A rare imperial engraved turned ivory bowl. 18th century. Photo Christie's Image Ltd 2010

Finely incised with a scene of four female Daoist immortals bearing trays of food and drink to a mist-enshrouded palace amidst pines, and engraved with an inscription, Bei que lin xian zhang; Nan shan zuo shou bei, and two red seals, Dan Jing, with a two-character engraved red seal, Gong zhi, on the base encircled by the channeled foot - 3 11/16 in. (9.5 cm.) diam., box - Est. $30,000 - $50,000 - Price Realized $842,500

Provenance: H.G. and M.A. Beasley Collections, acquired June 1925.
Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London.

Literature: Paul Moss, The Literati Mode, London, 1986, no. 97.

Notes: The delicacy of the decoration on this imperial ivory bowl provides a perfect complement to the smooth carving and perfectly balanced proportions. This type of ivory decoration comprised of incised lines filled with black ink or lacquer to resemble ink painting has a long history in China. A rare Ming dynasty ivory brush pot decorated with an incised design of the Three Friends of Winter, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji, Gongyi meishu bian 11 Zhumu, yajiaoqi, Beijing, 1987, p. 78, no, 90. In the Qing dynasty there were two versions of this style. One of these had the fine lines of decoration against an uncolored ground, as on the current bowl. The other version had a dark, usually black or red lacquer, ground on which the designs appeared in reserve with fine line details. An example of this latter type of decoration can be seen on an ivory table screen dated to AD 1771 in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, illustrated in Chinese Ivories from the Shang to the Qing, London, 1984, p. 146, no. 162.

An ivory bowl similarly decorated to the current bowl is preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, and is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 44 - Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Hong Kong, 2002, p. 166, no. 144. (Fig. 1)

The figures and landscape on the current bowl are delicately and beautifully rendered. Daoist immortals are shown emerging from behind a rocky outcrop and approaching a palace, possibly intended to represent the Guanghan palace, amongst the clouds. They each carry an offering, in the case of the two leading figures these appear to be cups on cup stands. It was to the Guanghan Palace on the moon that the goddess Chang E was supposed to have fled with the elixir of immortality that she stole from her husband, the archer Yi, and these offerings may be intended for her. The only plants depicted in the scene on the bowl are pine trees, which are symbols of longevity. By reducing the distant mountains to fine outlines and surrounding mountains, figures, trees and buildings alike with billowing clouds, the ivory artist has effectively evoked the magical nature of the landscape.

In keeping with the Daoist theme of the decoration, the bowl also bears an inscription, Bei que lin xian zhang; Nan shan zuo shou bei, which may be translated as reading:
'The northern capital descends into the palm of an immortal;
The southern mountains become a cup of immortality.'
Appended to this inscription are two seals, dan, referring to the elixir of immortality, and jing, referring to a well for water. On the base of the bowl is another seal reading Gong zhi, meaning 'made in (or for) the Palace'. This imperial seal appears on the base of two early Qing dynasty ivory bowls, from the Qing court collection, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 44 - Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Hong Kong, 2002, pp. 165-6, nos. 143 and 144. The shape and size of these bowls, coupled with the style and execution of their decoration, and the choice of decorative themes, suggests that they and the current bowl may originally have been part of the same set, made perhaps for the Kangxi emperor. The esteem in which these bowls were held by the Qing court is reflected in the fact that one of the bowls in the Palace Museum has been given a gold lining, while the other has a silver lining. Such linings also suggest that these bowls may have been used on some special occasion, as opposed to merely being decorative.

Christie's. For the Enjoyment of Scholars: Selections from the Robert H. Blumenfield Collection. 25 March 2010. New York, Rockefeller Plaza www.christies.com