A rare and massive sancai-glazed pottery figure of a Bactrian camel, Tang dynasty (AD 618-907)





Lot 1052. Property from a Private North American Collection. A rare and massive sancai-glazed pottery figure of a Bactrian camel, Tang dynasty (AD 618-907); 86cm high. Price realised USD 94,500 (Estimate USD 100,000 – USD 150,000) © Christie's 2023

ProvenanceHenry R. Luce (1898-1967) Collection, New York, acquired in Asia in the 1930s.
Henry Luce III (1925-2005) Collection, New York, 1967, and thence by descent within the family.
Property from the Collection of Henry Luce III, and Thence by Descent to the Consignor; Christie’s New York, 16-17 September 2010, lot 1306.

Note: This massive and strongly modeled figure of a camel is a particularly fine example of the type of figure that was reserved for the tombs of the Tang elite. Such a large and impressive figure offers an obvious indication of the wealth of the family who could afford such costly goods for a deceased relative. Such figures have been found in Tang imperial tombs, as well as those belonging to other members of the Tang nobility. These models also serve as symbols of the way that wealth was acquired through trade along the Silk Road. In Tang times, camels really did live up to the description of ‘ships in the desert’, and were used to transport Chinese goods including silk across the difficult terrain to the markets of Central Asia, Samarkand, Persia and Syria. On their return journey, they carried many exotic luxuries from the west that were desired by the sophisticated Tang court at Chang’an.

The two-humped Bactrian camel was not indigenous to China, but is known there from as early as the Han dynasty, when they were brought from Central Asia and Eastern Turkestan as tribute offerings. The camel’s ability to survive the hardships of travel across the Asian deserts was soon recognized and Imperial camel herds were established under the administration of a special Bureau. These imperial camel herds, numbering in the thousands, were used for a range of state duties, including the provision of a military courier service for the northern frontier. Camels were not only prized for their resilience, but also for their hair, which was used to produce cloth admired for its lightness and warmth, and for their meat and milk during long treks.

Figures of Bactrian camels of this unusually large size are known in two stances, standing foursquare as well as striding, and with various glaze combinations and pack decorations. The present example, standing foursquare, carries a noteworthy pack with a large, grimacing monster mask. This depiction was likely taken from a pack type that was actually used at the time. The large pack with mask is suited for a figure of such large size, and can be found on other massive models including a striding sancai and blue-glazed camel of similar proportions to the present figure, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated by Wang-go Weng and Yang Boda in The Palace Museum, Peking, New York, 1982, p. 244, no. 140 (Fig.1), and another striding camel of slightly smaller size (84. cm. high) in the British Museum, London, illustrated in Sekai toji zenshu, vol. 11, Tokyo, 1976, p. 148, no. 136.

Christie's. Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, New York, 21 sept. & 22 sept. 2023