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Lot 3801. A highly important and exceptional imperial soapstone 'Qianlong yulan zhi bao' seal, Qing dynasty, the 'lion' finial, Kangxi - early Yongzheng period, the seal face, Qianlong period (1736-1795); 7.8 x 7.8 x H. 10.7 cmEstimate Upon RequestLot sold: 153,334,000 HKD. © Sotheby's 2022

Sotheby’s Hong Kong Chinese Works of Art 2022 Spring Sale Series is led by a highly important and magnificent soapstone seal carved for the Qianlong Emperor, prominently impressed on many of the greatest national treasures of China. The most iconic among all seals destined for art connoisseurship, this superb imperial seal is the highlight of the Hong Kong chapter of the Dr Wou Kiuan Collection, a series of four single-owner sales to held globally throughout 2022. The Spring sale is also highlighted by a selection of Imperial porcelains from Joseph Lau’s legendary collection, one of the finest ever assembled in the field. The group features 8 pieces of imperial porcelain which were acquired from some of the greatest collections. Adding to this season’s strong line-up of renowned private collections are Qing imperial porcelain from the Marchant CollectionGardens of Pleasure – Erotic Chinese Art from the Bertholet Collection and Jades from the De An Tang Collection.

Nicolas Chow, Chairman, Sotheby's Asia, International Head and Chairman of the Chinese Works of Art: 'This season boasts a striking array of Chinese art from prominent private collections around the globe. The sale includes a superb soapstone seal carved for the Qianlong Emperor that one finds prominently impressed on the most important paintings in the history of Chinese art and it is perhaps the most famous seal impression in the history of Chinese art. In addition, we are privileged to present a selection of porcelains from the collection of Joseph Lau, a name that resonates with collectors around the globe and stands for excellence. Chinese art is at the genesis of Joseph Lau’s adventure with collecting art and it is on Chinese art indeed that he cut his exacting eye.'

A Journey Through China’s History: The Dr Wou Kiuan Collection

One of the Last Great Collections of Chinese Art Remaining in Private Hands

After its debut in New York this March, the Hong Kong chapter of the Dr Wou Kiuan Collection will kick off in April with a highly important and magnificently carved soapstone seal carved for the Qianlong Emperor early in his reign, which bears the inscription Qianlong Yulan Zhibao (treasures admired by his Majesty the Qianlong Emperor). The seal is found prominently impressed on countless important Chinese paintings including Fan Kuan’s Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, Guo Xi’s Early Spring, Wang Ximeng’s A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains, and many of the finest paintings by all the great masters, from Emperor Huizong, to Ni Zan, Qiu Ying, Zhu Da, Lang Shining. No other imperial seal to have come to market appears on such a large number of historically important paintings.

The most iconic among all seals destined for art connoisseurship, this seal was carved by a master craftsman working for the Qianlong Emperor's father Yongzheng and grandfather Kangxi. It was selected by Qianlong around 1735-1736 for the all-important purpose of recording the finest works in his art collection. It was extensively used from the early years of the Emperor's reign to the completion of the first catalogue of the imperial collection, the Shiqu Baoji, in 1745. This project of cataloguing and archiving all the extraordinary paintings passed down over the centuries, and having them all impressed with his seal, was a way for the Qianlong Emperor to own Chinese history by leaving his mark on all the works that most profoundly symbolised its glorious heritage, and thus furthering his political legitimacy. The worn characters on the seal face capture all the hundreds and hundreds of embraces this object has had with masterworks of the Imperial collection and testify to the Emperor’s mad devotion for his collection.

After the Emperor's death in 1799, the seal was transferred to the Shouhuangdian, the temple of imperial ancestors which overlooked the Forbidden City. During the years of turmoil towards the end of the Qing dynasty, over 100 years later, the seal made its way to Europe to resurface in 1965 at an auction in Sotheby’s London. It was purchased there by Wou Kiuan and has since disappeared from the public eye for more than 50 years. 

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Lot 3801. A highly important and exceptional imperial soapstone 'Qianlong yulan zhi bao' seal, Qing dynasty, the 'lion' finial, Kangxi - early Yongzheng period, the seal face, Qianlong period (1736-1795); 7.8 x 7.8 x H. 10.7 cm. Estimate Upon RequestLot sold: 153,334,000 HKD. © Sotheby's 2022

of square form, masterfully carved with utmost precision with three mythical beasts, the largest one boldly portrayed in the form of a crouching mythical feline powerfully crouching with its head turned towards the right, its eyes picked out and framed by eyebrows, jowls and a snout rendered in scrollwork, the muscular body flanked by a pair of wings and depicted with flaming wisps, further depicted with two smaller mythical beasts clambering on the rear haunches of the large beast, the seal face carved with a six-character inscription reading Qianlong yulan zhi bao ('Treasure admired by his Majesty the Qianlong Emperor')

Provenance: Sotheby's London, 25th May 1965, lot 49.

On the Qianlong Emperor’s Soapstone Seal Qianlong yulan zhi bao

Guo Fuxiang

Seals were an important component in the stationery of the Qing palace, and were closely connected to the everyday life of emperors and empresses. Impressions of imperial seals could be found on various artefacts and objects in the palace, and serve as important evidence for their authentication. The Qianlong Emperor was especially fond of seals, and had a large number of them carved for him during his life. He impressed them on paintings and calligraphy by his own hand, and on works and books in his collection as marks of his connoisseurship. Important material evidence for the flourishing court culture of the Qianlong period, these seals were made in great quantities and carved from various materials. Moreover, Qianlong’s particular fondness for his seals and participation in their creation imbued them with a strong flavor of his personality and times. The seals thus reflect the regulations and artistic sophistication of the Qianlong court and are precious material evidence for Qianlong’s thoughts and cultural life. The soapstone seal reading Qianlong yulan zhi bao on offer at Sotheby’s is the most iconic one among all the Qianlong examples made for imperial art connoisseurship.

Carved from soapstone, the seal has a finial in the form of a mythical beast. The square seal face measures 7.8 cm along each side, and the seal measures 10.7 cm in height. It is carved in intaglio with the six Chinese characters Qianlong yulan zhi bao. The seal is clearly recorded in the imperial seal catalogue Qianlong baosou of the Palace Museum collection (fig. 1). In material, size, and composition of the text, the seal matches the textual record exactly and is an authentic Qianlong-period work.

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Fig. 1. Impression from The Qianlong Baosou

In 1735, the Yongzheng Emperor died in his sleep, and his fourth son, Prince Hongli, assumed the throne with the reign title of Qianlong. According to court customs, each new emperor needed to have his own seals made for use on documents and artworks. These early-reign seals vary in function, but they generally include reign titles as indications of their ownership. The Kangxi Emperor, for example, had seals reading Kangxi yubi zhi bao (‘Seal of Kangxi’s imperial hand’), Kangxi yulan zhi bao (‘Treasure admired by his Majesty the Kangxi Emperor’), Kangxi chenhan (‘Brush traces by the Kangxi Emperor’), Kangxi yulan (‘Admired by his Majesty the Kangxi Emperor’). The Yongzheng Emperor had similar seals reading Yongzheng yulan zhi baoYongzheng yubi zhi bao, and Yongzheng chenhan. Likewise, Qianlong had seals reading Qianlong yulan zhi baoQianlong yubi zhi bao, Qianlong yubi, Qianlong chenhan, and Qianlong jianshang (‘Authenticated and admired by his Majesty the Qianlong Emperor’). Every of these various seal texts was carved on multiple seals of different materials and sizes. Such seals tended to be used as xianzhang, or ‘casual seals.’ Because their texts clearly identified their owners, these seals could not be reused by a later emperor. When Prince Hongli assumed the throne, he was already 25 years old. He was very familiar with how seals were made and used, and himself owned a large number of seals. Naturally, he soon began having seals made for himself in the capacity of the emperor. By the third year of his reign, he already possessed a somewhat complete set of seals bearing his reign title. Later he would occasionally have more such seals made. The present soapstone seal reading Qianlong yulan zhi bao was a seal dating from Qianlong’s early reign.

Qianlong’s seals bearing his reign titles can be further divided into different categories based on their uses. Seals with the words yubi (‘imperial hand’) and chenhan (‘brush traces’) tended to be used on paintings and calligraphy brushed by the emperor himself to indicate imperial authorship. Seals with the words jianshang (‘authenticated and appreciated’), yushang (‘imperial appreciation’), and yulan (‘viewed by his Majesty’) tended to be used on paintings and calligraphy in the imperial collection to indicate imperial connoisseurship. The present soapstone seal from Qianlong’s early reign reading Qianlong yulan zhi bao (‘Treasure admired by his Majesty the Qianlong Emperor’) was thus intimately connected to the imperial collection of paintings and calligraphy. Below is a further explanation of this context. 

1. This seal demonstrates the vastness and comprehensiveness of the Qing imperial collection

The Qing dynasty was the golden age of imperial collecting. The Qianlong Emperor was particularly passionate about antiques and art and a skilled connoisseur. He spared no effort collecting cultural artefacts. During his six-decade reign, the imperial collection grew in quantity, quality, and comprehensiveness, encompassing all varieties of precious artefacts. The court also created detailed catalogues of these artefacts, providing a very important resource for future researchers. The Qing imperial collection of paintings, calligraphy, and rare books and manuscripts were a comprehensive collection that had no equal outside the court. Some of the objects were inherited from the imperial collections of past dynasties. Others were transferred from private hands or created by ministers and court artists. Still others were created by the emperors themselves. When studying and appreciating the objects, the emperors often impressed their own seals on them. On certain works there may be dozens or even over a hundred imperial seal impressions—one of the distinctive characters of artefacts in the Qing imperial collection. These connoisseurial seals allow us to understand the formation and movement of the Qing imperial collection. Among the Qing emperors, Qianlong possessed the largest amount of connoisseurial seals, numbering several dozen in total. Among them, seven bear the text Qianlong yusheng zhi bao. These seals were created with full consideration of the variety and complexity of the artefacts in the Qing imperial collection, and thus came in various sizes and shapes. The seals were meaningful only because Qianlong was a very experienced connoisseur. It may be said that these connoisseurial seals, including the present Qianlong yulan zhi bao seal, marked the very height of imperial collecting under the Qianlong reign.

2. It is one of the most representative connoisseurial seals of the Qianlong Emperor

During the Qianlong and Jiaqing reigns, the Qing court compiled three editions respectively of Shiqu baoji [The precious collection of the Stone Canal Pavilion] and Midian zhulin [Pearls in the private halls], the catalogues of the Qing imperial collection of painting and calligraphy. Containing detailed documentation of and research on the artefacts, the two catalogues were a labourious project that took over seven decades to complete. The first editions of the two catalogues were begun during the ninth year of the Qianlong reign and completed during the tenth, and mainly documented the paintings and calligraphy housed in Qianqinggong, Yangxindian, Chonghuagong, and Yushufang. The second editions were begun during the 56th year of the Qianlong reign and completed during the 58th, and mainly documented the paintings and calligraphy housed in the palace and the various gardens within Beijing, including Yuanmingyuan, Xiyuan, Qingyiyuan, Jingmingyuan, and Jingyiyuan. The third editions were begun during the 20th year of the Jiaqing reign (1815) and completed during the 21st. They expanded their scope beyond the palace and Beijing to encompass works housed in Bizhushanzhuang in Rehe and Jiyishanzhuang in Panshan. The introductory guides to each edition detail the uses and quantities of the emperors’ connoisseurial seals, allowing us to identify which seals were impressed on any catalogued work and in what configuration, and quickly trace a work to a particular edition of either catalogue or to a particular imperial building. The present soapstone seal is clearly documented in Shiqu baoji and Midian zhulin. It was typically used alternately with an oval seal bearing the same text. Moreover, the present seal tended to become the centre of visual attention on any impressed work.

Among Qianlong’s seven connoisseurial seals reading Qianlong yulan zhibao, the largest measures 11.7 cm on each side, and the smallest measures 1.55 cm on each side. Of medium size, the present soapstone seal suited both vertical and horizontal scrolls, as well as albums, and thus served a wide range of purposes. Impressed in countless precious classical paintings and works of calligraphy, the seal is one of the most representative artefacts of the imperial collection of the Qianlong reign. It may be found on many renowned masterpieces from the collections of the Palace Museum of Beijing and the National Palace Museum of Taipei, including Li Bai’s Ascending Yangtai in Cursive Script, Du Mu’s Poems on Zhang Haohao in Running Script, Liu Gongquan’s Poems of the Orchid Pavilion in Running Script, Yang Ningshi’s ‘Hot Summer’ Letter in Cursive Script, Juran’s landscape painting Layered Rocks and Trees, Su Shi’s ‘Zhiping’ Letter in Running Script, Huang Tingjian’s Zhushangzuo Poems in Cursive Script, Mi Fu’s Zhaoxi Poems in Running Script and Bao Zhongyue Ming poems in Running Script, Lu You’s Ten Poems Remembering Chengdu in Running Script, Song Jizhi’s Lyric on Twin Pines in Regular Script, Yang Huan’s Wuyipian in Seal Script, Xianyu Shu’s Du Fu’s Poems on Visiting Zhaoling in Running Script, Zhao Mengfu’s Three Passages in Running ScriptOde to the Nymph of the Luo River in Running ScriptLyric to Longevity in Running Script, and The Thousand-Character Essay in Running Script, Kangli Naonao’s Zhang Xu’s On Brush Method in Cursive Script, Shen Can’s The Thousand-Character Essay in Cursive Script, Wang Shen’s Fishing Village in Light Snow, Wang Ximeng’s A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains (fig. 2), Liang Shimin’s Marsh in Heavy Snow, Yan Xiao’s Spring MountainsAutumn Mountains by an anonymous Song painter, Ma Yuan’s Water Studies (fig. 3), Zhao Fu’s A Thousand Miles of Rivers and MountainsHerding Cows in an Autumn Forest by an anonymous Song painter, a Song copy of Gu Kaizhi’s Exemplary Women, Southern Song copies of Gu Kaizhi’s Ode to the Nymph of the Luo River and Admonitions of the Court Instructress (fig. 4), Yan Liben’s Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy, Ruan Gao’s Female Immortals of LiangyuanClassic of Female Piety, Carriages, and Evil-Dispelling Ritual by anonymous Southern Song painters, Butterflies attributed to Zhao Chang, Floral Sprigs in Four Passages by an anonymous Southern Song painter, Qi Xu’s Herding Animals along Rivers and Mountains, Zhang Gui’s Immortal Turtle, Zhao Mengfu’s Water Village, Wang Zhenpeng’s Boya Playing the ZitherDragon Boat Race by an anomyous Yuan painter, Shang Qi’s Spring Mountains, Zhou Lang’s Du Qiu, Chen Jizhi’s Alliance on Bian Bridge, Huang Jucai’s Mountain Magpie, Sparrows and Bramble (fig. 5), Fan Kuan’s Travellers among Mountains and Streams (fig. 6), Guo Xi’s Early Spring (fig. 7), Cui Bo’s Magpies and Hare, Song Emperor Huizong’s Autumn Evening in the Pond, Song dynasty paintings Plum Tree, Bamboo and a Gathering of Birds (fig. 8), ​​Pair of Rustic Geese on an Autumn Islet and Calico Cat and Peonies, Wu Zhen’s Twin Pines, Tang Di’s Returning Fishers on a Frosty Bank, Qiu Ying’s Spring Morning in the Han Palace, Leng Mei’s Bishu shanzhuang, Giuseppe Castiglione’s Floral Arrangement for Duanwu Festival and Eagle and Pine, the copperplate engravings of Pacification of the Muslim Tribes formerly in the Qing imperial collection, Zhang Weibang’s Floral Arrangements for Lunar New Year, etc. On the above examples, we may observe that the present seal was typically impressed at the top center of a painting or work of calligraphy proper, or otherwise on the top geshui (border between work proper and mounting) in the case of a vertical scroll; at the top right of a work or the front geshui border in the case of a horizontal scroll; and above the space between two opposing leaves in the case of an album. Almost all impressions follow these patterns. The only deviations are works that simply physically do not allow such uses. The present seal was sometimes used in a set alongside others, and sometimes on its own.Among Qianlong’s seven connoisseurial seals reading Qianlong yulan zhibao, the largest measures 11.7 cm on each side, and the smallest measures 1.55 cm on each side. Of medium size, the present soapstone seal suited both vertical and horizontal scrolls, as well as albums, and thus served a wide range of purposes. Impressed in countless precious classical paintings and works of calligraphy, the seal is one of the most representative artefacts of the imperial collection of the Qianlong reign. It may be found on many renowned masterpieces from the collections of the Palace Museum of Beijing and the National Palace Museum of Taipei, including Li Bai’s Ascending Yangtai in Cursive Script, Du Mu’s Poems on Zhang Haohao in Running Script, Liu Gongquan’s Poems of the Orchid Pavilion in Running Script, Yang Ningshi’s ‘Hot Summer’ Letter in Cursive Script, Juran’s landscape painting Layered Rocks and Trees, Su Shi’s ‘Zhiping’ Letter in Running Script, Huang Tingjian’s Zhushangzuo Poems in Cursive Script, Mi Fu’s Zhaoxi Poems in Running Script and Bao Zhongyue Ming poems in Running Script, Lu You’s Ten Poems Remembering Chengdu in Running Script, Song Jizhi’s Lyric on Twin Pines in Regular Script, Yang Huan’s Wuyipian in Seal Script, Xianyu Shu’s Du Fu’s Poems on Visiting Zhaoling in Running Script, Zhao Mengfu’s Three Passages in Running ScriptOde to the Nymph of the Luo River in Running ScriptLyric to Longevity in Running Script, and The Thousand-Character Essay in Running Script, Kangli Naonao’s Zhang Xu’s On Brush Method in Cursive Script, Shen Can’s The Thousand-Character Essay in Cursive Script, Wang Shen’s Fishing Village in Light Snow, Wang Ximeng’s A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains (fig. 2), Liang Shimin’s Marsh in Heavy Snow, Yan Xiao’s Spring MountainsAutumn Mountains by an anonymous Song painter, Ma Yuan’s Water Studies (fig. 3), Zhao Fu’s A Thousand Miles of Rivers and MountainsHerding Cows in an Autumn Forest by an anonymous Song painter, a Song copy of Gu Kaizhi’s Exemplary Women, Southern Song copies of Gu Kaizhi’s Ode to the Nymph of the Luo River and Admonitions of the Court Instructress (fig. 4), Yan Liben’s Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy, Ruan Gao’s Female Immortals of LiangyuanClassic of Female Piety, Carriages, and Evil-Dispelling Ritual by anonymous Southern Song painters, Butterflies attributed to Zhao Chang, Floral Sprigs in Four Passages by an anonymous Southern Song painter, Qi Xu’s Herding Animals along Rivers and Mountains, Zhang Gui’s Immortal Turtle, Zhao Mengfu’s Water Village, Wang Zhenpeng’s Boya Playing the ZitherDragon Boat Race by an anomyous Yuan painter, Shang Qi’s Spring Mountains, Zhou Lang’s Du Qiu, Chen Jizhi’s Alliance on Bian Bridge, Huang Jucai’s Mountain Magpie, Sparrows and Bramble (fig. 5), Fan Kuan’s Travellers among Mountains and Streams (fig. 6), Guo Xi’s Early Spring (fig. 7), Cui Bo’s Magpies and Hare, Song Emperor Huizong’s Autumn Evening in the Pond, Song dynasty paintings Plum Tree, Bamboo and a Gathering of Birds (fig. 8), ​​Pair of Rustic Geese on an Autumn Islet and Calico Cat and Peonies, Wu Zhen’s Twin Pines, Tang Di’s Returning Fishers on a Frosty Bank, Qiu Ying’s Spring Morning in the Han Palace, Leng Mei’s Bishu shanzhuang, Giuseppe Castiglione’s Floral Arrangement for Duanwu Festival and Eagle and Pine, the copperplate engravings of Pacification of the Muslim Tribes formerly in the Qing imperial collection, Zhang Weibang’s Floral Arrangements for Lunar New Year, etc. On the above examples, we may observe that the present seal was typically impressed at the top center of a painting or work of calligraphy proper, or otherwise on the top geshui (border between work proper and mounting) in the case of a vertical scroll; at the top right of a work or the front geshui border in the case of a horizontal scroll; and above the space between two opposing leaves in the case of an album. Almost all impressions follow these patterns. The only deviations are works that simply physically do not allow such uses. The present seal was sometimes used in a set alongside others, and sometimes on its own.

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Fig. 2. Wang Ximeng, A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). Handscroll, ink and color on silk, 51.5 x 1191.5 cm © Palace Museum, Beijing.

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Fig. 3. Ma Yuan, Water Studies, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279)Handscroll, ink and color on silk © Palace Museum, Beijing

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Fig. 4. Admonitions of the Court Instructress, after Gu Kaizhi (345-406), Song dynasty (960-1279). Handscroll, ink on paper © Palace MuseumBeijing

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Fig. 5. Huang Jucai, Mountain Magpie, Sparrows and Bramble, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 97 x 53.6 cm, National Palace MuseumTaipei.

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Fig. 6. Fan KuanTravelers among Mountains and Streams, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), ink on silk hanging scroll, c. 1000, 206.3 x 103.3 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

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Fig. 7. Guo Xi, Early Spring, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), ink on silk, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

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Fig. 8. Attributed to the Imperial Academy of Emperor Huizhong, Plum Tree, Bamboo, and a Gathering of Birds, Northern Song dynasty (960-1279), hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, National Palace museum, Taipei.

3. It demonstrates the artistic character and sophistication of imperial seals

Soapstone is one of the three main types of Chinese seal stones. Soapstone comes in many subcategories and was beloved by seal-carvers. It was a very important material for Qing imperial seals. A number of Qianlong’s early seals were carved from soapstone. The present seal was carved from typical white soapstone of fine texture and warm colour. The finial is in the form of three mythical animals carved in the round. The maternal animal lays prostrate on the seal and strikes an exaggerated and energetic pose. It has lion-like horns, dense hair and whiskers, two wings on the sides of its body, and dragon scales on its legs. Its body is decorated in a delicately carved flame-like pattern. The beast is enlivened by two black gemstones set in the eyes to represent its pupils. All these details are typical of early soapstone carving. The two small endearing young cling to their mother atop her and on her side respectively. The mother looks back at them in a vivid dialogue. The entire finial is carefully designed, composed, and carved, and well represents the artistic character and sophistication of Qing imperial seals.

Gems of Imperial Porcelain from the Private Collection of Joseph Lau

A Selection of Imperial Porcelain from one of the Finest Collections Ever Assembled in the Field

The private collection of Chinese art of Joseph Lau occupies pride of place among the very finest ever assembled in the field and will delight connoisseurs of Chinese porcelains. This selection of beautiful pieces is an opportunity for the most discerning collectors to acquire a piece from Lau’s celebrated collection.

At the age of 27, Lau walked for the first time into a Sotheby’s preview in 1978, just before a time many consider to be the first golden age of Sotheby’s Hong Kong when the celebrated collections of J.M. Hu, T.Y. Chao, Paul and Helen Bernat and the British Rail Pension Fund came to market. During the following ten years, Lau assembled one of the finest collections of Chinese porcelain ever, articulated around masterpieces, each representative of the best of a certain period and type, and handpicked from the most prestigious collections.

An exceptional and possibly unique large blue and white 'makara dragon' jar

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Lot 5. From the Private Collection of Joseph Lau. An exceptional and possibly unique large blue and white 'makara dragon' jar, Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1402-1424); h. 24.4 cm, w. 29.8 cmEstimate: 45,000,000 - 65,000,000 HKDLot sold: 42,725,000 HKD. © Sotheby's 2022

sturdily potted with an ovoid body rising to a rounded shoulder and surmounted by a straight neck and lipped rim, the exterior superbly painted in shades of cobalt blue with a continuous scene of two makara dragons chasing each other, the winged mythical beasts rendered dynamically striding ahead with their three-clawed feet amidst ruyi cloud scrolls above crashing waves, their manes depicted fluttering backwards and their long curlicue tails trailing behind, the shoulder of the vessel collared with a frieze of ruyi lappets enclosing foliate motifs, below a band of roundels encircling the neck, the lower body skirted by overlapping upright lappets, the base unglazed.

Provenance: Sotheby's Hong Kong, 16th May 1989, lot 112.

Literature: Sotheby's Hong Kong – Twenty Years, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 55.
Sotheby's Thirty Years in Hong Kong: 1973-2003, Hong Kong, 2003, pl. 211.
Made for a Buddhist Emperor
Regina Krahl

Porcelains from the Yongle (1403-1424) imperial kilns are painted in a wonderfully imaginative manner, in a style abounding with a free spirit. This jar appears to be unique, but its decoration embodies the best works from these workshops. The two dragons chasing each other around the vessel are charmingly rendered, their wide-open mouths heralding strength, their clawed feet powerfully striding ahead, their fluttering manes indicating swift movement, and their long curlicue tails trailing behind in a seemingly joyful manner – the whole cannot but make one smile, like a ferociously barking dog that is wagging its tail.

Chinese dragons come in a multitude of appearances, of which the kui (or xiangcao, ‘sweet grass’) dragons depicted on the present vessel are perhaps the most endearing manifestation. Although in a Buddhist context this motif was very popular in China in the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644), it remained very rare on Chinese porcelain.

Dragons of this kind developed from the Indian makara, a water guardian spirit used particularly as an architectural element to protect gateways. In Tibet, makaras formed an integral part of arch-like structures – derived from the Indian torana gateways – that were used to frame Buddhist figures both in three- and two-dimensional images already around the 13th century; see, for example, a pair of gilt-copper makara figures that would have been part of an arch-like throne-back for a Buddhist sculpture, illustrated in Jane Casey, Naman Parmeshwar Ahuja & David Weldon, Divine Presence. Arts of India and the Himalayas, Milan, 2003, p. 135 outside Beijing; and painted versions from thangkas and temple walls in Deborah E. Klimburg-Salter, ‘A Thangka Painting Tradition from the Spiti Valley’, Orientations, November 1997, especially pp. 40-45.

As Tibetan Buddhist iconography became influential in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), the arch incorporating a pair of makaras was adopted also in China and can be seen, for example, on the Cloud Terrace on the Juyongguan mountain pass of the Great Wall, outside Beijing (fig. 1). This platform, which originally supported three white dagobas and was completed in 1345, is carved with Tibetan Buddhist imagery and inscribed with sutra texts. The arch-shaped reliefs around its passageway show the classic composition that is also seen in the early Ming period: a garuda between two spirit figures, or apsaras, at the top, a pair of makaras with curling tails at the shoulders, and a sequence of animals stacked above each other along the jambs of the arch.

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Fig. 1. Gateway of the Cloud Terrace on the Juyongguan Mountain Pass of The Great Wall.

The Yongle Emperor actively patronized Tibetan Buddhism, initiated many Buddhist building projects, and bestowed many imperial gifts on Tibetan lamas and temples both in the capital and in Tibet. Thus, this arch formation with makara figures also became popular in the early Ming period, in multiple figurations: surrounding the entrance of the ‘porcelain pagoda’ of the Da Baoen Temple in Nanjing, for example, which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned to honour his mother, in form of sancai-glazed tilework; see Clarence Eng, Colours and Contrast. Ceramic Traditions in Chinese Architecture, Leiden and Boston, 2015, pp. 240-43 (fig. 2); surrounding Buddhist deities on thangkas; see, Michael Henss, ‘The Woven Image: Tibeto-Chinese Textile Tangkas of the Yuan and Early Ming Dynasties’, Orientations, November 1997, especially pp. 29-31; and surrounding Buddhist sculptures, for example, the statue of Kasyapa at the main altar of the Daxiong Baodian, the main hall of the Fahai Temple outside Beijing, which was completed only slightly later, in 1443, see Ursula Toyka, The Splendours of Paradise. Murals and Epigraphic Documents at the Early Ming Buddhist Monastery Fahai Si, Monumenta Serica Monograph Series LXIII, Sankt Augustin, 2014, vol. 2, pl. 27.

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Fig. 2.  A sancai-glazed door frame, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, from the 'porcelain pagoda' of the Da Baoen Temple in Nanjing, Nanjing Museum, Nanjing

In the Yongle reign, Buddhist themes also entered the repertoire of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, about two hundred nautical miles from the capital Nanjing, whose activities appear to have interested the Emperor greatly. While much blue-and-white porcelain of the Yongle period was made for export, it also was most suitable for imperial gifts to the Buddhist clergy, and the present jar would have been ideal for that purpose. While in most of the early Ming arch structures the makaras remained quite faithful to the Tibetan prototype, at Jingdezhen, a distinctly Chinese version of the makara was developed, as this jar shows. It depicts a makara dragon, kui, which in fact is very close to the long dragon, but has wings instead of hind legs. It is rather different from the Tibetan makara: its head has a typical dragon’s snout instead of the high curled-up nose of the Tibetan animal; it shows tufts of hair that the latter is lacking; its legs have three-clawed dragon feet instead of lion’s paws; its body is scaled; and its long tail retains only a vague echo of the distinctly foliate features of the Tibetan version.

The scene depicted on the present jar is remarkable also for the painterly representation of the sea that is borrowed from Chinese ink painting. The rendering of the waves in graded tones of blue, fading to pure white, aims at a three-dimensional effect as it was only ever introduced on porcelain in the Yongle period. It was similarly employed, for example, in the depiction of mountains and flat ground on the two famous Yongle moon flasks painted with foreign dancers and musicians, one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and one in Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul (Shi yu xin: Mingdai Yongle huangdi de ciqi/Pleasingly Pure and Lustrous: Porcelains from the Yongle Reign (1403-1424) of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2017, pp. 116-9; and Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, no. 612). On these superb flasks, the design is also bordered by very similar blue-ground lotus petals.

A very similar fragmentary jar with a small section of the underglaze-blue rings around a reign mark remaining on the glazed base – undoubtedly deriving from a Xuande (1426-1435) mark – was excavated from the Jingdezhen imperial kiln site, see Ming Qing yuyao ciqi. Gugong Bowuyuan yu Jingdezhen taoci kaogu xin chengguo/The Porcelain of Imperial Kiln in Ming and Qing DynastiesThe New Achievements on Ceramic Archaeology of the Palace Museum and Jingdezhen, Beijing, 2016, pl. 130. This Xuande jar is of the same size and the decoration is virtually identical, even down to the formation and layout of the clouds, indicating that the painters were following the same imperial design that had been devised already in the Yongle period.

The makara dragon design was rarely used on blue-and-white porcelain in the early Ming period and pieces with Buddhist-themed decoration are scarce altogether among the large numbers manufactured overall. It suggests that the court commissioned them only for special occasions. While no other Yongle jar of this design, nor an intact Xuande version appears to be recorded, five smaller jars of Xuande mark and period decorated with makaras are executed in a very different style, with animals without scales striding on lion’s paws and emitting lotus sprays from their mouths, much closer to the Tibetan model: see one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, Shanghai, 2000, vol. 1, pl. 100); and one, illustrated in Adrian M. Joseph, Ming Porcelains. Their Origins and Development, London, 1971, pl. 33, and sold in these rooms, 2nd October 2017, lot 101 (fig. 3). 

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An exceptional blue and white 'makara' jar, mark and period of Xuande (1426-1435); 19 cm, 7 1/2  in. Sold for 35,537,500 HKD at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2nd October 2017, lot 101. © Sotheby's 2022

The design of the present piece was revived briefly later in the Ming dynasty: one jar of Jiajing mark and period (1522-1566), of larger size, was sold in our London rooms, 10th December 1982, lot 194, and again in these rooms, 8th April 2009, lot 1672.

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A rare blue and white 'dragon' jar and cover, Mark and period of Jiajing (1522-1566); 32.4 cm., 12 3/4 in. Sold for 2,060,000 HKD at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8th April 2009, lot 1672.

An extremely rare and superb blue and white ‘dragon’ dish Mark and period of Chenghua

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Lot 2. From the Private Collection of Joseph Lau. An extremely rare and superb blue and white ‘dragon’ dish, Mark and period of Chenghua; 16.3 cm. Estimate:20,000,000 - 30,000,000 HKDLot sold: 16,105,000 HKD. © Sotheby's 2022

finely potted with shallow rounded sides rising from a tapered foot to an everted rim, sensitively and delicately painted on the exterior in muted tones of cobalt blue with two sinuous scaly five-clawed dragons in pursuit of flaming pearls amidst clouds, each flaming pearl rendered in the form of a peach, all between double-line borders encircling the rim and foot.

Provenance: Sotheby's Hong Kong, 27th October 1992, lot 39.
 
Literature: Sotheby's Hong Kong – Twenty Years, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 105.
Sotheby's. Thirty Years in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2003, pl. 252.
 
For the True Porcelain Enthusiast
Regina Krahl
 
Chenghua imperial porcelain was never about quantity, it was always about quality. Its production depleted the coffers of the imperial household, yet the numbers considered successful and delivered to the court were small. The already modest production figures of the Chenghua reign (1465-1487) were dramatically reduced through quality control, and of the few hundred pieces extant today, virtually all are in museum collections. Not even two dozen pieces are known to remain in private hands, and the present dish belongs to this exceedingly scarce category.
 
According to Liu Xinyuan, who excavated the imperial kiln site at Zhushan in Jingdezhen, Chenghua sherds there make up less than half the amount of Xuande (1426-1435) sherds. About these Chenghua finds he states: “Although over 1,000 objects have already been restored, they account for less than one percent of the total number of shards recovered.” This figure of perhaps some 100,000 pieces fired and then deliberately damaged and buried at the kiln site, forms a striking contrast to not even 600 porcelains of Chenghua mark and period preserved worldwide, which Julian Thompson could trace in his research towards a catalogue raisonné of Chenghua imperial porcelain (Regina Krahl, ed., The Emperor’s broken china. Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, Sotheby’s, London, 1995, pp. 11f.; and A Legacy of Chenghua: Imperial Porcelain of the Chenghua Reign Excavated from Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 81f.).
 
It is not surprising that this excessive quality control resulted in an outstanding product; but to appreciate the superiority of Chenghua wares requires a connoisseur’s eye. Chenghua imperial porcelain is all about subtlety. The tonalities of the porcelain material, the glaze and the cobalt painting are muted, strokes are soft as if done with a somewhat blunt brush, nothing is sharp or harsh or flashy. A piece like this dish is the perfect embodiment of this period, when a very specific concept of fine porcelain was prevalent at the imperial kilns and the imperial court. Liu Xinyuan believed that the raw materials for body and glaze were more rigorously selected and prepared, the body material containing less iron and more aluminium oxide than previous imperial wares, allowing a firing at higher temperatures and producing a whiter and denser ware, and the glaze being lower in iron and calcium oxide, making it clearer and finer (A Legacy of Chenghua, op. cit., p. 72). The blue of the cobalt pigment also is softer, possibly resulting from a mixture of imported and locally mined mineral.
 
The ideal image of the five-clawed imperial dragon had arrived at Jingdezhen already a generation or two earlier, and the basic design seen here appears to have been created by court artists for the imperial kilns in the Yongle period (1403-1424). The Yongle design is basically the same, as can be seen when comparing two very similar, slightly larger Yongle dishes 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], Beijing, 2002, vol. 1, pls 44 and 45 (fig. 1). Even in a photograph, the subtle differences in the painters’ rendering of the pattern are clearly visible, the Chenghua version being drawn more sensitively and appearing more velvety. In real life, the difference is even more obvious: while the Yongle version carries the interest of freshness of a style, the Chenghua version has the benefit of maturity. Never were dishes with imperial five-clawed dragons more satisfactorily executed than at the Chenghua imperial porcelain workshops.

Two underglaze-blue and anhua-decorated 'dragon' dishes, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, Qing Court Collection © Palace Museum, Beijing

Two underglaze-blue and anhua-decorated 'dragon' dishes, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, Qing Court Collection © Palace Museum, Beijing.
 
To the true porcelain enthusiast, however, the true delight of a dish such as this lies in its pure white inside. Far from being a void, it is the dream of a porcelain lover: an unadulterated monochrome space, whose silky surface reflects a soft light and immediately invites the touch – white porcelain at its absolute, unsurpassed best.
 
We may well ask why the inside of an imperial piece could have remained undecorated, how the main area facing anybody who used this dish, including the imperial patron, could have been left plain? One cannot help feeling that the achievement of material excellence that we appreciate today, similarly convinced at the Chenghua court and made decoration of the main surface of a dish not always compulsory, at times even undesirable. It is most interesting to note that plain white surfaces on dishes were common in the Yongle period, when porcelain quality had just made huge progress compared with the period before, but were avoided in any other Ming reign except that of Chenghua. The plain white surface seems like a celebration of the potters’ achievement to improve even further what had already been a superb substance.
 
Only four comparable Chenghua dishes with a white inside and a pair of dragons chasing flaming pearls on the outside appear to be recorded, in the two Palace Museums and in the Sir Percival David Collection; no sherds with this design are recorded from the kiln site. The Percival David dish in the British Museum, London, is of the same size and has the mark placed at exactly the same angle against the two dragons, see the exhibition Flawless Porcelains. Imperial Ceramics from the Reign of the Chenghua Emperor, Percival David Foundation, London, 1995, cat. no. 10; the other three dishes are slightly larger (18.3, 18.8 and 20.7 cm), one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Mingdai Chenghua yuyao ciqi/Imperial Porcelains from the Reign of Chenghua in the Ming Dynasty, Beijing, 2016, vol. 1, pl. 22; and two in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, were included in the exhibition Chenghua ciqi tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ch’eng-hua Porcelain Ware, 1465-1487, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2003, cat. nos 2 and 3.
 
The present dish varies from these four dishes in an almost imperceptible detail not normally encountered on any dragon design: the flaming pearls that the dragons are chasing, which usually are of round pearl shape, here are distinctly peach-shaped – a subtle wish for long life towards the Emperor.

Marchant II – Qing Imperial Porcelain

Following on from the success of Marchant I, which testified to the connoisseurship and discerning eye of Richard Marchant, the carefully curated sequel presents a tight group of exquisite imperial porcelains from the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns. Encapsulating the firm’s attention to quality, condition and provenance, highlights include both monochrome and enamelled wares, such as a celadon-glazed meiping and a rose-pink enamelled ‘chrysanthemum’ dish from the Yongzheng period, and a very rare ruby-ground famille-rose ‘phoenix’-handled vase from the Qianlong period.

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 An Extremely Rare Ruby-Ground Famille-Rose 'Phoenix'-Handled Vase, Seal Mark and Period of Qianlong (1736-1795); h. 30.5 cm. Estimate 5,000,000 - 7,000,000 HKD© Sotheby's 2022

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Lot 3508. A Rare Rose-Pink Enamelled 'Chrysanthemum' Dish, Mark and Period of Yongzheng(1723-1735); d. 17.8 cm. Estimate : 3,000,000 - 4,000,000 HKDLot sold: 3,276,000 HKD. © Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: Collection of Sir William Cornelius Van Horne (1843-1915), president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, label.
Sotheby's London, 14th November 1967, lot 138.
Collection of Richard Marchant.
 
NoteThis chrysanthemum dish, with its superb modelling and vibrant rose-red enamel, is an embodiment of the Yongzheng Emperor's aesthetic for understated refinement and the technical developments in ceramic production in the 18th century. Using ground ruby glass, reducing the proportion of colloidal gold and tin, the Chinese artisans managed to produce this attractive colour superior to the European versions of this enamel in terms of stability and evenness.

Yongzheng rose-pink chrysanthemum dishes are rare. A comparable example is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, illustrated in Oriental Ceramics, The World's Great Collections, Tokyo, 1980, vol. 10, no. 264 right; another in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in China. The Three Emperors 1662-1795, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, cat. no. 172, and a further example sold in these rooms, 15th May 1990, lot 68.

The Yongzheng Emperor is recorded to have commissioned Nian Xiyao, Supervisor of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, to produce chrysanthemum dishes in twelve colours, forty pieces of each. The commission is dated the 27th day of the 12th month of the 11th year of the Yongzheng reign, corresponding to 1733. However, no original complete set of twelve dishes is preserved and chrysanthemum dishes of the Yongzheng period are known in many more than twelve colours. The Palace Museum, Beijing, has indeed published dishes covered in thirteen different tones, which have been assembled from different sources, and at least six further colours are recorded elsewhere. Hajni Elias in 'In the path of Tao Qian: "Chrysanthemum" wares of the Yongzheng emperor', Arts of Asia, May-June 2015, pp. 72-85, discusses the development of chrysanthemum-shaped porcelain wares in the Yongzheng period and suggests that they may reveal the Emperor's admiration for one of China's most famous poets, Tao Qian (365-427). A scholar-official who retired to his homeland in Chaisang, present-day Jiujiang in Jiangxi province, he is known for his pastoral lifestyle and for having created the so-called 'farmstead poetry' (tianyuan shi) which was inspired by his chrysanthemum garden as well as the natural landscape and pastoral scenes. These themes were particularly relevant to the Yongzheng Emperor, who was an advocate of farming and manual labour.

A symbol of autumn and of the ninth month of the year, the chrysanthemum flower provided much inspiration to potters and craftsmen from as early as the Song dynasty. These early chrysanthemum-shaped wares, which were made in a variety of materials, probably inspired the form of these dishes. A lacquer chrysanthemum dish, attributed to the Song dynasty, was included in the exhibition The Monochrome Principle. Lacquerware and Ceramics of the Song and Qing Dynasties, Museum für Lackkunst, Münster, 2008, cat. no. 13, together with a moulded Ding chrysanthemum dish, cat. no. 14. 

Compare also dishes of this type covered in different glazes, for example, the twelve dishes from the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Three Emperorsop.cit., cat. no. 172, which included, in addition to ruby-red, versions in yellow, lemon-yellow, amber-yellow, café-au-lait, white, brown, teal, pale turquoise-blue, lime-green and cobalt-blue; in this group, the teal-coloured example also showed a partly enamelled base; further, a powder-blue glazed example, also in the Meiyintang Collection, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics From The Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 2, pl. 847; a bright 'camelia-leaf' green dish in the Baur Collection, Geneva, published in John Ayers, Chinese Ceramics in the Baur Collection, vol. 2, Geneva, 1999, pl. 328; a black pair in the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, included in the exhibition Seikadō zō Shinchō tōji. Keitokuchin kanyō no bi [Qing dynasty porcelain collected in the Seikado. Beauty of Jingdezhen imperial kilns], Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, 2006, cat. no. 92; and a pair of lavender-blue dishes from the Seattle Art Museum and T.Y. Chao collections, a bright turquoise-blue dish from the Paul and Helen Bernat and Hall Family collections, and a celadon-green piece from the Leshantang Collection, sold in these rooms, 19th May 1987, lot 279, 2nd May 2000, lot 553, and 11th April 2008, lot 2503, respectively.

Important Chinese Art including Gardens of Pleasure – Erotic Art from the Bertholet Collection and Jades from the De An Tang Collection

The Important Chinese Art auction presents a tightly curated sale including highlights from two renowned private collections, both of which rank amongst the most sought after within their categories, namely Gardens of Pleasure – Erotic Art from the Bertholet Collection and Jades from the De An Tang Collection. The widely exhibited and published Bertholet Collection presents a group of paintings and works of art, including Gardens of Pleasure, an imperial album of eight exquisitely executed paintings from the Kangxi period, formerly in the collection of C.T. Loo. Similarly, the De An Tang is the only private collection of jade ever to have been exhibited in the Forbidden City, at the Yongshou Palace in 2004, and highlights include a magnificent Qianlong Khotan-green jade boulder gilt-inscribed with six imperial poems and a Ming dynasty large yellow jade figure of a camel from the Gerald Godfrey Collection.

The sale also includes an extremely rare and highly important Northern Wei limestone seated figure of a ‘pensive’ Matreiya formerly from the collections of Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Norman A. Kurland. Other highlights include an extremely rare miniature falangcai ‘boys’ double-gourd vase inscribed with a blue-enamel Qianlong mark, a superb and large blue and white ‘deer’ vase that is reminiscent of Castiglione’s masterwork, and an enchanting group of twenty-one white and green early wares formerly from the collection of Dr Carl Kempe.

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Lot 3618. Property from the De An Tang CollectionA magnificent and important gilt-inscribed Khotan-green jade ‘Tingxue Ge on Hanshan’ boulder, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795); 25 by 8.5 by h. 25 cm. Estimate: 25,000,000 - 50,000,000 HKD© Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: The Estate of Mr and Mrs Oliver Smalley.
Sotheby’s New York, 28th September 1989, lot 451.
Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 25th April 2004, lot 95 and cover.
 
Exhibited: Jade: Ch'ing Dynasty Treasures from the National Museum of History, Taiwan, Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, Santa Ana, California; Houston Museum of National Science, Houston, Texas; and the Explorers Hall of the National Geographical Society, Washington D.C., 1997-1999, cat. no. 4.
A Romance with Jade: From the De An Tang Collection, Yongshougong, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2004, cat. no. 55.
 
The 'Sound of Snowfall Pavilion on Hanshan' Jade Boulder
Guo Fuxiang
 
The production of imperial jade carvings in China reached a pinnacle during the Qing dynasty, especially during the reign of Qianlong. Successful territorial expansion, political stability and soaring economic growth brought the Empire unprecedented wealth and created a burgeoning demand for opulent fine art among the imperial family and courtiers. The Imperial Workshops brought together the most skilled artisans and created a powerhouse for artistic creation. In 1759, the 24th year of Qianlong, the Qing Empire's victory over the Dzungar and Muslim rebellions marked a pivotal point in the production of jade carvings; the victory opened up the jade-rich territories in Khotan and Yarkand, making jade no longer scarce and inaccessible. With the abundance of high-quality jade brought in from Xinjiang, the production of jade carvings flourished and thrived.
The Qianlong Emperor was a highly cultured man and passionately interested in works of art. His close involvement during the jade production process and his relentless pursuit of perfection determined the superb quality evident in pieces made at the Imperial Workshops. Imperial jade carvings created during his reign have several distinctive characteristics. The first and foremost characteristic is the unparalleled quality and refinement of the workmanship, which inspired the term 'Qianlong gong'. The second characteristic is the rapidly expanding genre, particularly in relation to naturalism and jade mountains. With a secure supply of jade, artisans began to explore and push their boundaries, creating naturalistic jade mountains deftly carved with minuscule figures and pavilions, striking in strong contours and well-balanced compositions. The third characteristic is the jade carvings made during this period were liberally inscribed with imperial poems composed by the Qianlong Emperor himself. The Emperor was fond of ancient and contemporary jade carvings; he wrote over 800 poems dedicated to the pieces he owned and jade in general. The present jade mountain embodies all of the above characteristics and serves as a classic representation of imperial jade carvings during the Qianlong reign.
These poems serve as a testament to Qianlong's enduring attachment to Sound of Snowfall Pavilion over a span of three decades. It is extremely rare to find this many imperial poems inscribed on a single carving.

The present jade mountain was carved from a massive piece of evenly coloured, smooth and glossy dark green stone, imbued with an aesthetically pleasing and majestic presence. Its natural quality and form were ingeniously incorporated into the design, creating a well-composed landscape with depth and perspective. The mountain paths meander through precipitous cliffs and pavilions, and a cascading waterfall cuts through a narrow gorge. All these configurations of terraces, pavements and trees played crucial parts in the balance of the overall composition. The mountain also demonstrates the artisans' dexterity in their delicate rendering of the textures and details of pine needles, bamboo leaves, roof tiles, balustrades and walls. It truly showcases the height of imperial craftsmanship during the Qianlong reign.

On the present mountain, there are six imperial poems engraved in regular script (kaishu) with the characters filled in with gilding. The poems give us clues to the work’s origin, which hasn't been explicitly indicated in the work itself. All six poems were composed by the Qianlong Emperor, dedicated to Tingxue Ge (Sound of Snowfall Pavilion). They were recorded in Qianlong yuzhi shiwen quanji [Anthology of poetry and prose by the Qianlong Emperor], vol. 2, chs 24 and 63; vol. 3, chs 20 and 47; vol. 4, ch. 69; vol. 5, ch. 5). The first poem was written during Qianlong's first historic inspection tour to the South in 1751. During each of his five subsequent inspection tours, which happened in 1757, 1762, 1765, 1780 and 1784, Qianlong composed poems re-visiting the same subject matter, Tingxue Ge. These poems serve as a testament to Qianlong's enduring attachment to Sound of Snowfall Pavilion over a span of three decades. It is extremely rare to find this many imperial poems inscribed on a single carving.

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Remnants of the Cliff Carvings, Hanshan.

The Sound of Snowfall Pavilion was located in a scenic area poetically termed 'Thousand Feet of Snow', Qianchixue, on Hanshan in the outskirts of Suzhou, Jiangsu province. During the Wanli period of the Ming dynasty, a minister called Zhao Yiguang retreated to Hanshan to live in seclusion with his wife Lu Qingzi. They built a cottage for shelter, chiselled a hole in the mountain to induce a spring which then erupted into a cascading waterfall, and planted acres of pine trees and bamboo. After hundreds of years, the area became famous for its ethereal beauty and gave rise to the name 'Thousand Feet of Snow'. Its magnificent scenery was also well documented in the historical record, Qinding nanxun shengdian [The grand inspection tours to the south compiled by imperial command]. When the Qianlong Emperor passed through Hanshan on his initial inspection tour to the South, he was mesmerised. The sight of 'Thousand Feet of Snow' so enthralled him that he replicated the scenery in three Imperial gardens: Bishu Shanchuang (Imperial Summer Villa) in Chengde, Xiyuan (West Garden) in Beijing, and Jingji Shanchuang (Mountain Retreat of Peace and Serenity) on Mount Pan, and painted the Mount Pan's replica himself. He commissioned great artists to paint the other versions. Zhang Zongcang painted the original on Hanshan (fig. 1); Dong Bangda painted the West Garden's replica; Qian Weicheng painted the Imperial Summer Villa's version. The poems on the present jade mountain reveal that it is in fact depicting the Hanshan's version, which is the site that captivated and caught Qianlong Emperor in the first place.

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Fig. 1. Zhang Zongcang, Thousand feet of snow on Hanshan, dated to the 18th year of the Qianlong period (1753), scroll, ink on paper, detail © Palace Museum, Beijing

Even though Emperor Qianlong rarely explicitly mentioned the 'Thousand Feet of Snow' scenery in his poems, we are quite certain the Emperor was particularly mesmerized by the beauty of the place. The Pavilion and the waterfall encapsulate the essence of the scenery and Hanshan, both elements were frequently mentioned in Qianlong's poems. He relishes in the image of water splashing down a waterfall, or spattering into a foggy spray like snow falling from the sky. In one of his poems, he wrote: "three white pavilions capture the landscape to its fullest beauty". The Shiqu Baoji (Record of paintings and calligraphies of the Oing court) contains another similar entry on an Imperial painting of the Pavilion. The Pavilion, Tingxue Ge, where Qianlong composed his poems every time he toured the South, sums up the Emperor's rich, sensual experience of the landscape.

The present jade mountain is considered one of the finest jade mountains ever made by the imperial Workshops. It is remarkable for its unparalleled quality and historical accuracy, with every single detail depicted being verifiable and consistent with historical records. It also provides a unique window through which we can glimpse the Qianlong Emperor's persistence in travelling to the South time and again, his involvement and influence in the architecture of the Imperial Gardens, and his cultivated mind in general.

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Property from the De An Tang Collection. Lot 3622. An outstanding and large yellow and russet jade figure of a camel, Ming dynasty (1368-1644); 16.7 cmEstimate: 8,000,000 - 16,000,000 HKD© Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: Collection of Gerald Godfrey.
Christie’s Hong Kong, 30th October 1995, lot 867 and cover.
 
Literature: Philip Cardeiro, 'Chinese Jade, The Image from Within', Arts of Asia, November - December 1985, pp. 151-154, fig. 4.
 
Exhibited : The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1977-1978.
Chinese Jade, The Image from Within, Pacific Asia Museum, California, 1986, cat. no. 77.
Reverence of a Stone: An Exhibition of Chinese Jade from the Godfrey Collection, San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas, 1986.
Stones of Virtue, Chinese Jades from the Gerald Godfrey Collection, The Dayton Art Institute, Ohio, 1989, cat. no. 157.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1990-1991.
A Romance with Jade: From the De An Tang Collection, Yongshougong, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2004, cat. no. 91.
 
NoteThis magnificent sculpture is a particularly rare and fine example of jade carvings for its unusual subject matter, exceptional size and superb material. Camels are a relatively rare motif in jades. Traditionally associated with the prime periods of activity on the overland Silk Routes during and just before the Tang dynasty (618-907), camels are more commonly portrayed in ceramic as majestic figures carrying foreigners or loaded with precious goods. They were therefore naturally associated with the exotic and with luxury, thus conferring status and wealth to their owners.

The present camel is naturalistically modelled with alert eyes, plump lips, and muscular legs. These features recall the stone sculptures lining the Spirit Way of the Ming Thirteen Tombs in Beijing; two pairs of camels – one standing and the other kneeling – are placed right behind the lions and the mythical beasts xiezhi, before the elephants, qilin and horses, suggesting their symbolic importance to the Ming emperors (fig. 1).

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Fig. 1 A stone carving of a recumbent camel along the Spirit Way of the Ming Thirteen Tombs, Beijing

In the National Palace Museum, Taipei is a smaller white jade recumbent camel (accession no. gu-yu-5668fig. 2) from the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220), probably one of the oldest published examples of this motif, included in the Museum’s exhibition Art in Quest of Heaven and Truth. A Guide to Chinese Jades Through the Ages, Taipei, 2011, p. 78, fig. 5-4-12. Incised on the underside of this Taipei carving is an imperial poem composed by the Qianlong Emperor (1736-95), demonstrating not only the keen art collector’s appreciation for the unusual piece centuries after it was created, but also his imagination of camels accompanying one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, Wang Zhaojun (b. c.50BC), who had to cross the desert to marry a nomadic tribe ruler.

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A white jade carving of a recumbent camel, late Western Han-Eastern Han dynasty (73 BCE – 220 CE), National Palace Museum.

Distinguished by its monumental size, this jade camel has few recorded counterparts. Among them is a slightly smaller recumbent Bactrian camel measuring 15.9 cm in length, also detailed with incised fur markings and carved with hooves on the underside, but made of a mottled stone with dark striations and with long hair on its throat, sold twice in our New York rooms, 18th September 1996, lot 1, and again 23rd September 1997, lot 51. Another smaller white jade camel (9.6 cm), detailed with incised fur markings, but with its pairs of legs bent in a way different from the present piece, is preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (accession no. gu-yu-3097), included in Cai Meifen, Guoli Gugong Bowuyuan. Wen fang ju ying / The National Palace Museum. Treasures of the Study, Kyoto, 1992. The Museum suggests that it might have been an object for a scholar’s desk, as the trough in between the two humps can be used for placing brushes. Other carvings of this type are typically found in a much more compact size, usually around 6 cm in length. See, for example, a celadon and russet jade camel (5.5 cm), carved with pronounced ribs between the bent legs, formerly in the collections of Alice Boney, Florence and Herbert Irving and subsequently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, recently sold in our New York rooms, 10th September 2019, lot 23.

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White jade brush rest in the shape of a camel, Ming dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

This jade carving is also distinguished for the highly valued yellow stone from which it has been fashioned, which is particularly suitable to render the colour of the camel’s coat. The luminous golden hue of this precious stone had been much favoured in China for dynasties. Since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), yellow stone was recognised by scholars and connoisseurs as one of the most valued variations of nephrite. In his Yan xian qing shang jian / Refined Enjoyment of Elegant Leisure, compiled in 1591, the dramatist-collector Gao Lian noted, ‘Of all jade materials, yellow stones with a mellow tone are the best and mutton-white ones come second’. Because of the rarity of the stone, brownish colourings were often worked into a piece, as seen on the present lot, to increase the overall size and show the carver’s great respect for the treasured material. The Palace Museum, Beijing, preserved a yellow jade recumbent camel, but of smaller size, and the head and neck of the animal leaning backward (accession no. xin-132365). 

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Yellow jade recumbent camel, Ming dynasty, Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum

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Property from the Bertholet Collection. Lot 3656. Gardens of Pleasure, Qing dynasty, Kangxi period (1662-1722), a complete imperial album of 8 paintings, ink and colour on silk, 39.5 by 55.5 cm. Estimate 13,000,000 - 18,000,000 HKD© Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: Collection of C.T. Loo (1880-1957), Paris, and thence by descent.

Literature: Michel Beurdeley, in collaboration with Kristofer Schipper, Chang Fu-Jui and Jacques Pimpaneau, Chinese Erotic Art, Rutland, 1969, pp. 74-76, 96, 103, 113-114, and 116.
Ferdinand M. Bertholet, Les Jardins du Plaisir: Érotisme et art dans la Chine ancienne / Gardens of Pleasure: Eroticism and Art in China, Paris, 2003 (rev. English ed., Munich, Berlin, London, New York, 2010), pp. 6, 10, 17, 70-89.
Ferry M. Bertholet, Concubines and Courtesans: Women in Chinese Erotic Art, Brussels, 2010, pls 42 and 68.
 
Exhibited: Liebeskunst: Liebeslust und Liebesleid in der Weltkunst, Museum Rietberg, Zurich, 2002, cat. nos 154-157.
James Cahill et al., Le Palais du printemps. Peintures érotiques de Chine, Musée Cernuschi, Paris, 2006, pp. 180-191.
Seduced: Art & Sex from Antiquity to Now, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2007, pp. 128-129.
The Chinese Pleasure Garden: Erotic Art from the Bertholet Collection, Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin, 2011.
Gardens of Pleasure: Sex in Ancient China. An Exhibition of the Ferdinand M. Bertholet Collection, Hong Kong, 2014, figs 3, 4, 5 and 20.

Note: The lovers of this album, young and joyful, set themselves apart from the promiscuous couples commonly seen in erotic paintings of the time. The silky drapery, exquisite jewellery and tasteful interior design undoubtedly indicate an imperial context. Only hands skilled enough to serve the court could have painted these charming scenes with such great detail. The present album, stylistically linked to the late Zhe School, is most likely to have been produced at the Qing Imperial Academy of the Kangxi Emperor. It is arguably one of the finest Chinese erotic artworks.

The figures are naturalistically rendered with facial features that conform to the traditional ideal of beauty. The actions are passionate but without haste. Most are partially undressed as if caught in a fleeting moment during their affectionate exchange. A couple of them seductively gaze out at the beholder as if signalling a personal invitation (the third and fourth scenes).

The luxuriant plants imply the different seasons: spring with peach blossom, magnolia and hydrangea, summer with lotus and wistaria, autumn with rose and chrysanthemum, and winter with narcissus and prunus. The paintings are further enhanced by rich symbolism throughout the album. The arrival of spring and the idea of romantic love, for example, is evoked by a pair of swallows in flight above a young couple below the willows (the second scene), and in the polygynous scene, a watermelon and a lotus root symbolise fertility (the fourth scene).

Albums such as the present example were used as guides for the newlyweds or as instruments of arousal. There is a playful detail in one of the leaves as the duo is depicted as enjoying an erotic album leaf of a similarly posed couple (the sixth scene).

Upon close examination it is apparent that the intimate acts are carefully staged, framed by the furniture and architectural elements of the royal pavilions and gardens. All the scenes are semi-private, shielded by trees and rocks. The compositions are outstanding, for harmony is achieved through the balance of lines as well as colours. Top-quality pigments such as malachite, lapis lazuli and vermilion are applied judiciously in order to highlight selected elements. The colouration is mostly well preserved despite the passage of time.

The majority of painters working in the Qing Imperial Academy under the Kangxi Emperor were from southern regions such as Zhejiang and Jiangsu, hence the name nanjiang (‘southern craftsmen’). James Cahill notes that these painters “constituted the Academy, and brought to it their highly developed skills and urban repertories” (Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2010, p. 35). Jiangsu painter Gu Jianlong (1606-1687 or later) is recorded as appointed painting attendant (zhihou) in the early Kangxi period. During his decade of service at the court, he is believed to have painted an extant series of two hundred illustrations to the late Ming erotic novel Jin ping mei [The plum in the golden vase], presumably for the Emperor (ibid., p. 59).

Another skilled painter from Suzhou, Xu Wen (active 1690-1722, d. 1724), whose artistic repertoire includes erotica, was once summoned to court to participate in the painting project for the Kangxi Emperor’s sixtieth birthday. An erotic album by Xu, with clever use of compositional space and the utmost attention to detail, displays an artistic style not dissimilar to the present example. The album was exhibited in A Selection of Calligraphy and Paintings from the Collection of Mr and Mrs Ullens de Schooten of Belgium, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2002, pp. 52-53, and illustrated in Pictures for Use and Pleasure, op. cit., fig. 2.3.

The present album was formerly in the collection of C.T. Loo (Loo Ching Tsai, 1880-1957). Born into a scholarly family in Zhejiang, Loo was educated in Shanghai before moving to Paris at the age of 20. In 1902 he established ‘Ton Ying’, a private trading company with Zhang Jingjiang, the commercial attaché to the Qing Minister in France, and contributed to the financing of the Xinhai Revolution which ended imperial rule. With access to treasures from the Qing court collection, and agents not only in Beijing and Shanghai but also in the interior cities, he was the unrivalled buyer of Chinese art of all periods throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He originally set up a gallery in Paris, but after the First World War he also opened stores in Fifth Avenue, New York and became a major supplier to museums throughout the US, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

A rare Dingyao tripod waterpot with an inscribed 'guan' mark, Tang - Five Dynasties

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 Lot 3692. Property from the Houlezhai Collection. A rare Dingyao tripod waterpot with an inscribed 'guan' mark, Tang - Five Dynasties; 6.5 cm. Estimate: 1,500,000 - 2,500,000 HKD. © Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: Collection of Dr Carl Kempe (1884-1967).
Sotheby's London, 14th May 2008, lot 226.
 
Literature: Gustaf Lindberg, 'Hsing-Yao and Ting-Yao', The Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, no. 25, Stockholm, 1953, pl. 16, fig. 13.
Bo Gyllensvärd, Chinese Ceramics in the Carl Kempe Collection, Stockholm, 1964, pl. 389.
Oriental Ceramics. The World's Great Collections: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, vol. 8, Tokyo, 1982, pl. 93.
Chinese Ceramic Treasures. A Selection from the Ulricehamn East Asian Museum, Including the Carl Kempe Collection, Ulricehamn, 2002, pl. 59.
 
Exhibited: International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-6, cat. no. 982.
Exhibition of Chinese Art, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, 1954, cat. no. 358.
The Arts of the T'ang Dynasty, The Oriental Ceramic Society, London, 1955, cat. no. 171.
Chinese Gold, Silver and Porcelain. The Kempe Collection, Asia House Gallery, New York, 1971, cat. no. 96, a touring exhibition also shown at nine other museums in the United States.

NoteDelicately potted with subtle lobes resembling a lotus bud and enveloped in a warm ivory-white glaze, the present vessel epitomises the aesthetic ideal at the dawn of white-ware production. The feet, each modelled in the form of an animal’s paw, add to the charm of the vessel.

Although both Xing and Ding kilns in Hebei appear to have produced jarlets of similar shape, the creamy-white tone of the glaze and delicate lotus design of this vessel indicate a likely attribution to the latter site. A Dingyao waterpot of comparable form, with a more bluish glaze stop short above the feet but otherwise undecorated, was excavated at Dingzhou city, Hebei, and included in Zhongguo gu ciyao daxi. Zhongguo Dingyao / Series of China’s Ancient Porcelain Kiln Sites: Ding Kiln of China, Beijing, 2012, p. 274, fig. 11 bottom. Compare a related example attributed to the Xing kilns, also more bluish and plain, excavated in Xi’an, Shaanxi province and published in Zhongguo gu ciyao daxi. Zhongguo Xingyao / Series of China’s Ancient Porcelain Kiln Sites. Xing Kiln of China, Beijing, 2012, p. 375 top.

This waterpot is freely incised to its base with a guan (official) character – an indication of exceptional quality suitable for imperial use. Although white-glazed wares inscribed with such marks can be found from the Tang dynasty through the Song period, they are altogether scarce. Except for a very small number of examples from the Xing kilns, the majority of these marked wares were produced at Dingzhou (Lü Chenglong, ed., Dingyaoyaji gugongbowuyuan zhencang ji chutu dingyao ciqi huicui / Selection of Ding Ware. The Palace Museum’s Collection and Archaeological Excavation, Beijing, 2012, pp. 13 and 18). From the mid-Tang dynasty through the Five Dynasties period, while kilns supplying ceramics to the court were neither strictly controlled nor solely restricted to imperial commissions, court officials were sent to supervise production and taxation at the Ding kilns (The Decorated Porcelains of Dingzhou: White Ding Wares from the Collection of the National Palace Museum Special Exhibition, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2014, p. 19). See a Five dynasties Dingyao covered jarlet with similar petal lobes and inscribed with a guan character, but resting on a short footring, in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Ceramics Gallery of the Palace Museum, vol. 1: The Neolithic Period to Five Dynasties, Beijing, 2021, cat. no. 186, together with a Tang dynasty unmarked waterpot supported on four animal-feet, cat. no. 142.

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Lot 3608. Property of a Gentleman. An extremely rare and important limestone seated figure of a 'Pensive' Maitreya, Northern Wei Dynasty, early 6th century; 61 cm. Estimate: 9,000,000 - 12,000,000 HKDLot sold 9,450,000 HKD. © Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: Collection of Arthur B. Michael, Newton Center, MA (bequest of 1942).
Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, no. 1942:16.210.
Sotheby's New York, 20th March 2007, lot 503.
Collection of Norman A. Kurland.
Eskenazi Ltd, London.
 
LiteratureAndrew C. Ritchie, Catalogue of the Paintings and Sculpture in the Permanent Collection, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1949, p. 212, no. 209.
Steven A. Nash, with Katy Kline, Charlotta Kotik and Emese Wood, Albright-Knox Art Gallery: Painting and Sculpture from Antiquity to 1942, Buffalo, 1979, pp. 84-85.
 
ExhibitedFar Eastern Art in Upstate New York, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, 1976-1977, cat. no. 21 (illustrated).
Six Dynasties Art from the Norman A. Kurland Collection: Part Two, Eskenazi Ltd, London, 2018, cat. no. 17.

Note: The present figure is a depiction of Maitreya bodhisattva in the ‘pensive pose’. With a gracious smiling countenance, deftly carved with arched brows above half-opened eyes and long earlobes beside neatly combed hair, the head is gently tilted to the proper left and supported by an upturned palm to one cheek, alluding to meditation in bliss. The broad shoulders and brawny chest emphasise the solidly built torso, which emanates a masculine power, while, in harmonious contrast, the slender limbs evince a feminine charm. More fluidity is added by the dhoti that hangs in front of the waist, issuing supple scarves to loop around the neck and rest on the elbows and thighs, and further by the garment that drapes in ripples behind the legs, the dynamism of the folds denoting the benevolent energy within the sedate sitter.

Though the origin of the ‘pensive pose’ in Buddhist iconography remains open to debate, widespread opinion has ascribed it to the Hellenised Gandhara. Refer to a Gandharan ‘pensive’ bodhisattva published in Albert von Le Coq, Die Buddhistische Spätantike in Mittelasien Band I: Die Plastik / Post-ancient Buddhist Culture in Central Asia I: Sculptures, Berlin, 1922, pl. 3, one hand is raised toward the leaning head, with a finger typically pointing at the face and the bent elbow placed over the knee (fig. 1).

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Fig. 1 A Gandharan 'pensive' bodhisattva After: Albert von Le Coq, Die Buddhistische Spätantike in Mittelasien Band I: Die Plastik / Post-ancient Buddhist Culture in Central Asia I: Sculptures, Berlin, 1922, pl. 3.

Soon after the Gandharan prototypes gained local popularity, the ‘pensive’ imagery came into China in the 3rd century, as evidenced by the earliest known adaptation on a bronze mirror excavated from Echeng, Hubei Province, in 1975; dated to Eastern Wu of the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280). The mirror is decorated with three seated Buddhas and a ‘pensive’ figure receiving worship from the kneeler in front. Between the late 5th and mid-6th centuries, the ‘pensive pose’ was commonly adopted for bodhisattvas in Northern Wei China, among which some, albeit of a rarer kind, are recognised as Maitreya. See Denise Patry Leidy and Donna Strahan, Wisdom Embodied: Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, p. 13.

On the decline of the Northern Wei dynasty (AD 386-535), the ‘pensive’ imagery was extended across the Yellow Sea and arrived at the Korean Peninsula, from where it later disseminated to Japan, to be prevailing in the vicinity during the late 6th and 7th centuries. A gilt-bronze bodhisattva seated in the ‘pensive pose’, featuring stylistically related drapery, is preserved in the National Museum of Korea, Seoul, designated as National Treasure 83, and closely resembled a red-pine bodhisattva from the Kōryūji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, a National Treasure too. The Korean treasure was exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, included in Lee Soyoung and Denise Patry Leidy, Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom, New York, 2013, pl. 71.

‘Pensive’ bodhisattvas of the Northern and Southern dynasties are often found in altarpieces to flank Maitreya, and Maitreya bodhisattvas rendered as ‘pensive’, like the present figure, are more unusual. The identity of ‘pensive’ Maitreya is asserted by the particular arrangement of hands and legs. In addition to the distinctive hand position, the crossed-leg posture is another central component of the ‘pensive pose’; characteristically, the crossed-leg posture is formed by one pendant leg and the other raised leg relaxed on the opposite knee, see Junghee Lee, ‘The Origins and Development of the Pensive Bodhisattva Images of Asia’, Artibus Asiae, vol. 53, no. 3/4, 1993, pp. 311-57; in the present figure, however, the legs are diagonally slanting and crossed at the ankles, as with most contemporaneous depictions of Maitreya. Maitreya is prophesied to be the successor of Shakyamuni Buddha and descend to earth in an era when the practice of dharma is disregarded. The Northern and Southern dynasties witnessed continuous political chaos and social unrest, hence the general yearning for Maitreya, in the wish to restore a life of amity and prosperity. Besides, the subject of contemplation is directly indicative of wisdom, while the object of contemplation concerning the nature of all living beings exudes compassion; therefore, the ‘pensive pose’, especially the ‘pensive’ Maitreya, embodies the union of compassion and wisdom, which manifests the Buddhist magnanimity desired in turbulent times.

Few close examples of the present ‘pensive’ Maitreya are recorded, but a style of the renowned Longmen cave temples is noticeable. Compare a Northern Wei limestone bodhisattva in the Longmen Museum, Luoyang, presenting the same gesture in a mirrored direction, wearing almost identical attire but a taller crown, illustrated in the museum’s eponymous catalogue, Longmen Bowuguan, Zhengzhou, 2005, cat. no. 5; and a similarly posed Longmen limestone bodhisattva of the same period, all alike except for a mildly rounder face, now preserved in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (accession no. B60S151+), illustrated in René-Yvon Lefebvre d’Argencé, ed., Chinese, Korean and Japanese Sculpture in the Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco, 1974, pp. 98-99, pl. 37 (fig. 2), mentioned alongside three further related figures, the first in the Allen Memorial Art Museum of Oberlin College, originally from the Binyang Cave of Longmen, the second in the City Art Museum of St. Louis, with the head tilted to the different side, and the third in the Portland Art Museum, Oregon, accompanied by guardian lions.

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Fig. 2 Bodhisattva Maitreya, Probably 493-504. China, Longmen, probably from Guyang Cave, Henan province. Northern Wei dynasty (386-534). Limestone. H. 20 in x W. 11 in x D. 3 in, H. 50.8 cm x W. 27.9 cm x D. 7.6 cm. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S151+. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Comparable examples seen in the market are even scarcer, and probably only one appears with high similarity to the present figure – a limestone ‘pensive’ Maitreya attributed to the Northern Wei dynasty, also from the Longmen caves and of the exact same size, sold at Christie’s New York, 17th March 2015, lot 14 from the collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth.

The present ‘pensive’ Maitreya also bears prominent provenance. It once sat in the erudite collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, tracing back to the 1940s, until 15 years ago the gallery offered a selection of archaic artefacts through our New York rooms, whereby it went into the current ownership and has stayed private ever since.

 

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Lot 3638. Property from an Important Collection. A superb and rare large blue and white 'deer' vase, Seal mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795)68.5 cm. Estimate: 8,000,000 - 12,000,000 HKD. © Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: Sotheby's Hong Kong, 11th April 2008, lot 2830
 
Castiglione's Porcelain Canvas
Regina Krahl

This vase is unique in size, shape and decoration, but its most remarkable aspects are the dramatic composition and outstanding style of its cobalt-blue painting, which are otherwise known only from Imperial paintings on silk. It was the Italian Jesuit court painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), known in China as Lang Shining, who served under the three emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, who had developed this painting manner by combining his knowledge of the techniques of perspective and shading with the compositional elements of Chinese ink painting. The Emperors were so enchanted by his style of painting, that many of Castiglione's idiosyncratic mannerisms became accepted conventions of official court painting. As such, they were practised also by various other painters working in the Palace together with Castiglione during the Yongzheng and early Qianlong reigns and equally seem to have had a strong influence on the painter of the present vase. 

The present vase almost certainly dates from the first two decades of the Qianlong reign, while Tang Ying (1682-1756) was the supervisor of the imperial kilns, since wares of that quality do not seem to have been produced after his death. To find this style of court painting on a porcelain vase decorated in underglaze-blue far from the capital Beijing, in southern Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, is nevertheless surprising and may suggest that on occasion court painters were sent to Jingdezhen to work on special commissions.

Porcelain vases of this monumental size did not form part of the regular repertoire of the Jingdezhen Imperial kilns and would have been specially commissioned, individually or in pairs, for important occasions. The present vase with its auspicious subject matter, emblematic of wishes for long life, was most likely a birthday present from or to the Qianlong Emperor.

A silk painting with a similar auspicious motif, a stag under a cypress tree, painted by Castiglione in 1751 and given by the Mongol Dalai Lama Dai-chi-pi-li-kun as a tribute to the court, is in the National Palace Museum; see Collected Works of Giuseppe Castiglione, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1983, pl. 13, where the painting is qualified as a gift to the Qianlong Emperor, and New Visions at the Ch'ing Court. Giuseppe Castiglione and Western-Style Trends, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2007, pl. 17, where it is suggested that it may have been intended as a gift for the Empress Dowager, who celebrated her sixtieth birthday that year (see also Portrayals from a Brush Divine: A Special Exhibition on the Tricentennial of Giuseppe Castiglione’s Arrival in China, Taipei, 2015, cat. no. V-10)

 The theatrical composition of the landscape painting with a pair of large trees growing in the foreground, framing the tableau and setting the scene for the 'action' that occurs further back, is characteristic of the best paintings by Castiglione, such as the monumental handscroll A Hundred Steeds (illustrated ibid., cat. no. III-02). This scroll, which is an early example of Castiglione's Chinese paintings, shows a herd of horses being taken to pasture. The landscape setting is framed by two clumps of outsized pine trees in the foreground, their knotted branches entwined in an exaggerated fashion (fig. 1), their bark wildly textured, their roots partly exposed. Compare also the treatment of the trunks in Activities of the Twelve Months with a cleft extending from the root upwards (New Visions at the Ch'ing Court, op. cit., pl. 29, fig. 2). This feature was turned virtually into a formula for indicating the age of pine trees in Qianlong court painting, and is similarly employed on the present vase. Castiglione's eccentric rendering of outdoor ground, like an artificial scenery, dabbed and dotted with clumps of grass and with the animals' hooves hardly touching the ground, as seen in his painting Auspicious Roe Deer, is also directly echoed on this vase (fig. 3). Finally, the naturalistic rendering of the deer, which are captured in different unassuming poses, is reminiscent of Castiglione's masterful invention of a hundred different poses for his steeds.

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Fig. 1 Giuseppe Castiglione, A Hundred Steeds, dated to the 6th year of the Yongzheng period (1728), handscroll, ink and colour on silk, detail, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

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Fig. 2 Anonymous Court Artists, The Twelfth Month from The Activities of the Twelve Months, Qing dynasty, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, detail, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

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Fig. 3 Giuseppe Castiglione, Auspicious Roe Deer, dated to the 16th year of the Qianlong period (1751), hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, detailNational Palace Museum, Taipei.

 

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Lot 3639. Property of a Gentleman. An extremely rare miniature falangcai 'boys' double-gourd vaseBlue-enamel mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795); 9.9 cm. Estimate: 8,000,000 - 12,000,000 HKD. © Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: An English private collection, West Yorkshire, formed in the 1970s and 1980s.
 
New Year Wishes from the Palace Workshops
Regina Krahl

The Enamelling Workshops of the Forbidden City in Beijing were responsible for falangcai, wares enamelled in ‘foreign colours’, so called since at the beginning, in the Kangxi reign (1662-1722), they worked with imported pigments. In contrast to the Jingdezhen imperial kilns in Jiangxi, which were capable of producing large quantities, the Beijing structures were small ateliers with small kilns, fitted into existing historic halls in the Forbidden City, in direct vicinity to the Emperors’ living quarters, and worked on a small scale. They enamelled white porcelain sent from Jingdezhen. One of the points about falangcai works is that they tend to be unique – or at most have one corresponding pair. Even when the Emperor asked for a successful type to be repeated in larger numbers, the artists varied the designs.

The four-character reign mark of the present bottle-gourd vase, beautifully written in blue enamel, places this piece firmly in that most exalted company of imperial artefacts accomplished inside the palace grounds, as this mark was used only in the imperial Enamelling Workshops there. This small vase appears to be unique, but it can be related to four pieces in the Palace Museums of Taipei and Beijing, which were probably executed at the same time and to the same imperial order, on the same batch of unmarked white porcelain blanks specially fired and sent from Jingdezhen to Beijing.

The Qing gong ciqi dang'an quanji [Complete archives on porcelains for the Qing palace] records for the fifth month of the 3rd year of Qianlong (1738) that a batch of porcelain vases in eleven designs had been chosen to be fired in white glaze only. In the 11th month of the 4th year of Qianlong (1739), Tang Ying (1682-1756), at that time supervising the porcelain production at Jingdezhen, delivered to the court a total of 112 white-glazed porcelains based on eleven designs, among them eight huluping (‘bottle-gourd vases’), to be enamelled (falang).

Of the present shape and size and with the same rectangular foot, five falangcai vases including the present piece are preserved. Two of these form a pair and it is possible that originally the other three vases also came in pairs, thus making up a total of eight. One of the single vases, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, shows garden scenes with flowers and rocks, shou characters, and formal flower designs not unlike those on the sides of our piece, see Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Ch’ing-Dynasty Painted Enamels, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1984, cat. no. 79 (fig. 1); the pair of vases, also in Taipei, is painted with mille-fleurs panels among simulated basketry work on a yellow ground, one illustrated ibid., cat. no. 78; for the pair see https://theme.npm.edu.tw/opendata/DigitImageSets.aspx?sNo=04032801 and https://theme.npm.edu.tw/opendata/DigitImageSets.aspx?sNo=04032804) (fig. 2). The other single vase, from the Qing Court Collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is painted with European figure scenes and rose-pink landscapes among Western-style floral garlands, also on an overall yellow ground, see Falangcai, fencai/The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 35) (fig. 3).

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Fig. 1 A falangcai 'longevity' double-ground vase, mark and period of Qianlong, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

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Fig. 2 A pair of falangcai 'mille-fleurs' double-ground vases, mark and period of Qianlong, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

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Fig. 3 falangcai 'Western figure' double-ground vase, mark and period of Qianlong © Palace Museum, Beijing

With their very narrow openings, these bottles could have served as water droppers or, closed with a stopper, to hold some fragrant substance; but they would also have fitted in perfectly with the miniatures the Emperor collected in his ‘treasure boxes’; see two such boxes with small porcelain vessels in The All Complete Qianlong: The Aesthetic Tastes of the Qing Emperor Gaozong, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2013, cat. nos III-2.39 and 40.

Best known among the stock of preserved falangcai porcelains are bowls, dishes and some vases, painted with nature or figure scenes and often inscribed with a poem. They generally bear a blue-enamel four-character mark enclosed within a double square. In the Qianlong period (1736-1795), the repertoire of the Forbidden City’s Enamelling Workshops was enlarged to include also a series of smaller pieces, which previously had been rare, not only of porcelain, but also of glass and of copper, such as cups, miniature vases and snuff bottles. These small falangcai pieces, to which the present bottle belongs, seem to represent a category of their own, perhaps painted by different artists and, probably due to their small size, almost always inscribed with an un-bordered four-character mark in blue enamel. The production of these small falangcai pieces seems to have lasted for only a very short period in the Qianlong reign, as examples are even rarer than those with a bordered reign mark. The calligraphy of the reign marks varies, the present one being a particularly well written example (fig. 4). The Enamel Workshops are known to have suffered from a shortage of enamel painters right from the start of the Qianlong period, and the Emperor had to make many new appointments as he ascended the throne, which may explain this slight change in course. The production of the Enamelling Workshops completely ceased not much later, as more official orders went directly to Jingdezhen.

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Fig. 4 above: reign mark of the present vase; below: reign mark of the vase in fig. 3 © Palace Museum, Beijing

Children at play were a popular motif in Chinese painting at least since the Song dynasty (960-1279). The scenes on the present bottle, of children creating loud noises by lighting fire crackers and banging drums, refer to traditional activities around the Chinese New Year to scare away demons. Idealized scenes showing the Qianlong Emperor celebrating the Lunar New Year festival are known from several official paintings by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) and other court painters and were meant to show the Manchu emperor observing Han traditional festivals. Perhaps the most famous among them is a painting known to have been officially accepted at court in 1738: it shows the Emperor with children lighting fire crackers, while he himself is hitting a jade chime, see Gongting wenhua xilie zhan/The Palace Museum Exhibitions of Imperial Culture, The Palace Museum, Beijing, 2005, p. 70; and Splendors of China’s Forbidden City, The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, The Field Museum, Chicago, 2004, cat. no. 267. In the court painting, like on our bottle, the noise of the scene is evoked by the gesture of the boy lighting the fireworks, who is covering one ear with his free hand. The topic of boys lighting fire crackers more generally also stands for the wish ‘May there be peace year after year’ (Terese Tse Bartholomew, Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 239).

A small number of Qianlong falangcai snuff bottles, enamelled on glass and on copper, also depict boys at play. One glass bottle in the National Palace Museum shows very similar scenes of two boys on each side, see Fengge gushi. Qianlong nian shi falangcai ci/Story of an Artistic Style. Imperial Porcelain with Painted Enamels of the Qianlong Emperor, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2021, p. 234, fig. 40, and https://theme.npm.edu.tw/opendata/DigitImageSets.aspx?sNo=04026314 (fig. 5). Their occupations are different, but their expressions are similarly depicted, their garment folds are very similarly rendered, with the back seam of their jackets prominently drawn, the overall pastel enamel tones are closely comparable, and the scenes are similar set on a moss-covered terrace under overhanging trees. The glass snuff bottle also shows very similarly stylized flower motifs along its narrow sides.

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Fig. 5 A gilt-ground painted enamel 'boys' snuff bottle, seal mark and period of Qianlong, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Grisaille landscapes are extremely rare on falangcai pieces, especially in the Qianlong reign. The present minimalistic scenes may be inspired by sparse ‘pencilled’ ink landscapes of early Qing (1644-1911) artists such as Wang Zhirui (?-1660) or the monk painter Hongren (c. 1610-1664); compare, for example, Peng Qingyun, ed., Zhongguo wenwu jinghua da cidian; Shu hua juan [Encyclopaedia of masterpieces of Chinese cultural relics: Calligraphy and paintings volume], Shanghai, 1996, nos 465 and 481.

Ball flower motifs as they are here added to the side decoration were in the Qianlong period employed at Jingdezhen, but are hardly found on falangcai porcelain. Archaistic dragons, however, as here decorating the bottle’s waist, were extremely popular with Beijing enamellers, especially as supporting motifs, and were used on many pieces in ever fancier distortions.