A very rare Ming-style blue and white moonflask, bianhu. Yongzheng period (1723-1735). Photo: Christie's Images Ltd. 2011
Of globular form with characteristic flattened sides, well painted with five lychee fruits on a flowering leafy branch above a band of crested waves encircling the base, the cylindrical neck is decorated with a band of upright overlapping plantain leaves, below rows of circles within line borders at the mouth rim, each side of the neck flanked by a pair of lingzhi-shaped handles with classic scrolls within single-line borders, the glaze has a soft blue tinge. 10 1/2 in. (26.5 cm.) high, box Estimate HK$3,000,000 - HK$4,000,000 ($387,430 - $516,573). Price Realized HK$6,620,000 ($854,932)
Provenance: The Empress Eugenie of France, by repute
Joseph Henry Barbet de Jouy (1812-1896) and thence by descent
Notes: Henry Barbet de Jouy, a passionate collector of porcelain and works of art from a very early age, was appointed to the Louvre in 1850 in the department of Egyptian Antiquities, becoming Keeper at the Musee des Antiques et de la Sculpture Moderne in 1855 and then Keeper at the Musee des Souverains in 1852. In his private capacity as a collector, he made many purchases at a series of important auctions in the 1860's and 1870's, including at the sales of the collections of the duc de Morny (half-brother of Napoleon III) and the duc de Montebello. Barbet de Jouy also possessed at least two items from the Summer Palace that were included in the series of auctions of works of art from that source, held in Paris from 1861 to 1863. Many pieces from his own collection of Chinese porcelain were sold at public auction at the Hotel Drouot, Paris, commissaire priseur Charles Pillet, on 24 - 25 March, 1879, and the present blue and white moon flask does not appear to have been included in any of these auctions.
Barbet de Jouy was a fervent Bonapartist. However, even after the fall of Napoleon III, he proved himself a staunch defender of the national interest (as represented by the nation's works of art), courageously protecting the Louvre in the terrible days of May 1871 that saw the destruction and burning of the neighbouring Tuileries palace. In recognition of this, he was awarded an officier de l'ordre de la Legion d'honneur and in 1879 was appointed administrator of the national museums. In this capacity, it was his job to participate in deciding which works of art from the collections of Napoleon III and Eugenie should be apportioned to the former Empress and which to the State. Barbet de Jouy was dismissed from this powerful post in 1881, very probably because of his long-held Bonapartist sympathies which would have been viewed with great suspicion by the politicians of the Third Republic and possibly he was deemed to be too generous towards Empress Eugenie.
It is family history that ascribes the moonflask as a gift to Barbet de Jouy from the Empress Eugenie - a putative provenance without documentary proof but supported by his closeness to the Emperor and Empress and by the flask's non-appearance at any of the great 19th century auctions (including his own of Chinese porcelain).
The design of the lychee branch and the shape of the present moonflask follow that of well-known early Ming dynasty Yongle prototypes. Many Yongzheng flasks were consciously inspired by patterns of the Ming period, some adhering closely to the original - as is the case of the present moonflask - while others revised the designs to suit Qing dynasty tastes. It is interesting to note the closeness in composition between the present vase and a prototype dated to the Yongle period (1402-1424), formerly from the Harry Oppenheim Collection and now in the British Museum, illustrated by J. Harrison Hall, Ming Ceramics, British Museum Press, 2001, p. 109, fig. 3.20. The pattern painted on present flask and on the British Museum example is almost identical, particularly in the attempt to replicate the curlicue motif along the shoulder of the vase directly beneath the cylindrical neck. A variation of this lychee design is seen on a moonflask dated to the Yongzheng period in the Robert Chang Collection, sold at Christie's New York, 20 September 2005, lot 343. Whilst the composition is the relatively similar, the curlicue motif on the Chang example is less prominent thereby allocating more space for the main lychee branch
Another unmarked Yongzheng Ming-style vase from this group, of similar size and form but decorated with birds on flowering branches from the Richard de la Mare, Su Lin An and Meiyintang collections was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 7 April 2011, lot 76.
Christie's. Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 1 June 2011 , Convention Hall www.chisties.com