A fine and extremely rare falangcai ‘kui dragons’ bowl . Qianlong blue enamel four-character mark and of the period (1736-1795). Photo: Christie's Images Ltd. 2011

HONG KONG.-Christie’s Spring 2011 Chinese Ceramics Works of Art Sale in Hong Kong achieved a combined total of HK$829,712,250/US$106,700,995 from its four sales on 1 June, 2011. The top lot of the day was a fine and extremely rare falangcai ‘kui dragons’ bowl, Qianlong blue enamel four-character mark and of the period (1736-1795) which sold for HK$60,020,000/US$7,718,572 against an estimate of HK$10,000,000 – 15,000,000 (about US$1,287,000-1,930,500).




A fine and extremely rare falangcai ‘kui dragons’ bowl . Qianlong blue enamel four-character mark and of the period (1736-1795). Photo: Christie's Images Ltd. 2011

The large bowl finely potted with gently rounded sides rising to an everted mouth rim, exquisitely enamelled around the sides in shades of pink, yellow and green on a vibrant pale blue ground to depict four pairs of confronted kui dragons, their gracefully arching bodies nearly joining at the tails and wings to enclose a single whimsical flower sprig, the pairs of dragons separated by a stylised lotus bloom borne on leafy vines above a further smaller flower sprig, the interior with naturalistic peony bloom borne on leafy branches beside scattered orchid flowers and buds; 6 3/8 in. (16.1 cm.) diam., carved wood stand, Japanese wood box; Estimate HK$10,000,000 - HK$15,000,000 ($1,291,432 - $1,937,148). Sold HK$ 60,020,000 (US$ 7,718,572) (€ 5,365,788) to an Asian Trade.

Provenance: The Collection of Chutaro Nakano (1862-1939), Japan, acquired in the early 20th century


Qianlong bowls of this kind are extremely rare, and those with this rich mid-blue ground are especially so.

This blue enamel appears as a sgraffiato ground on a small number of falangcai vases preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing (see Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 39, Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 36-8, nos. 29-31, but is exceptionally rare on bowls. The production of a good blue enamel had proved difficult for the craftsmen in the imperial ateliers. In the reign of the Kangxi emperor a new denser, whiter, glaze was developed, which showed off the overglaze enamels to their brilliant best. It was a low-lime glaze with an increased alkaline content - mainly due to the addition of extra potassia, possibly in the form of willow ash. In a letter of September 1712 the Jesuit Pere d'Entrecolles noted its use and the fact that this dense glaze stood up well to high firing temperatures. He also, however, noted a particular limitation. He wrote:

'This is a densely white glaze and should not be used on porcelain which is to be painted in blue, because after firing the colour will not show through the glaze.' (translated by R. Tichane in Ching-te-chen, New York, 1983, p. 120)

In other words underglaze-blue could not be used and a cobalt blue overglaze enamel was required. However, making such an enamel proved a challenge. A low temperature (i.e. lead-fluxed) cobalt glaze had been used in China, most notably in the Tang dynasty both within the sancai (three colour) palette and as a monochrome glaze. Cobalt had also appeared as a high temperature monochrome glaze in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The problem for the Kangxi potters was that, unlike the Tang potters, who used imported cobalt, they had to use native Chinese cobalt ores, and these have a significant manganese content. Manganese affects the colour of a lead-fluxed cobalt glaze or enamel producing a dull purplish-grey tinge. This discolouring effect could be reduced by increasing the alkaline content of the base glaze that provided the matrix for the cobalt blue, but that in turn altered its melting point. This posed a problem when the overglaze blue enamel was to be used with other colours, as it was imperative that all the colours melted at the same temperature during firing. The obvious solution for the Kangxi enamel-makers would simply have been to remove the manganese from the Chinese cobalt ores. However, due to their mineral structures, separation was very difficult, and so only careful adjustment of the components of the base enamel solved the problem.

It seems likely that the potters turned for help to their colleagues making glass and cloisonné enamels. Examinations have shown the enamels on copper and those on porcelain of this period, including the blue, to be of very similar composition (see J. Henderson, N. Wood and M. Tregear, 'The relationships between glass, enamel and glaze technologies: two case studies', Proceedings of the American Ceramic Society: Ceramics and Civilization, 4, Pittsburgh, 1990, pp. 315-46). In the Kangxi reign the blue enamel had reduced lead oxide content in comparison with the other enamels, and increased potassia. This provided a better colour, but did not completely solve the problem. Thus in the Yongzheng reign, the lead oxide content appears to have been reduced even further, the potassia context was increased again and the sodium content was slightly increased (see N. Wood, Chinese Glazes, London, 1999, pp. 241-2, tables 104 and 105). This gave a blue enamel of the desired clarity, with the desired melting point, and allowed the ceramic decorators of the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns to produce designs, such as that on the current bowl, which incorporated really fine blue enamels.

The current rare blue-ground Qianlong bowl is identical to, and possibly the pair to, a bowl in the collection of the Museé national des arts asiatiques-Guimet in Paris (illustrated by Xavier Besse in La Chine des porcelaines, Paris, 2004, p. 127, no. 49. Not only the exterior decoration, but also the mark on the Guimet bowl and the current vessel are identical, even to the extent that the outer square surrounding the mark is slightly darker than the rest of the mark in both cases. The interior of both bowls are decorated with a branch of blossoming peony and scattered orchid blooms. When the Guimet bowl was included in the catalogue From Beijing to Versailles - Artistic Relations between China and France, Hong Kong, 1997, pp. 344-5, no. 139, the blossoming branch was described as a rose, but this was corrected in the more recent publication La Chine des porcelaines, op. cit., where it is described as a pivoine, or peony. The inclusion of a delicate decoration of flowers, seeds or fruit on the interior of enamelled vessels became popular on imperial porcelains in the Yongzheng reign and carried on into the early Qianlong period. Cymbidium orchids, like those seen on the current bowl and its Guimet counterpart, were particularly favoured (see op. cit., Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 85-7, nos. 74-6), possibly because of their associations with friendship and grandsons. The peonies that accompany the orchids in these bowls 'represent riches and honours'.

The current bowl was formerly in the collection of Chutaro Nakano (1862-1939) who was from an important land owing family in the present-day Niigita prefecture from the middle of the Edo period onwards. He was the son of Kan-ichi Nakano, known as the 'Oil King of Japan' since he introduced new technology from the United States that revolutionised the Japanese oil industry. Chutaro Nakano was known as a collector of fine Japanese arts and his collection is still on display at the Nakano Residence Museum of Art Foundation, in Nigitta. His art collection includes 12 works that are deemed National Treasures and an additional 30 works that are deemed important Cultural Assets. The Nakano Residence Museum of Art Foundation was first built by Kan-ichi Nakano and his eldest son, Chutaro Nakano. Construction of the building first started in 1900 and was completed in 1904.

The Guimet bowl, along with many other Chinese ceramic items, was bequeathed to the museum by Ernest Grandidier (1833-1912). Grandidier, who had been born into a wealthy French family, started collecting East Asian ceramics in about 1875 and became acquainted with Stanislas Julien (1799-1873). The latter had translated the Jingdezhen Taolu into French in 1856, and was one of the leading experts in Chinese culture at the time. By 1894 Grandidier was able to research and publish a catalogue of his own collection of Chinese ceramics, and in that year he donated his collection to the nation. He eventually became the curator of the collection and persuaded other collectors amongst his friends to donate Chinese art to the museum.

Pola Antebi, Head of the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department at Christie’s Hong Kong, commented, “We saw enthusiastic bidding throughout the day, particularly for the single-owner sale (Inspired Connoisseurship: Property from a European Collection), which was 100% sold by lot and by value, demonstrating once again that works of art that are fresh to the market from private collections are in great demand.

A number of important lots from private collections were among today’s highlights. These include the extremely rare falangcai ‘kui dragons’ bowl (lot 3650) which sold for HK$60,020,000/US$7,718,572, achieving six times the estimate, and the magnificent Imperial mother-of-pearl inlaid black lacquer incense stand (lot 3577) which sold for HK$14,100,000/US$1,813,260, as well as the group of lacquers from the Kaisendo Museum.






A magnificent imperial mother-of-pearl inlaid black lacquer incense stand. Kangxi incised and gilt eight-character mark bearing a guichou cyclical date corresponding to 1673, and of the period. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd. 2011

Of square section, the top panel is raised on a low waist above a curvilinear apron with ruyi-form corners, all supported on four inward-curving rounded legs terminating in scroll-feet, resting on a low pedestal base; the top surface superbly decorated in differently coloured shell, gold, silver and lead to depict a landscape scene in which the Empress Jingu is fishing on the rocky shore of a lake beside the Grand Minister Takeshiuchi no Sukune, accompanied by a retinue of attendants carrying fans, banners and a canopied palanquin all within a landscape dotted with flowers and grass among scattered rockwork, pine and wutong trees, all set within a border of six shaped cartouches detailed with further landscape scenes on a cell-pattern ground, the sides of the top, waist, legs and base minutely decorated with further geometric pattern, lotus and chrysanthemum borders, the waist with cartouches containing seascroll flowers and fruit with butterflies including prunus, lillies, peonies and ripe pomegranate on a cell-pattern ground, the top of the base with butterflies in flight among flowering branches, the reign mark incised in a line on a red lacquer ground to the underside of the top panel; 15 3/4 x 16 1/8 x 16 1/8 in. (40 X 41 X 41 cm.), Japanese wood box  Estimate HK$12,000,000 - HK$18,000,000 ($1,549,718 - $2,324,578). Sold HK$14,100,000 ($1,820,928) (€ 1,260,540) to an US Trade. 

Provenance: A Japanese private collection, acquired in the early 20th century



This exquisitely inlaid lacquer stand is a work of great rarity and importance. Firstly, it is remarkable for the extraordinary quality of the materials and artistry that went into its production. Even amongst other fine pieces from the imperial workshops, this stand is distinguished by its superb quality. Secondly, the stand is remarkable for the fact that it bears an inscribed Kangxi cyclical mark, dating it to the guichou year corresponding to AD 1673. Thirdly, the stand is remarkable for the choice of its main decorative scene, which depicts a legendary Japanese Empress, rather than a figure from Chinese literature. This choice of decorative theme undoubtedly holds a clue to the stand's intended recipient.

Before discussing the decorative theme, however, it should be noted that only one inlaid lacquer stand made in similar style with mother-of-pearl and precious metal inlays, and also bearing a mark equivalent to AD 1673 appears to have been published. A high stand, with a different scene on the upper surface, was formerly in the collection of treasures of the Hosokawa family and was exhibited at the family museum, the Eisei Bunko in Tokyo. This high stand is published in iHosokawa-ke Denrai, Makie Shitsugei (Hosokawa family heirloom, Gold-relief lacquerware and lacquer art work), Kyoto shoin, 1988, no. 7. It is also reported by Yasuhiro Nishioka that a similarly decorated pair of bookshelves, dated AD 1673; two more stands - one dated AD 1674 and another dated AD 1676; and a pair of tables dated AD 1676 are known (1). The examples cited by Nishioka almost certainly relate to three examples in the Palace Museum, Beijing illustrated by Hu Desheng (2): a pair of bookshelves, a lacquer painting table, and a mother-of-pearl inlaid altar table. It is significant that all these items are dated within a three year period. The closeness in decorative designs employed on the Hosokawa stand, the pair of bookshelves in Beijing and the present stand (all inscribed with the same cyclical date) certainly suggest the work of a particularly skilled craftsman, or that the pieces were made with a particular recipient in mind, linked to a specific time-frame.

A wide variety of characters from Chinese history, legend and literature can be seen on fine inlaid lacquer wares of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, but it is very rare to find characters from Japanese history depicted on the Chinese decorative arts. Nevertheless this is what appears to be the case on the present stand. The decoration on the upper surface of the stand shows a regal lady, having left her luxuriously appointed palanquin, standing on rocks by the bank of a river, fishing, watched by her attendants and a high official. Both the roof and side curtains of the palanquin are decorated with chrysanthemum blossoms. There seems to be only one Chinese story in which a royal lady is associated with fishing, and this is the story of King Mu of the Zhou dynasty's visit to Xiwangmu (the Queen Mother of the West), which is mentioned in some of the poems written by the Tang poet Li Shangyin (AD 813-858). Significantly, in all the surviving versions of this story it is King Mu who does the fishing, either before or after his visit to Xiwangmu, and not Xiwangmu herself. It is therefore unlikely that this is the story represented on the current stand.

Japanese legend, however, provides an important example of an Empress who is personally associated with fishing. The legendary Empress Jingu, whose dates are usually given as c. AD 170-269, was the wife of Emperor Chuai, the 14th Japanese emperor. Although what is known today of the events of Empress Jingu's life are a mixture of fact and legend, she has been described by a Japanese scholar as: '... our Joan of Arc. Fired by Divine inspiration; she displayed a military valour which was of incalculable service to her country in the crisis of its fortunes.'(3) Although there are a number of versions of the story, it is generally held that in about AD 193 the emperor set out with his army for Kyushu to put down a rebellion. His wife accompanied him, and, when their ship stopped at an island en route, she heard the voice of the Gods asking why she and her husband were bothering with the rebels while a far greater prize awaited them in the Land of Treasure. When Jingu told her husband of this, he was dubious and, after climbing a high mountain and failing to see this Land of Treasure, the Emperor was convinced that the Gods would not speak to him through a woman and continued on his quest to put down the rebellion. He was unsuccessful and soon afterwards died, as had been foretold. Empress Jingu and the Grand Minister Takeshiuchi no Sukune kept the death secret, and despite being pregnant with her son, who was to become Emperor Ojin, Jingu bound herself up and led the army to put down the rebellion. However, her thoughts kept returning to the words of the Gods in relation to the Land of Treasure, but she felt the need of further confirmation of their meaning.

According to the Nihongi (Japanese Chronicles):
'Proceeding northwards she arrived at the district of Matsura in the land of Hizen, and partook of food on the bank of the River Wogawa, in the village of Tamashima. Here the Empress bent a needle and made a hook. She took grains of rice and used them as bait. Pulling out the threads of her garment, she made of them a line. Then mounting upon a stone in the middle of the river, and casting the hook, she prayed, saying: "We are proceeding westward, where we desire to gain possession of the Land of Treasure. If we are to succeed, let the fish of the river bite the hook." Accordingly raising up her fishing rod she caught a trout.'
And further on:
'The Empress returned to the Bay of Kashihi and loosing her hair, looked over the sea saying: "I have received the instructions of the Gods of Heaven and Earth, and trusting in the spirits of the imperial ancestors, floating across the deep blue sea, intend in person to chastise the West. Therefore do I now lay my head in the water of the sea. If I am to be successful, let my hair part spontaneously in two." Accordingly she entered the sea and bathed, and her hair parted of its own accord. The empress bound it up parted into bunches (i.e. in manly fashion). (4)

Thus convinced of the righteousness of her quest and protected by the Gods, Empress Jingu led her troops to victory and her country to wealth. Despite the lack of concrete evidence concerning her life, Empress Jingu came to be regarded as a national heroine. In the 19th century the empress was even the subject of several woodblock prints, including one depicting Empress Jingu Fishing, dated 1876 by Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). She was also the first empress to appear on a Japanese banknote in 1881.

Although she is dressed as a Chinese empress, it seems clear that the scene on the upper surface of the current stand depicts Empress Jingu standing on a rock fishing, while her Grand Minister Takeshiuchi no Sukune looks on. Although anachronistic, the decoration of chrysanthemums on her palanquin would seem to be a reference to the 'Chrysanthemum throne' of Japan. The question is therefore: what is a Japanese heroine doing on an imperial Chinese stand of the Kangxi reign? Two possible explanations suggest themselves.

It is possible that the unusual choice of a Japanese subject for this superb stand indicates that it was intended as an imperial gift to Japan. Relations between China and Japan had been somewhat uneasy since Toyotomi Hideyoshi two invasions of Korea with the intention of invading China in the 1590s. While, in the second decade of the 17th century, Tokugawa Ieyasu made it clear that he was no longer prepared to consider Japan a vassal of China (5). Nevertheless, Japan wanted both knowledge and certain commodities from China, while China, in turn, needed copper and silver from Japan.

Shortages of copper were a perennial problem in China but growing commercialisation of agriculture increased the popular demand for copper coins and for silver. The adoption of the 'single-whip' tax system in the late Ming was progressively extended under the Qing and the government's concomitant shift to the collection of land taxes in cash resulted in tax-paying landlords demanding rents to be paid in cash (6). In the 1660s the shortages of copper were exacerbated by the likes of Wu Sangui, who took over the monopoly of copper mining in Yunnan and Guizhou, extending his influence by 1670 to include much of Hunan, Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi. (7)

In the early Qing growing numbers of Chinese were drawn to Japan because of the availability of gold, silver and copper, but the Japanese authorities brought in ever stricter regulations governing the Chinese merchants. By 1635 the Chinese trade was centred on Nagasaki, and after years of relative freedom the Japanese government installed their shogunate administrators in Nagasaki. Furthermore, in 1672 the Japanese shogunate changed the previously liberal trade regulations to the so-called 'market Trade System'. (8) None of this should have made any difference to China, since officially the Kangxi government put in force a trade ban between 1662 and 1683. However, even during this ban on trade, silver continued to flow into China from Japan, and between 1671 and 1675 it is recorded that 105.9 metric tons was imported, which went up to 123.3 metric tons between 1676 and 1680. (9)

Thus, China needed copper and silver from Japan, but officially it could not come through normal mercantile channels. Nevertheless these metals were arriving in China. Could this magnificent stand with its decoration of a Japanese heroine, and with finely wrought chrysanthemum scrolls on the legs, which could be a reference to the emblem of the Japanese monarchy, have been a gift that formed part of some high-level negotiations? If so, it would appear that they were secret negotiations, since no record of them appears to have survived. It may be of interest to note that, if this stand was intended as an imperial gift from China to Japan, then perhaps the Chinese court was unaware that the 'Land of Treasure' mentioned in Empress Jingu's legend is usually identified as Korea.

Alternatively, this stand may have been intended as a gift from the Kangxi Emperor to his beloved grandmother Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang on the occasion of her 60th birthday in 1673. Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, given name Bumbutai, was the daughter of a Mongol prince, who could trace her ancestry back to the younger brother of Genghis Khan. She entered the palace as a concubine of Huang Taiji, and her son became the Shunzhi Emperor. While she played a significant role during the reign of her son, even more importantly after his death she helped his eight-year-old son, the Kangxi emperor. Indeed as a child he lived in her palace and she was one of the strongest supporters to his becoming emperor. After the death of his mother Empress Xiaokang in 1663, Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang assumed responsibility for the boy emperor's upbringing and remained a trusted adviser until her death in 1688. Interestingly she played an important role in helping the Kangxi Emperor deal with the revolt of the Mongol leader Burni in 1675. The Veritable Records of the Qing Dynasty note that at this time the emperor commanded that his diarists should not come with him when he visited his grandmother, which suggests that he wanted to discuss matters with her in complete secrecy. (10)

The Kangxi Emperor was devoted to his grandmother. After the final suppression of the rebellion of the Three Feudatories in 1681 the emperor began making tours of inspection and on his first western tour of 1683 he took the Empress Dowager with him. One of his grandmother's favourite places was the Five Dragon Pavilion on the north banks of the Taiyechi (Great Liquid Pool), so the Kangxi Emperor had some residences built to the north of the pavilion, in order that his grandmother could live there during the hot summer months, and when he was not involved with affairs of state the emperor would take a small boat over to see her in order to pay his respects and wait on her during mealtimes. (11) In 1673, the year in which the current stand was made, the Kangxi Emperor noted that he personally gave his grandmother restoratives. (12) Such was his devotion, that for the last 35 days of her life the Kangxi Emperor stayed by her side day and night without undressing and taking very little sleep. He had 30 types of gruel prepared in the hope that something might tempt her to eat. He personally prepared her medicines and tried to anticipate what she would require, so that she might lack for nothing (13). When the Empress Dowager died, the Kangxi Emperor cut off his queue, which was normally done only on the death of an emperor. He cancelled the New Year celebrations, refused to move out her coffin, insisted on wearing not plain silk as custom demanded, but cotton mourning clothes, and in spite of the freezing winter weather lived in a tent in order to watch over her coffin during the mourning period. He also contravened Ming regulations by installing his grandmother's spirit tablet in the Taimiao. (14)

Significantly we know that the Kangxi Emperor chose presents for older people, and particularly his grandmother, with great care. The emperor himself noted: 'I would always try to make my presents something needed, or something that I knew would bring pleasure ... so I gave the Empress Dowager cherries that I had tasted in the South, and to my grandmother [who was officially Grand Empress Dowager] gave the flesh of a tiger that I had shot in the North (boxed and wrapped in grasses), a chiming clock, and a foreign mirror.' (15)

An imperial 60th birthday would normally be accompanied by great festivities, but it appears that the Empress Dowager was religious, believed in modest living, and did not wish to have vast sums of money spent on her birthday celebrations. It would be natural, therefore, that her loving grandson should wish instead to have a very special gift made for her? If the current stand were that gift, the chrysanthemums that cover the legs of the stand would provide a wish for long life, while the unusual willow design that edges the stand would provide a symbol of springtime and youth. It is quite possible that the story of Empress Jingu was known at the Chinese court in the 17th century. What then could be a more fitting gift for Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang's 60th birthday than a beautiful stand decorated with the image of a woman celebrated for her piety, her wisdom, her courage, and the fact that she gave sound advice to her Emperor and brought prosperity to her country?

(1) Yasuhiro Nishioka in Tokyo National Museum, Chinese Mother-of-pearl, Tokyo, 1981, pp. 186-7. The Hosokawa stand was included in this latter exhibition and is illustrated in the catalogue, pp. 136-7, no. 97.
(2) Hu Desheng, A Treasury of Ming and Qing Dynasty Palace Furniture, The Palace Museum Collection, Vol. 2, Forbidden City Publishing House, Beijing, 2007, pp. 622-634, figs. 751, 752 and 753.
(3) Tan Hamaguchi. 'Some Striking Female Personalities in Japanese History', Annual Meeting of the Japan Society, London, 1904, p. 241.
(4) James Hastings and John A. Selbie in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 8, Edinburgh & New York, 1908, p. 805, quoting translation of 1896 by W.G. Ashton.
(5) Angela Schottenhammer, 'Japan - The Tiny Dwarf? Sino-Japanese Relations from the Kangxi to the Early Qianlong Reigns', Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series No. 106, Singapore, 2008, pp. 1-2.
(6) William T. Rowe, 'Social Stability and Social Change', The Cambridge History of China, Volume 9 Part One, The Ch'ing Dynasty to 1800, W.J. Peterson (ed.), Cambridge 2002, p. 514.
(7) Jonathan D. Spence, 'The K'ang-Hsi Reign' in The Cambridge History of China, Volume 9 Part One, The Ch'ing Dynasty to 1800, W.J. Peterson (ed.), Cambridge 2002, p. 137.
(8) Angela Schottenhammer, 'Japan - The Tiny Dwarf? Sino-Japanese Relations from the Kangxi to the Early Qianlong Reigns', op. cit.. p. 6.
(9) Richard von Glahn, 'Myth and Reality of China's Seventeenth Century Monetary Crisis', The Journal of Economic History, vol. 56, no. 2, 1996, p. 444, table 5.
(10) Jonathan D. Spence, 'The K'ang-hsi Reign' in The Cambridge History of Chin,a Volume 9, Part one, The Ch'ing dynasty to 1800, W.J. Peterson (ed.), Cambridge, 2002, p. 141.
(11) Wan Yi, Wang Shuqing & Lu Yanzhen, Daily Life in the Forbidden City, translated by Rosemary Scott & Erica Shipley, Harmondsworth New York, 1985, p. 266.
(12) Jonathan D. Spence, Emperor of China - Self-portrait of K'ang-hsi, Harmondworth, England, 1974, p. 96.
(13) Ibid., p.105.
(14) Evelyn S. Rawski, The Last Emperors - A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, 1998, p. 277.
(15) Jonathan D. Spence, Emperor of China - Self-portrait of K'ang-hsi, op. cit., p. 106.

Ceramics sold particularly well today, as did jade carvings and Imperial furnishings, a category that has seen much growth in recent years. One of the many highlights was the exceptionally rare and beautiful Qingbai seated figure of Guanyin (lot 3726) which was sought by enthusiastic collectors from around the globe and which sold for three and a half times the estimate (HK$25,300,000/US$3,253,580), a world record for a Qingbai porcelain.





An exceptionally rare qingbai seated figure of guanyin.  Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). A world auction record for Qingbai porcelain. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd. 2011

The figure is modelled with the upper body gently leaning forward, seated with legs crossed and arms folded under a voluminous robe, the garment is worn over the head partially exposing a finely reticulated floral diadem accommodating the Amitabha, the rounded face exquistely and naturalistically carved with finely detailed eyes, a straight nose and indented lips providing a serene expression, the toro adorned with a network of beaded jewellery chains, suspended above the multi-folds of the inner garment, the outer robe is covered with a characteristic pale blue glaze, pooling in recesses, reserving the head and upper body in the biscuit, the base unglazed; 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm.) high. Estimate HK$7,000,000 - HK$9,000,000 ($904,002 - $1,162,289). Sold HK$ 25,300,000 ($3,267,338) (€2,261,820) to an Asian Private.

Property from the Yiginge collection


This beautifully serene figure of Guanyin belongs to a very small group of finely-modelled religious figures made at the Jingdezhen kilns during the Southern Song period. Inscriptions and the date of tombs in which these figures have been found suggest that they were made in the second and third quarters of the 13th century. The majority of the extant figures of this type have been discovered in the south of China, within territory controlled by the Southern Song (1127-1279), but at least one has been found in the north, in an area which would have been controlled by the Jurchens of the Jin dynasty (1115-1234).

These beautifully modelled figures are characterised by the fact that part of their robes and/or rocky pedestals are covered with a qingbai glaze, while the remainder of the figure, including the face and throat, is biscuit fired and would, originally, have been cold painted. Since the painted pigment was not fired on, it is fugitive and very little remains on any of the published surviving figures. In the case of the figures of Guanyin, the other characteristic of this group is the intricate detail of their necklaces and headdresses.

an_exceptionally_rare_qingbai_seated_figure_of_guanyin_southern_song_d_d5448157_005hA partially glazed figure of Guanyin, very similar to the current example, was found in 1964 in the foundations of a Jin dynasty pagoda at Fengtai, Beijing. This Guanyin is now preserved in the Capital Museum, Beijing, and is illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daxidian - taoci juan, Hong Kong, 1995, p. 290, no. 405 [fig. 1]. Another seated Guanyin with outer robes and rocky pedestal covered in qingbai glaze, but with other areas biscuit fired, was excavated in 1978 from a Song dynasty well in Changzhou City, Jiangsu province and is now in the Changzhou Museum (illustrated in Gems of China's Cultural Relics, Beijing, 1997, no. 16) [fig. 2].

an_exceptionally_rare_qingbai_seated_figure_of_guanyin_southern_song_d_d5448157_005hbA third figure of this type, also a seated Guanyin, is now in the Shanghai Museum and is illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji 16 Song Yuan Qingbaici, Shanghai, 1984, no. 76 [fig. 3]. This figure, which has glaze on the edge of her outer robe and a little more pigment adhering to the unglazed areas, also bears an inscription dating it to the 11th year of the Shunyou reign of the Southern Song dynasty, equivalent to AD 1251. A fourth Guanyin figure belonging to this group was excavated in Quzhou, Zhejiang, from the tomb of Shi Shengzu, dated to the 10th year of the Southern Song Xianshun reign [AD 1274]. Although this latter figure is somewhat damaged it is clear that the rocky pedestal on which it sits is covered with qingbai glaze, while the Bodhisattva herself is biscuit fired and would have been cold painted. In view of a connection with later figures, it is interesting to note that this bodhisattva appears to have been seated in Maharajalilasana with one leg pendent and the other raised to allow her arms to rest on the raised knee (illustrated in Dynastic Renaissance - Art and Culture of the Southern Song, Antiquities, Taipei, 2010, pp. 210-11, no. III-79).

an_exceptionally_rare_qingbai_seated_figure_of_guanyin_southern_song_d_d5448157_006hDaoist figures were also made using the same technique of partial glazing and cold painted biscuit fired areas. A figure of a Daoist sage accompanied by deer and crane was excavated in 1975 from a tomb, dated to the 4th year of the Southern Song Xianshun reign [AD 1268], in Poyang county, Jiangxi (illustrated in Zhongguo chutu ciqi quanji 14 Jiangxi, Beijing, 2008, no. 70). Similar technique can be seen on the figure of a smiling Daoist sage with his hair in a double topknot, from the Falk Collection, which was sold in our New York rooms in October 2001, lot 106 [fig. 4]. On the Falk figure the inside of his wide sleeve and the rocky pedestal on which he stands have been covered with qingbai glaze, while the remainder of the figure was fired in the biscuit and would originally have been cold painted. It is notable that all of these Southern Song figures - both Buddhist and Daoist - are less than 30 cm. in height.

an_exceptionally_rare_qingbai_seated_figure_of_guanyin_southern_song_d_d5448157_006hdIn the Yuan dynasty it seems that, in some instances, lacquer replaced cold painting on partially-glazed qingbai Buddhist figures. A seated, qingbai glazed, figure of the Buddha Amitabha is in the collection of the Beijing Art Museum (illustrated in Treasures from Ancient Beijing, New York, 2000, p. 16, no. 7, and cover). This figure, dated to the Yuan dynasty has robes, which are partially lacquered, probably over areas of the porcelain left free of glaze. Gilded designs, representing the patterns on the robe are painted on the lacquered areas. The partial glazing of a similar Yuan dynasty seated qingbai Buddha in the collection of the Shanghai Museum (illustrated in Shanghai Museum, Hong Kong, 2007, p. 81, no. 96), suggests that it too would originally have had lacquer applied to the unglazed parts of its robe. Both these figures are somewhat larger than the Southern Song examples discussed above, at 51 cm. and 41.3 cm., respectively.

However, the majority of the Yuan dynasty figures are both fully glazed and sometimes significantly larger than the Southern Song figures. The famous qingbai glazed Yuan dynasty Bodhisattva seated in Maharajalilasana, which was excavated in 1955 from Dingfu Street in the western suburbs of Beijing, is 67 cm. tall. This figure is now in the Capital Museum, Beijing, and is illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua quanji - taoci juan, op. cit., p. 353, no. 618. The fully glazed seated Guanyin in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, dated by inscription to AD1298 or 1299, is 51.4 cm. tall (illustrated by Sherman E. Lee and Wai-kam Ho in Chinese Art Under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Cleveland 1968, no. 26), while another qingbai glazed seated Bodhisattva in the collection of the Rietberg Museum, Zurich is 52. cm. tall (illustrated ibid. 25). The Yuan dynasty qingbai glazed seated Bodhisattva in the Metropolitan Museum, New York is 50.8 cm. tall (illustrated by S. G. Valenstein in A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, New York, 1975, p. 127, no. 120). This appearance of larger figures in the Yuan dynasty at the end of the 13th century can be explained not only by changing tastes, but also by changes to the porcelain body material used at Jingdezhen. The new body material contained more kaolin and thus more alumina, facilitated the production of larger figures, and indeed vessels. The Southern Song figures, like the current example, which were made earlier in the century, appear to be made of the true china stone body material, which precluded the production of very large figures.

The use of this china stone body makes the exquisite detailing of the headdresses and the beading on these Southern Song figures even more remarkable, since they would have been prone to collapse during firing. The current figure and the similar excavated figure in the Capital Museum have particularly delicate headdresses. It is also interesting to note that these two figures may have come from the same mould. The basic form of such figures was moulded and then they were hand finished and the intricate appliques were put in place. In the case of the current Guanyin the decision was taken to glaze the whole of the outer robe, while in the case of the Capital Museum figure, only the edge of the outer robe was glazed.

70% of the lots in today’s sale sold above the high estimate with 33 lots selling in excess of US$1,000,000 (about HK$7,777,000), mostly to buyers from Greater China, with additional active participation from American and European clients. This season’s total represents 23% growth over the same period last year, and almost 300% over the same period in 2007.”