Eerdengbu delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong (deliver to Rehe)…

Qianlong 49th year (1784) Tribute Records – (servant) Eerdengbu delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong (deliver to Suzhou travelling palace)…

Qianlong 50th year (1785) Tribute Records – (servant) Mukedeng delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong (deliver to temple hall)…

Qianlong 50th year (1785) Tribute Records – (servant) Mukedeng delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong

Qianlong 50th year (1785) Tribute Records – (servant) Mukedeng delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong

Qianlong 52nd year (1787) Tribute Records – (servant) Hai Shao delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong (deliver to temple hall)…

Qianlong 52nd year (1787) Tribute Records – (servant) Hai Shao delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong

Qianlong 55th year (1790) Memorial Records – Gold-ground yangcai wugong

Qianlong 55th year (1790) Miscellaneous Records – Shan Tai…Gold-ground yangcai wugong

Qianlong 56th year (1791) Tribute Records – (servant) Fu Chang delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong (deliver to Rehe)…

Qianlong 56th year (1791) Tribute Records – (servant) Fu Chang delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong (deliver to temple hall)…

Qianlong 58th year (1793) Tribute Records – (servant) Fu Ying delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong (deliver to Rehe)…

Qianlong 58th year (1793) Tribute Records – (servant) Fu Ying delivered…Gold-ground yangcai wugong (deliver to temple hall)…

When reading about the complexity of firing gold onto porcelain, especially the quest to achieve an even surface colour, it is not hard to see why it was not attempted more often for other vessels. The challenge began with the purity of the raw material. Rose Kerr and Nigel Wood (Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5: Chemistry and Chemical Technology, part xii: Ceramic Technology, Cambridge, 2004, p. 703), quoting another scholar, Rudolf Hainbach, state “It is essential that chemically pure gold should be used [for overglaze-gold], since the presence of even minute traces of foreign metals will prevent the formation of a true gold colour, spoiling the tone and causing changes due to oxidation.” Further, for use in porcelain decoration, this gold had to be ground to an extremely fine powder in order to be thoroughly dispersed in the painting medium, so fine in fact, that Hainbach considered it possible only by chemical means. To achieve this mechanically must not only have required immense skills, but was clearly exceedingly laborious and time-consuming. Finally, firing the gold onto the porcelain required very precise observation of the kiln temperatures (ibid., p. 697): “If kiln temperatures are too low the gold will simply rub away after firing, while if the kiln is overfired the gold will tend to form fine beads as its melting point is exceeded and the definition of the gilding will be compromised.” The potters working at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen were the most experienced of their time. That difficulties such as these are worth mentioning means that it was a tall order, out of the ordinary, to get together a garniture of five large matching gold-ground pieces.

Some experiments with a gold ground on porcelain were made already in the Kangxi period (1662-1722), both in the Beijing palace workshops and at Jingdezhen, probably in connection with the exploration of colloidal gold to achieve a ruby-pink enamel, which required far smaller quantities of the precious metal. Two falangcai bowls in the Baur collection, Geneva, have a gold ground, but applied to the unglazed biscuit, see John Ayers, Chinese Ceramics in the Baur Collection, Geneva, 1999, vol. 2, nos. 162 and 164; and a cup of Kangxi mark and period in the Palace Museum, Beijing, painted with blue-enamel shou characters on a gold ground is illustrated together with early rose-pink vessels in Yu Pei-chin, ed., Yin cheng xu ying. Qing Yongzheng falangcai ci/Porcelain with Painted Enamels of Qing Yongzheng Period (1723-1735), National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2013, p. 290, fig. 15.

Vessel sets of any type are extremely rare in Chinese art. The three vessel shapes making up the present set are all based on ancient forms. The ding incense burner and the pair of gu vases represent baroque versions of archaic ritual bronzes, which had been revived in ceramic form already in the Song dynasty (960-1279). The candle sticks may be based on bronze versions of the Tang (618-907), but ceramic examples remained rare until the Ming period (1368-1644).

Altar garnitures are known at least since the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), but then consisted of only three pieces, an incense burner and two vases, as is documented in the inscription on the David Vases, now in the British Museum, which were commissioned in 1351 together with an incense burner for a temple near Jingdezhen, and is corroborated by many smaller sets that are preserved. Such sets similarly consist of a censer with upward-bent handles and two gu-shaped vases, see, for example, a blue-and-white set excavated from a Yuan hoard at Futian, Pingxiang, Jiangxi province, included in Chen Xiejun, Chen Kelun & Lu Minghua, Youlan shencai. Yuandai qinghua ciqi teji/Splendors in Smalt. Art of Yuan Blue-and-white Porcelain, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2012, no. 70. The candle stick is a form rarely seen in porcelain and may have been introduced from abroad. In the Yongle period (1403-1424), porcelain candle sticks were copying Middle Eastern metal shapes, and in the Zhengde period (1506-1521) blue-and-white examples had Arabic inscriptions, but are believed nevertheless to have been intended for use in a Buddhist context, like two examples in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Geng Baochang, Ming Qing ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain], Hong Kong, 1993, fig. 212, and in Gugong Bowuyuan cang wenwu zhenpin quanji/Qinghua youlihong The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, Shanghai, 2000, vol. 2, pl. 56.

The idea of wu gong, ‘five offering vessels’, may have had its origin in the Ming dynasty. The earliest extant complete groups are probably those carved in stone that were placed on massive stone altars in front of the Ming Emperors’ tombs outside Beijing, beginning with that of the Yongle Emperor, where they presumably replaced in permanent form the utensils employed in the funerary ceremonies (fig. 1). These sets, which are equally seen at the Eastern and Western Qing (1644-1911) tombs, including the Qianlong Emperor’s tomb, comprise a similar incense burner and candlesticks, but a pair of vases of pear-shaped hu form with ring handles. Sets of this composition are also known in blue-glazed porcelain, decorated with gilded biscuit dragons, of Jiajing mark and period (1522-1566), for example from the Grandidier collection in the Musée Guimet, Paris, illustrated in Oriental Ceramics. The World's Great Collections, vol. 7, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, 1981, fig. 66. One rare Yongzheng (1723-1735) set of painted enamel ware still follows the Ming sets quite closely in shape; see Gugong Yangxindian wenwu zhan. Ba dai di ju/Hall of Mental Cultivation of The Palace Museum. Imperial Residence of Eight Emperors, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 2017, cat. no. 138.

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Fig.1. A set of five-piece stone offering vessels, Beijing © Yale University Press, New Haven

The present five-piece combination with gu-shaped vases seems to be an innovation of the Qianlong period, when sets of the same composition as the present one became popular in many different versions, for example, with various coloured grounds, in fencai, in doucai, painted in pink enamel only, carved in imitation cinnabar lacquer, in cloisonné and in glass, and some can still be seen in situ, for example in the historic Tanzhe Temple in Beijing (fig. 2), or in the Forbidden City; but complete sets of any type are very rare.


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Fig.2. A set of five-piece cloisonné offering vessels © 1921 Publication: Bernd Melcher, China. Der Tempelbau, Hagen, 1921

The only other wu gong set of gold-ground porcelain altar vessels that appears to be recorded is also preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and was included in the exhibition Lightness of Essence. Tibetan Buddhist Relics of the Palace Museum, Macao Museum of Art, Macao, 2004, cat. no. 107-7 (fig. 3). A single censer of this design is held in the Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum, Shenyang, published in The Prime Culture Relics Collected by Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum, Shenyang, 2008, p. 239; and a related candlestick, but with a blue key-fret border at the foot, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 26th April 2004, lot 989.


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Fig. 3 A set of five-piece gold-ground famille-rose offering vessels © The Palace MuseumBeijing.

This gold-and-fencai style appears to have been favoured for vessels intended for Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies and is also found on a very small group of vessels in specific Tibetan shapes, such as a duomuhu monk’s cap ewer and four penbahu ewers with dragon spout. The former was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong 30th May 2006, lot 1295, one of the latter, from the collection of K.S. Lo, is in the Hong Kong Museum of Art, included in the Museum’s exhibition The Wonders of the Potter’s Palette. Qing Ceramics from the Collection of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1984-5, cat. no. 68; another was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 26th October 2003, lot 107 (fig. 4); and a pair from the Alfred Trapnell collection was sold at Christie’s London, 28th April 1980, lot 170. The only other Qianlong vessel with closely related gold-ground decoration appears to be a vase with halberd handles in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, a piece that was frequently illustrated and included in the Museum’s exhibition Qianlong huangdi de wenhua daye/Emperor Ch’ien-lung’s Grand Cultural Enterprise, Taipei, 2002, no. V-25 (fig. 5).

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Left: Fig. 4. A fine and rare gold-ground famille-rose 'bajixiang' Tibetan-style ewer, Seal mark and period of Qianlong, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 26th October 2003, lot 107.

Right: Fig. 5. A fine gold-ground famille-rose 'floral' vase © The collection of the National Palace MuseumTaipei.

Similar altar sets of Qianlong mark and period, but lacking the gold ground, include two with ruby-coloured ground, one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the exhibition Gugong lidai xiangju tulu/A Special Exhibition of Incense Burners and Perfumers Throughout the Dynasties, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1994, cat. no. 105; the other in the Shanghai Museum illustrated in Zhou Lili, Shanghai Bowuguan zangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections: A Series of Monographs. Qingdai Yongzheng – Xuantong guanyao ciqi [Qing imperial porcelain from Yongzheng to Xuantong], Shanghai, 2014, pl. 3-153; one with fencai mille-fleurs decoration, sold in these rooms 29th March 2011, lot 61; and two doucai sets sold in our rooms, in London, 11th May 2011, lot 230; and in Hong Kong, 4th April 2012, lot 50, from the Meiyintang collection.

John Arthur MacLean: Scholar, Curator, Collector

The present garniture, which is painted with particular attention to detail, has a long history. It is said to have been acquired in China about a century ago by Dr Denman Waldo Ross, who gifted it to J. Arthur MacLean, and it remained in the family ever since. Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935) was an American painter, professor of art at Harvard University, collector and patron, who was a highly influential figure in the art circles of the Boston area and as Trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, had a major impact on the formation of the Museum’s collection as well as that of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard. In 1912, he travelled extensively in China with MacLean, the two men clearly sharing the same interests.7

The exceptional imperial five-piece garniture set from Qianlong Emperor’s reign collected by John Arthur MacLean (1879-1964) (fig. 1), offers a fascinating insight into the institutionalization of East Asian art by American museums during the 20th century. MacLean, a highly esteemed scholar from Boston, was instrumental in the formation of Asian Art collections at multiple museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the John Herron Art Institute, and the Toledo Museum of Art, leaving behind a great legacy for the many generations of curators and scholars to come.

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Fig. 1. John Arthur MacLean (1879-1964)

Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, MacLean discovered his fascination in Chinese and Japanese art during his time at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 1902 to 1914. In 1906 he was appointed as the Assistant in charge of the Chinese and Japanese Collections, where he not only had at his disposal one of the world’s greatest museum collections of East Asian art, but also the guidance of Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913) (fig. 2), the preeminent Japanese art historian and author of the time. His intellectual development was deepened through his extensive travel through Asia accompanied by Dr. Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935) (fig. 3), a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts and professor of art at Harvard University. Together, the two traveled through Japan, Korea, Mongolia, China, Burma, India and Egypt in search of artworks to add to the museum and Ross’ personal collection. The present altar set is said to have been acquired in China by Ross, who then gifted it to MacLean.

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Fig. 2Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913)

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Fig. 3. John Arthur MacLean (1879-1964) and Dr. Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935), photograpedin China, 1912.

MacLean’s work in the MFA’s expanding Oriental Art Department soon attracted the attention of the Cleveland Museum of Art, which hired him in 1914 as the inaugural Curator for the entire museum, and in 1919 appointed him as Curator of the Oriental Art Department. MacLean advocated for the appreciation and institutionalization of East Asian art during his time at Cleveland Museum of Art, which now boasts an internationally renowned East Asian art collection. By the start of 1922, the Art Institute of Chicago had hired him as Assistant Director of the museum and Curator of the Oriental Arts Department. The following year, MacLean left to become Director of the John Herron Art Institute, which included the Art Association of Indianapolis, was later renamed the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and is now known as Newfields. In 1926, MacLean accepted the position of Curator of Oriental Art at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, where built up the collection and in 1930 mounted a pathbreaking exhibition of 343 shin hanga prints. After retiring in 1945, MacLean continued to be heavily involved in the museum world, acting as an East Asian Art Collections Consultant to the Akron Art Institute in Ohio, where the present altar set was exhibited in 1948 (fig. 4).

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Fig. 4. Introduction to the Asian art exhibition curated by John Arthur MacLean, published in the Akron Beacon, 1948, depicting a beaker vase from the present lot

Alongside his curatorial work and extensive travel, MacLean was also an outspoken advocate for the acceptance of China and other Asian nations, which, at that time in America, were deemed inferior. In a 1914 newspaper article ‘Curator Makes Plea for Chinese People and Art’, MacLean expressed his deeply felt responsibility to spread awareness and acceptance of China and urged others to follow suit:

China in my estimation is a wonderful nation…It seems to me that it is the duty of those who have been to that land or of those who have given it study to make us realize how important the Chinese nation is.’ John Arthur MacLean

Throughout his career, MacLean was instrumental in establishing some of the foremost collections of Asian art in the U.S. and bringing public consciousness to Asian art and culture. The wugong in his collection encapsulates MacLean’s lifelong appreciation of East Asian works of art and testifies to the superb quality of art he was able to access and promulgate through his work.

Sotheby's. Important Chinese Art, New York, 21 September 2021