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An rare and impressive 'Doucai' altar garniture. Qianlong seal marks and period. Photo Sotheby's

LONDON.- Sotheby’s biannual sale of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art today brought the well-above estimate total of £20,798,725, surpassing pre-sale expectations of £11.5-16.2 million, setting a record for a London auction in this collecting category. The sale, which established sell-through rates of 72.3% by lot and 84.8% by value, witnessed rare and important works of art from private UK collections perform especially well.

Headlining the pieces in the auction that were sourced from private UK collections was the sale of a Rare Blue and White ‘Dragon’ Vase Qianlong Seal Mark and Period, which sold for the exceptional sum of £1,138,850/$1,864,867, more than 16 times pre-sale expectations (est: £50,000-70,000). The ‘Dragon’ Vase came to auction from a private Scottish collection and saw intense competition from several bidders, finally selling to an Asian buyer on the telephone.

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A Rare Blue and White ‘Dragon’ Vase Qianlong Seal Mark and Period. Photo Sotheby's

the globular body rising from a short spreading foot to a tall waisted neck and flaring rim, painted in rich cobalt-blue tones with three scaly five-clawed dragons in pursuit of a flaming pearl amidst stylised cloud scrolls above foaming waves, the rim decorated with a keyfret border and the foot with a classic scroll band, the base inscribed with a six-character seal mark; 38cm., 18in. Estimate 50,000—70,000 GBP; Lot Sold 1,138,850 GBP

 NOTE: The present vase is notable for the harmonious composition of dragons in pursuit of flaming pearls. A large Qianlong vase with slightly shorter neck and taller body, decorated with nine dragons amongst clouds in underglaze blue, is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (III), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 118.

Compare a related Jiaqing mark and period vase of smaller dimensions and painted with nine dragons, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th April 2010, lot 1876; another attributed to the Jiaqing period included in the exhibition Ethereal Elegance. Porcelain Vases of the Imperial Qing. The Huaihaitang Collection, Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2007, cat. no. 112; and a Daoguang mark and period example sold in these rooms, 8th December 1992, lot 251.

Commenting on the extremely strong results of today’s auction, Robert Bradlow, Director and Head of Sotheby’s Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department in London, said: “Overall, we are delighted with the results of today’s sale which achieved the well-above estimate total of £20.7 million - true testament to the strength of the Chinese Art market. In particular, we are thrilled with the prices achieved for the property sourced from UK collections which sold exceptionally well in the international selling centre of London . Fresh and highly sought after Qing Dynasty imperial ceramics, jades, and paintings were brought to the market from UK collections - as far north as Scotland and as far South as the ‘home counties’ such as Surrey and East Sussex – selling to Asian and international buyers, demonstrating the global nature of this field and appetite for works of art in this collecting category.”

Further works in today’s sale which were sourced from private collections in the UK include:

A Rare Underglaze-Red ‘Magpie and Prunus’ Moonflask, Qianlong Seal Mark and Period, from a private UK collection, realised £1,049,250, twice its high estimate (est:£300,000-500,000).

River Landscape, an ink and colour painting on paper by Lin Fengmian, which achieved £313,250, nearly four times its high estimate (est: £60,000-80,000), came from a private Scottish collection.

Lady Holding a Flower by Lin Fengmian, which was consigned by a private UK collection based in Surrey, reached £373,250, four and a half times its high estimate(est: 60,000-80,000).

Yihe Yuan Summer Palace, an 18th/19th Century Chinese School, ink and colour work on paper. This piece was acquired by a UK dealer from a regional auction house and was sold today at Sotheby’s London for £193,250, nearly four times its high estimate of £50,000.

A Fine White Jade Double-Gourd Vase and Cover, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period, realised £217,250, almost five and a half times its high estimate of £40,000. The vase came from a Brighton-based UK collection

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A Rare Underglaze-Red ‘Magpie and Prunus’ Moonflask, Qianlong Seal Mark and Period. Photo Sotheby's

the flattened globular body rising from a short oval foot to a waisted neck flanked by a pair of ruyi handles, painted on each side in underglaze red with a magpie perched on a gnarled branch of prunus blossom accompanied by bamboo, all between pendent and upright hooked flame motifs, the neck decorated with further bamboo branches, inscribed to the base with a six-character Qianlong seal mark in underglaze blue; 29.3cm., 11 1/2 in. Estimate 300,000—500,000 GBP. Lot Sold 1,049,250 GBP to an Asian Trade.

NOTE: Vessels decorated in copper-red are extremely rare and even more unusual are those in the form of a moonflask. This finely potted and painted flask, bearing the popular design of a magpie perched on a prunus branch, is closely related to a vessel from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (III), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 177; and another is included in Chinese Ceramics in the Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, London, 1997, pl. 136, formerly in the collections of L. Wannieck, Paris, and R. May, London. The Rijksmuseum flask was sold in these rooms, 8/9th July 1974, lot 279. A third similar example was offered in these rooms, 21st June 1983, lot 345.

A blue and white version of the 'magpie and prunus branch' moonflask, from the de la Mare collection, was sold in these rooms, 2nd April 1974, lot 369. Blue and white flasks of similar form, size and handles can also be found decorated with flowers and fungus; see a vessel in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in Blue and White Ware of the Ch'ing Dynasty, bk. II, Hong Kong, 1968, pl. 16.

Both in shape and design this flask closely follows an early Ming blue and white original. For the Ming prototype compare the apparently unique flask, from the collection of Sir Percival David and now in the British Museum, London, illustrated in Oriental Ceramics. The World's Great Collections, vol. 5, Tokyo, 1982, col. pl. 28, and included in the exhibition Imperial Taste. Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, 1989, cat. no. 30.

The painterly design found on this flask, which is closely related to Chinese fan paintings, is discussed in Margaret Medley, 'Sources of Decoration in Chinese Porcelain from 14th to 16th Century', Colloquies on Art and Archaeology in Asia, no. 5, Percival David Foundation, London, 1975, p. 63, where a detail of an anonymous Song painting and a Ming woodblock print with similar motifs of a perched bird are illustrated, pls IIIa and c.

The form of this flask is an adaptation of much earlier foreign pilgrim bottles made in leather. During the Tang dynasty they became the inspiration for ceramic replicas. It is thought that they were made to contain wine. Qing moonflasks, especially blue and white vessels were largely derived from the Ming prototypes. See a Yongle blue and white moonflask of this size and shape, painted with flower scrolls, sold in these rooms, 9th November 2005, lot 291; and another with the same flower scroll motif, and fitted with an Ottoman silver-gilt rim mount, formerly from the collection of the Ottoman sultans in Istanbul, published in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, vol. II, London, 1986, pl. 613.

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Lin Fengmian  (1900-1991), River Landscape. Photo Sotheby's

Ink and colour on paper, framed, 65 by 65cm., 25 1/2 by 25 1/2 in., signed and one seal of the artist. Estimate 60,000—80,000 GBP. Lot Sold 313,250 GBP

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Lin Fengmian  (1900-1991), Lady Holding a Flower. Photo Sotheby's

ink and colour on paper, framed, 68 by 64.5cm., 26 3/4 by 25 3/8 in. signed and one seal of the artist. Estimate 60,000—80,000 GBP. Lot Sold 373,250 GBP

PROVENANCE: Purchased directly from the artist by a member of the family in Shanghai between 1963 and 1965

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Chinese School, 18th/19th Century. Yihe Yuan Summer Palace. Photo Sotheby's

ink and colour on paper; 164 by 285cm., 64 by 112 1/4 in. Estimate 30,000—50,000 GBP. Lot Sold 193,250 GBP

PROVENANCE: Brought back from Beijing by a member of the Castle family, 1861 (by repute).

EXHIBITED: National Museums Liverpool, Liverpool.

NOTE: The Yihe yuan (Summer Palace), literally meaning 'Gardens of Nurtured Harmony', is located in Beijing. The Summer Palace originated as the Garden of Clear Ripples in 1750 and was based on architectural styles of various palaces in China. The palace suffered two major attacks at the end of the 19th century; however the garden survived and was rebuilt in 1886 and 1902. It was given its current name in 1888 when it served as a summer retreat for the Empress Dowager Cixi.

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A Fine White Jade Double-Gourd Vase and Cover, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period. Photo Sotheby's

of double-gourd form raised on an slightly recessed oval base, carved all around the exterior with gnarled leafy branches suspending eight smaller double-gourds, the domed cover carved as an extension of the body with a gnarled branch bearing more curled leaves, the stone of even white tone, wood stand; 19.7cm., 7 3/4 in. Estimate 30,000—40,000 GBP. Lot Sold 217,250 GBP

PROVENANCE: Bluett & Sons, London (according to label)

Sotheby's London, 25th May 1971, lot 12.

NOTE: Jade vessels carved in the form of double gourds were popular from the reign of the Qianlong emperor and the present piece is impressive for the finely carved leaves and the smooth polish of the body of the vase. A related example illustrated in Robert Kleiner, Chinese Jades from the Collection of Alan and Simone Hartman, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 154, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27th November 2007, lot 1552; another was sold in our New York rooms, 11-12th April 1990, lot 326; and a third vase was sold in these rooms, 14th November 1967, lot 11. Compare also a carving of a double gourd similarly modelled with a twisting gourd vine in high relief in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Chinese Jades Throughout the Ages. Connoisseurship of Chinese Jades, vol. 12, Hong Kong, 1997, pl. 59.

Due to its many seeds, the double gourd (mandai) is a symbol of fertility in China, and the lengthy network of string-like vines and tendrils suggests continuity; thus it can be used as a pun for 'ten thousand generations' (wandai). When hollowed out, the gourd is employed as a storage container for food, liquor or medicine to also symbolise abundance and good luck.

Other best results:

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An rare and impressive 'Doucai' altar garniture. Qianlong seal marks and period. Photo Sotheby's

comprising of a tripod censer, a pair of gu-vases and a pair of candlesticks; the censer with a globular body supported on three cabriole legs flanked by a pair of upright handles, the gu-vases with a bulging mid-section below a trumpet mouth and above a bell-shaped lower section, the candlesticks with a drip dish of flaring sides supported on a bell-shaped base, each finely painted in bright enamels with beribboned Eight Buddhist Emblems amidst lotus scrolls, accompanied by plantain leaves, lotus lappets and ruyi-head borders, all inscribed with six-character Qianlong seal marks, a pierced enamelled bronze cover; censer: 33cm., 13in.; vases: 27cm., 10 5/8 in.; candlesticks: 27.5cm., 10 3/4 in. Estimate 800,000—1,200,000 GBP. Lot Sold 2,169,250 GBP to an Asian Private.

PROVENANCE: Sotheby's London, 17th December 1980, lot 677.

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A fine Imperial khotan jade 'dragon' seal. Qing dynasty, Jiaqing period. Photo Sotheby's

of square form, surmounted by a pair of addorsed dragons, each powerfully carved with bulging eyes and flaring nostrils above curling whiskers, the scales and flowing mane finely incised, the two scaly bodies intertwined and crouching on the haunches, pierced through the centre with an aperture attached with a tassel, the seal surface carved in zhuanshu with the characters Jiaqing yubi zhibao (Treasure Inscribed in the Hand of the Jiaqing Emperor), the stone of deep olive green tone with natural veining; 12.7cm., 5in. Estimate 1,000,000—1,500,000 GBP. Lot Sold 1,945,250 GBP to an Asian Trade.

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A magnificent and extremely rare 'nogime temmoku' tea bowl. Southern Song dynasty, 12th century. Photo Sotheby's

of 'Jianyao' manufacture and 'silver hare's fur' type, solidly potted, of tall conical form, with a groove below the lip and an evenly shaped, shallow foot, and covered with a thick, highly glossy black glaze with overall radiating iridescent silvery-blue striations, draining from the rim and stopping well above the foot in a glossy black bulge, revealing the dark brown body beneath, the rim later bound in gold; accompanied by a 16th-century Ryukyu laque burgauté stand of dark brown lacquer with cinnabar-red interior, the ring-shaped support and wide rim inlaid in mother-of-pearl with chrysanthemum scrolls, the flared foot and edges with key-fret and other formal borders, the foot marked on the inside with a tian ('heaven') character and a leaf fan, both incised and gilt

the bowl in a Japanese cream silk pouch (shifuku) with matching silk cushion and four corner posts, in a ribbon-tied paulownia-wood box and cover, ribbon-tied black lacquer outer box and cover, and patterned, lined cotton furoshiki; the stand in cream silk shifuku on purple silk cushion, in Edo period ribbon-tied cylindrical black lacquer box and cover with inscribed wooden tag, and patterned furoshiki; both in a joint ribbon-tied paulownia-wood box and cover, and silk-lined, patterned cotton furoshiki with inscribed wooden tag; 12.5cm., 4 7/8 in., the stand 16.9cm., 6 1/2 in. Estimate 500,000—700,000 GBP. Lot Sold 1,105,250 GBP to an Asian Trade.

PROVENANCE: Mayuyama & Co. Ltd, Tokyo.

EXHIBITED:

The bowl: Chūgoku Sō Gen bijutsu ten/Chinese Arts of the Sung and Yuan Periods, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1961, cat. no. 270.

Chūgoku meiji ten/Chinese Ceramics. A Loan Exhibition of Selected Masterpieces, Fukuya, Hiroshima, 1961, cat. no. 46.

Chūgoku ko tōji. Tō Sō meiji ten [Ancient Chinese ceramics: Exhibition of important Tang and Song ceramics], Shirokiya Department Store, Nihonbashi, Tokyo, 1964, cat. no. 69.

Sō Gen no bijutsu [The art of Song and Yuan], Osaka Municipal Art Museum, Osaka, 1978, cat. no. 1-215.

Temmoku, Tokugawa Art Museum and Nezu Art Museum, Tokyo, 1979, cat. no. 15.

Inki [Drinking vessels], Kuboso Memorial Museum of Arts, Izumi, 1989, cat. no. 206.

Chūgoku no tōji/Special Exhibition of Chinese Ceramics, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1994, cat. no. 199.

Chūgoku tōji meihō Ten Series [Important treasures of Chinese ceramics series], Gotoh Art Museum, Tokyo, 1966.

The bowl was included in at least one other unidentified exhibition in Japan, as no. 131 (exhibition label preserved).

The stand: Temmoku, Tokugawa Art Museum and Nezu Art Museum, Tokyo, 1979, cat. no. 15.

Raden/East Asian Urushi Lacquer Work with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay, Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya, 1999, cat. no. 68.

Shō ōke to Ryūkyū no bi ten [Exhibition of Ryukyu art from the Shō Royal Family], MOA Art Museum, Atami, 2001, cat. no. 81.

LITERATURE AND REFERENCES: Kōyama Fujiō, Tōki zenshū [Complete series on ceramics], vol. 26: Temmoku, Tokyo, 1965, pl. 32.

Ryūsen Shūhō/Mayuyama, Seventy Years, Tokyo, 1976, vol. I, pl. 675.

Hasebe Gakuji, Sekai tōji zenshū/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 12: Sō/Sung Dynasty, Tokyo, 1977, pls 96-8.

Chūgoku tōji shi [History of Chinese ceramics], Tokyo, 1978, pl. 190.

Kōyama Fujiō, Tōji taikei [Outlines of ceramics], vol. 38: Temmoku, Tokyo, 1974, pls 93 and 94.

Gen no bijutsu [The art of the Song and Yuan], Tokyo, 1980, pl. 34.

Sekai bijutsu daizenshū/New History of World Art: Tōyō hen [Oriental section], vol. 6: Nan Sō, Kin [Southern Song, Jin ], Tokyo, 2000, pls 146-7.

Kōyama Fujiō, Chawan [Tea bowls], vol. 1: Chūgoku, Annan [China, Vietnam], Tokyo, 1972, pl. 17.

NOTE: 'Silver hare's fur' glazes of this radiant type, which are related in colouration to the famous 'oil spot' glazes, but differ in the form of their iridescent markings, are exceedingly rare. A similar bowl, also with gold rim, was included in the exhibition Karamono temmoku [Chinese temmoku], MOA Art Museum, Atami, 1994, cat. no. 6. This exhibition catalogue, where a few important heirloom temmoku tea bowls preserved in Japan were juxtaposed with a large sample of excavated specimens from the kiln site, impressively documents the wide range of qualities and the excellence of the examples collected in Japan. Another bowl with a similar glaze appearance in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was included in the exhibition Hare's Fur, Tortoiseshell, and Partridge Feathers. Chinese Brown- and Black-Glazed Ceramics, 400-1400, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass., 1996, cat. no. 83. Only one sherd with a similar glaze effect is illustrated in J.M. Plumer, Temmoku. A Study of the Ware of Chien, Tokyo, 1972, p. 59, pl. 8.

A similar mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer stand for a temmoku tea bowl was included in the exhibition Karamono. Chūgoku, Chōsen, Ryūkyū/ Imported Lacquerwork – Chinese, Korean and Ryukyuan (Okinawa), The Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya, 1997, pl. 189. Another similar laque burgauté stand is preserved together with a northern 'oil spot' tea bowl copying southern 'Jian' ware in the Ryōkōin, a temple in Kyoto, see Kōyama Fujiō (ed.), Sekai tōji zenshū [Ceramic art of the world], volume 10, Tokyo, 1955, pl. 60.

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A guan-type archaistic 'hu' vase with ram handles. Qianlong seal mark and period. Photo Sotheby's

of archaic bronze form, the pear-shaped body rising from a short spreading foot to a waisted neck with flaring rim, flanked by a pair of ram's head handles, the body decorated with pendent plantain leaves in low relief, the central axis of the shoulder and the foot set with vertical flanges, covered overall with a lustrous glaze of a greyish blue tone, draining to brown at the rims and the decoration, the base inscribed in underglaze blue with a six-character reign mark; 26.5cm., 10 1/2 in. Estimate 300,000—400,000 GBP. Lot Sold 825,250 GBP to an Asian Trade.

PROVENANCE: Collection of Shichiseki-Ou.
Osaka Bijutsu Club, 15th June 1937, lot 155.

NOTE: Made to imitate one of the most celebrated official ceramic wares of the Southern Song dynasty, the present vase reflects the Qianlong emperor's deep appreciation and respect for the past, together with his want for its preservation. These high-fired glazes were particularly popular in the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods on vessels of archaistic forms, such as the present piece. The shape is taken from archaic bronzes, such as the Western Han example excavated from the tomb of the King of Nanyue, illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua dacidian. Qingtongqijuan, Shanghai, 1995, cat. no. 1081; and a Western Zhou vessel included in William Watson, Ancient Chinese Bronzes, London, 1962, pl. 53. See also a 'Guan' hu-shaped vase made for the court in the capital Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, moulded on each side with two stepped oval bosses and with two dragon-head handles, from the collection of Alfred Clark and included in the Oriental Ceramics Society exhibition Ju and Kuan Wares, London, 1952, cat. no. 38, sold in these rooms, 25th March 1975, lot 105. This 'Guan' vase may have served as the inspiration for Qing vases of this type.

While the shape of this piece is familiar, it is rare to find related vases with two ram-head handles and more common are those decorated with dragon handles or two zoomorphic ring handles. For example, see a teadust-glazed Qianlong mark and period vase included in Qingdai ciqi shangjian, Shanghai, 1994, pl. 196; and a lavender-glazed vase of closely related form with a pair of double loop handles issuing from projecting mythical animal heads, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 31st October 1974, lot 177.

Ram-head handles are frequently found on globular form vases of the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods where they are placed at the shoulders; for example see a line drawing of this form included in Geng Baochang, Ming Qing ciqi jianding, Hong Kong, 1993, p. 235, fig. 401:13, where it is called sanxicun (vase of three beasts of uniform colour) referring to the kind of animals used in ritual offerings. See two vases covered in a Ru-type glaze, one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Illustrated Catalogue of Ch'ing Dynasty Porcelain in the National Palace Museum: K'ang-hsi Ware and Yung-cheng Ware, Tokyo, 1980, pl. 129, and the other included in the Museum's Special Exhibition of Ch'ing Dynasty Monochrome Porcelains in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1989, cat. no. 88.

Compare a celadon-glazed vase of closely related form to the present example, with a band of pendent cicada blades beneath the shoulder and with two dragon-head handles, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 28th November 1978, lot 179; and another celadon vase with dragon-head handles, from the collection of Robert Chang, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 2nd November 1999, lot 504. A pair of vases attributed to the Kangxi period are also worth comparing, each of closely related form to this vase, decorated around the waisted neck with a band of upright stiff leaves and applied with mask and ring handles enamelled in black, sold in these rooms, 3rd November 1987, lot 524.

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A large carved pale celadon jade rhyton. Qing dynasty, 19th century. Photo Sotheby's

the flattened tapered vessel raised on three short feet, well-carved with a handle in the form of a sinuous chilong clambering on one side peering over the mouthrim with its chin resting on the edge, the opposite side forming the spout and adorned with a phoenix modelled in the round with wings outstretched and its tail suspending a loose ring, the exterior incised with archaistic lingzhi scrolls and detached C-scrolls, the stone of pale celadon tone with russet veining to the base; 22.8cm., 9in. Estimate 50,000—70,000 GBP. Lot Sold 433,250 GBP

NOTE: Jade rhytons of this large size are rare and the present piece is unusual for the phoenix carved with wings outspread in the round beneath the lipped mouth; see a smaller example flanked with a similar bird and chilong, but the rounded body decorated with a seahorse and phoenix, from the collection of Lord Tredegar and sold in these rooms, 26th July 1960, lot 127. Birds of this type are more commonly seen on 'champion vases', such as one depicting an eagle above a bear, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Jadeware (III), Hong Kong, 1995, pl. 151.

Compare jade rhytons of related form carved with a similar chilong clambering up the side, but lacking feet, such as one sold in these rooms, 7th March 1978, lot 243; another sold in our New York rooms, 19th March 2007, lot 25; and a third example sold at Christie's London, 4th April 1977, lot 80.

Originally a drinking vessel made from ox or buffalo horn, rhytons were later produced in a range of different media. Jade versions appeared in China in the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220) and were probably introduced from Central or Western Asia in the form of silver or a precious stone. See a jade rhyton from the tomb of the Han dynasty King Nan Yue at Guangzhou, illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, p. 70, fig. 61.

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An exceptionally carved, inscribed rhinoceros horn libation cup. 17th century.Photo Sotheby's

of gently flaring form, exquisitely carved in various levels of relief around the exterior on one side with a figure seated within a pavilion overlooking a couple in a pine forest and inscription, the reverse with a horse and a group of figures set amongst further pine and wutong trees on a rocky ledge accompanied by another inscription, the trunk and branches of one pine tree extending into the interior of the cup with a seated figure under wutong trees, beside a stone bridge in a rustic riverscape with steep cliffs and a waterfall gushing into foaming ripples at the base, the horn of rich honey tone, carved wood stand: 16.7cm., 6 5/8 in. Estimate 300,000—500,000 GBP. Lot Sold 421,250 GBP to an Asian Trade

NOTE: Exquisitely carved with a well-known scene from Act Four in the famous Yuan dynasty play Xixiang ji (Romance of the West Chamber) by Wang Shifu (c. 1260-1336), the present vessel belongs to a special group of rhinoceros horn carvings made in the 17th century. The inscriptions read and may be translated as follows:

Ma chi ren yi lan, feng ji yan xing xie.
The horse is slow, people think it's lame,
gusty wind makes walking straight behind another difficult.

Gu deng chui ba yan meng long, hu meng hua lai lu dian zhong.
The eyes were blurred after the lights were dimmed, (he) suddenly dreamt of the flower (representing Yingying) coming to the inn.

The first phrase can be found in the fourth act of the play where the hero, Zhang Junrui , is dreaming of his love and affection for Yingying, the heroine in the play.

The present carving is special for a number of reasons. Although rhinoceros horn cups decorated with figures in a landscape are readily found, this vessel is distinctive for its meticulous and detailed workmanship on both the interior and exterior of the vessel. The scenes are immediately recognisable with close attention paid to every detail. The artist was familiar with his subject matter and may have used available woodblock prints as a reference for his carving. The vessel is also special for its light honey tone, which is a natural colouration that is especially pleasing. Jan Chapman in The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, p. 60, notes that the yellow and honey colours are thought to be the result of the natural ageing process of the horn and some of the earliest known carvings are described as being yellow in colour. Vessels of this type are almost invariably associated with the best quality carvings.

No other similar example appears to be recorded, although a cup carved with various episodes from a number of famous plays, including the Xixiang ji , of slightly larger proportions but fashioned in a related manner and of similar beautiful light colouration, was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th October 2006, lot 1137. Other examples of vessels with figures are included in Thomas Fok, Connoisseurship of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 139, depicting a scene from the Preface to the Scholarly Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion by Wang Xizhi; another fashioned with the scene of the Eight Immortals celebrating , published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Shanghai, 2001, pl. 148; and two cups carved with figures in a landscape, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, are illustrated in Jan Chapman, op. cit., figs 353 and 354. Compare also a vessel of similar size carved around the exterior with a continuous rocky landscape with pavilions nestled amongst pine, prunus and wutong trees, included in the exhibition Metal, Wood, Fire and Earth: Gems of Antiquities Collections in Hong Kong, 2002-2005, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 2002, and also illustrated in Fok, op. cit., pl. 162, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 31st May 2010, lot 1818, from the Songzhu Tang collection.

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A fine and rare lime-green ground 'famille-rose' 'three rams' vase. Qing dynasty, Shende Tang Zhi mark, Daoguang period. Photo Sotheby's

the ovoid body resting on a short spreading foot, surmounted by a waisted neck flanked by a pair of iron-red enamelled and gilt archaistic phoenix handles, finely painted in brilliant famille-rose enamels on the gently rounded sides with three rams set in a landscape of blossoming berries, rose bushes and leafy trees between bands of ruyi heads enclosing floral sprays, the neck with stylised lotus blossoms borne on a meandering leafy scroll with bats and sanduo sprays reserved against a lime-green ground, between a band of ruyi heads and upright plantain leaves, the lipped rim and foot encircled with a band of flower heads against a ground of swirls, inscribed to the base with a four-character mark reading Shende tang zhi (Hall for the Cultivation of Virtue); 70.4cm., 27 5/8 in. Estimate 300,000—500,000 GBP. Lot Sold 361,250 GBP to an Asian Trade.

NOTE: The present vase is impressive for its very large size and well preserved condition. It bears the four-character hall mark Shende Tang zhi (Made for the Hall of Prudent Virtue), the main residence of the Daoguang emperor (1821-1850) located in the grounds of the Yuanmingyuan. It is known that wares bearing this mark were made for the emperor's personal use. Stacey Pierson notes that the Shende Tang was completed in 1831, allowing a more precise dating of vessels belonging to this special group of wares; about twenty years, between 1831 and 1850, the year when the emperor died. According to Pierson no less than 30 types of imperial Shende Tang porcelains are extant in public and private collections, mostly in the shape of bowls, dishes and vases. See Pierson, Rare Marks on Chinese Ceramics, London, 1998, p. 36. A Shende Tang bowl in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, painted with cranes is illustrated, ibid., pl. 8.

This vase is painted with the 'Three Rams (san yang)' design that represents a change of fortune with the arrival of Spring and the New Year. The three rams are often shown together with the rising sun (taiyang) to form the rebus for 'three ram (yang) bring prosperity'. The Book of Changes (Yijing) first mentions the phrase san yang referring to the three male lines, called tai – the symbol of heaven. Tai is positioned under three female lines called kun that represent earth. Hence the phrase 'sanyang kaitai' which means the New Year brings renewal and a change in fortune.

See a large vase of related form decorated with the san yang motif on a similar lime-ground, also inscribed with the Shende Tang mark on the base offered in our New York rooms, 30th March 2006, lot 354. Another smaller Daoguang baluster form vase with elephant-head handles and a globular body painted with the san yang design was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 11th April 2008, lot 3025.

Compare also three Shende Tang vases, one decorated with the popular boys design sold in our New York rooms, 31st March 2005, lot 122; and a pair of green-ground vases with dragons, also sold in our New York rooms, 17th September 2003, lot 119. Further examples, from the collection of the Nanjing Museum, are illustrated in The Official Kiln Porcelain of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Shanghai, 2003, including five flowerpots of different forms and decoration, pls 398-402, and a blue-and-white bowl with a peony design, pl. 403.