a sancai ewer from early tang
2016 sold for $ 870k including premium
From the beginning of the Tang dynasty, ceramics are experiencing a great technical progress with the sancai. Sancai literally means three colors relating to yellow, green and purple but the cobalt blue is soon brought from the Middle East via the Silk Road. A ceramic sancai is performed in two firings at very high temperatures. The colored glaze is applied before the second heating.
A very small group of sancai ewers certainly dates from the early Tang dynasty, 1400 to 1300 years ago, perhaps even earlier than the availability of the blue. Their use is not known : palatial, ritual or funeral.
The elegant shape of these ceramic pieces copies some Sasanian metal ewers fitted with a handle. On a small conical base, the ovoid body is surmounted by a complex tall neck whose spout can take the form of a phoenix head. The foliate and floral decoration of the body links to a Western influence, possibly Hellenistic.
One of them 37 cm high was sold for £ 2.7 million including premium by Sotheby's on May 13, 2015. It had been announced with an estimate of £ 40K to 60K which is a good indicator of the difficulty to assess a piece of such a high rarity.
On September 13 in New York, Sotheby's sells a ewer a little simpler, 30 cm high, without the phoenix head in its design. The handle has an interesting shape of a twisted rope. The catalog attempts a comparison between the arabesque decoration of the body and and the jewelry representation in a torso of Avalokitesvara from the same dynasty. The ewer is estimated $ 500K, lot 6.
Tang - Black and Roan
2013 SOLD 4.2 M$ including premium
During the same dynasty, the technique of ceramic ornament lives a breakthrough with the development of sancai. After the first firing, colors are added to the pottery which is annealed again, forming a glaze.
The usual number of colors in the sancai is three, but some masterpieces are much more varied. This easy technique can be applied to large ceramic sculptures.
On September 17 in New York, Sotheby's sells a wonderful pair of sancai horses. The two pieces are made from the same model. Here is the link to the catalog.
Nearly 70 cm high, they are standing in an attitude of waiting, the head slightly turned. The proportions are of perfect realism, with extreme attention to detail such as the teeth inside the mouth and the pupil and iris of the eye. They are harnessed but withnot excessive luxury, suggesting that they are used for battle.
The color is different, being varied and nuanced for each coat, hooves, mane and accessories. Each one in its own way is a technical feat.
One of them is black, one of the most difficult shades to achieve, providing a dignified and magnificent appearance.
The other one is between red and beige with inclusions of creamy patches. The roan is a genetic singularity affecting some horses by dotting them with white hair. This very rare representation of a roan "strawberry" horse attests to an intention to record the actual look of a real animal, no doubt highlighted by the emperor himself.
POST SALE COMMENT
This magnificent example of realism in ancient Chinese art was expected beyond $ 2.5 million. The lot was sold for $ 4.2 million including premium.
820 Silver and Gold in a Tang Bowl
On March 17 in New York, Sotheby's sells a Han Wei Group IV bowl without cover, lot 202 estimated $ 1M. It measures 24 cm in diameter and is decorated with flowers, leaves and fruits, using a punching technique developed in Persia. The four-lobed shape with everted rim may recall an open begonia flower. Such lobed shapes were unknown before the Tang.
The gilding is very abundant, completely covering the entire exterior and the interior central medallion. The sleek inner wall is thus the only silver surface, offering a spectacular juxtaposition with the rest of the piece. The medallion is composed of pomegranate flowers and fruits. The artist sought a baroque decorative effect, not closely following the naturalism.
Its most probable period is around 820 CE. Comparison of flower patterns with stone carvings defines an ante quem terminus around 840.
TORTOISE AND OYSTER FOR TANG
On April 8 in Hong Kong, Sotheby's will sell a special object, which has spent the centuries without yielding to the ravages of time and is an invaluable testimony (culturally speaking) of ancient luxury in the Tang dynasty. Financially, however, we can estimate: Sotheby's hopes it in excess of 40 MHK $.
It is a large octagonal box with its cover, in tortoise-shell inlaid with mother of pearl. These materials rare and valuable at that time form contrasting patterns, geometric and floral, extremely elegant. It measures 38 cm wide and about 9 cm high including the cover.
Dating from the mid-Tang period, 1,250 years ago, it has certainly been preserved as a treasure, perhaps in the Shōsōin which is the Imperial Japanese repository in Nara. It took no less to preserve it from predators, especially insects that are major fans of nacre.
It appears that no object of this type and quality had been made previously available on the art market.
2015 SOLD FOR £ 233K INCLUDING PREMIUM
The Sogdians had throughout this long period earned the reputation of being the best traders in the world. Despite the numerous posts along the road where they could be relayed by intermediaries, they managed to control directly the longest trips.
On April 22 in London, Sotheby's sells a robe in silk lampas,lot 176 estimated £ 150K. This textile is dated around 710AD by the radiocarbon with a tolerance of 50 years.
This robe is an open coat with a large collar and very long sleeves, decorated with silk threads of four colors. The many small medallions show alternately pairs of winged horses and horned deer in opposition.
At that time, the secret of silk production had its first leaks but it is likely that the material of the garment came from China. Medallions and animals are in the style of the Sassanid Persians. The intense activity in the Silk road under the Tang makes plausible a Sogdian origin of this very old piece.
The silk robe in Mongol style sold £ 505K including premium by Christie's on October 5, 2010 was made four centuries later.
Luxury Garment in Central Asia
The process of making silk is jealously protected for more than a millennium but export to the West is tempting. To secure this trade and facilitate the import of foreign treasures, the Han create the Silk Road. Silk smuggling is a crime.
The richness and variety of ancient textiles did not survive time, all techniques combined. It is impossible to construct a synthesis of figurations, of fashions and of their evolution. Fortunately some pieces are nevertheless extant.
The Abegg-Stiftung museum in Riggisberg in the Bernese Alps preserves specimens of high antiquity. A pre-Han piece of silk (reference 5302/5304) is composed of strips sewn together with repetitive zoomorphic patterns 4 cm high including pairs of facing beasts.
A thousand years later the theme of the confronted animals, sometimes individually positioned in an oval or polygonal medallion, adorns the luxury clothes of the Sogdian chiefs or great merchants who manage the commercial relations between China and Persia.
On April 25 in London, Sotheby's sells a Sogdian sleeveless shirt made between 1400 and 1100 years ago in honey-gold colored silk in a so-called samite technique that is not a satin. It is mainly decorated in corner cut rectangles by the repetition of a big duck turned to the left or to the right and bearing a pearl necklace in the beak and a flowing royal scarf.
The conservation of this garment is remarkable. It is estimated £ 300K, lot 125.
Sotheby's sold for £ 233K including premium on April 22, 2015 a multicolored Sogdian robe from the early phase of the same period, where oval medallions alternately housed a pair of confronted winged horses and a pair of confronted deers. The Sogdian tunic with an Arabic inscription sold also by Sotheby's for £ 480K including premium on October 5, 2011 dates from the middle of the same period.
< 755 The Dragon of the Pretty Concubines
In 1958 this sculpture was in the Junkunc collection. The first expert who inspected it supposed that it had been made under the Han to decorate a carriage or a sedan. An architectural ornament would not be worthy of the fervor brought to the jade by the Chinese emperors. At that time no similar specimen was known.
An 18 cm long dragon head of the same material and design was discovered in 1980 in the pleasure gardens of the Tang Xuanzong emperor who had reigned from 712 to 756 CE. This similarity confirms the imperial origin of the Junkunc specimen.
The reign of Xuanzong was a period of carefree splendor. The emperor was much more interested in the protection of the arts than in the government. The civil war that broke out in 755 prevented the import of the jade from Central Asia. These dragons cannot be later.
Ancient jade carvings in the round are rare but Tang chroniclers and poets were prolific. We know from them that the horse-drawn imperial parade carriages were decorated with figures in five different materials, each one for a specific use.
Jade was the most precious and the rarest of the five materials. Its dedicated carriage was mostly used for the coronation of empresses. The green dragon was accompanied by a white tiger and a golden phoenix. A poet at the end of the Tang era is nostalgic for the luxurious carriages that carried the pretty concubines in the happy days of the dynasty.
On September 13 our Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale will take place in #NewYork. Comprised of over 280 lots from a variety of collecting categories, the sale is led by ‘The Junkunc Jade Dragon Head’ from the Tang dynasty #AsianArtWeek https://t.co/Hek5sWLoNA pic.twitter.com/LAu7egRRnv— Christie's (@ChristiesInc) September 6, 2019
961-976 the nostalgia of the southern tang
2016 result not reported - probably unsold
The third king is Li Yu. He reigns 15 years, from 961 to 976 of our calendar, before being overthrown by the Song. Two painters of his court, Gu Hongzhong and Zhou Wenju, are commissioned to record the pleasures of the palace: banquets, music, nightlife.
The Song fully took in their own right the former imperial luxury. The Huizong Emperor who reigned from 1100 to 1126 of our calendar is also an artist who carefully copies and comments the outstanding drawings of the imperial collection.
A Chinese chess scene including a calligraphy by Huizong, executed from a model by Zhou Wenju, remains in the imperial collection in Beijing. Two players are installed on either side of a broad chessboard in the typical attitude of such games: one plays while the other waits. Two other men are watching the move with great attention.
An extremely similar specimen of this image has just surfaced from a private collection. It is for sale by Gianguan Auctions in New York on March 19, lot 92 in the catalogue shared on issuu.com. This ink and colors on silk 70 x 59 cm includes colophons, one of them by Huizong who wrote that it is an authentic drawing by Zhou Wenju and printed his seal mark.
The catalog of the auction house includes an essay by a Chinese expert who inspected the Beijing example and considers it as an autograph copy by Huizong.
The example for sale in New York would be the original drawing admired and copied by Huizong and perhaps the only surviving autograph work by Zhou Wenju. This treasure is priceless : the auction house does not publish an estimate and the lot was withdrawn from online bidding catalogs.
ca 1080 Nine Words for the Palace Administrator
2013 SOLD 8.2 M$ including premium
On September 19 in New York, Sotheby's sells a hanging scroll autographed by Su Shi, 28 x 9.5 cm. In nine words written about 930 years ago, the author identifies himself and bids his farewell to Gong Fu, then administrator of the palace of Duanzhou.
Calligraphy means "beautiful writing". In these early days, the styles are already established since a long time. The beauty of the line is essential, more than the text, to honor the addressee. Su Shi practices with the required virtuosity a writing that combines running and standard styles.
Indeed, each of the nine words is a work of art, but their disposition, here in two columns, is also important because it brings a musicality to the whole message.
Like all outstanding documents from ancient China, the scroll is accompanied by seals and colophons. Its oldest collector's stamp dates from the Ming dynasty. Its earliest colophon, during the reign of Qianlong, is a detailed expert study comparing the biographies of the two men in order to establish the date of the work.
The document is in superb condition despite its age.
POST SALE COMMENT
This ancient example of beautiful writing made by an outstanding man in Chinese history was sold for $ 8.2 million including premium.
In the video below, Sotheby's summarizes with some examples the unique characteristics of the art of Chinese calligraphy for introducing this lot and demonstrating its importance.
huizong - the stone of the calligrapher
The Northern Song used the Duan variety of ink stone, carved and engraved in a volcanic rock of deep purple-brown color mined in southern China near Guangdong. The ink stone is a work of art that contributes to the refinement of the writing operation. Calligraphy is very active during the reign of the Huizong emperor, 900 years ago.
On June 13 in New York, Gianguan Auctions sells a Duan ink stone from Huizong time. It is estimated in excess of $ 850K, lot 282 on the bidding platforms LiveAuctioneers and Invaluable.
The instrument is rectangular, 32 cm long. The ink pool occupies the lower half of the instrument which is adorned with a deeply carved imperial pavilion in the upper part. The underside is illustrated with a turtle carrying a tablet.
1180 The Year of the Drought
2011 SOLD 1.76 M$ including premium
Zhu Xi was one of the foremost among the masters who enriched and transmitted the thought of Confucius. Under the Song dynasty, he offered a rationalist approach that was a revolution in its time, but he managed to impose it.
In China, a writer must also be a calligrapher. Zhu was one of the best. His handwriting is unique, balanced and energetic, the line is broad and powerful.
Occasionally, he wrote poems in wide characters. Signed and dedicated, a handscroll is for sale on September 15 at Christie's in New York, lot 817. 34 cm high, over 1 meter long, it contains 102 of the 150 characters of a travel poem, enriched according to the tradition with colophons from later poets and with collector seals.
Zhu tells that he is ill, in this seventh year of Chunxi (1180 in our calendar), but his disciples understand that the disease is mainly the empathy of the philosopher with the inhabitants of Jiangnan who are victims of a terrible drought.
This outstanding autograph poem is estimated $ 1.5 M.
POST SALE COMMENT
It was a good opportunity to remember a great philosopher of the ancient times. The poem was sold $ 1.76 million including premium.
The Silk Road
2010 SOLD 505 K£ including premium
Silk, which was not produced in Europe, first came from China. But the old textiles are fragile, and we have some difficulty understanding how these luxury goods were used.
The silk robe for sale by Christie's in London on October 5 is therefore an exceptional piece. Equipped with fur collar and cuffs, it is multicolored, with a repeating pattern of confronted falcons in seven registers on a lattice of stems and palmettes.
The gift of the silk was a tradition in which Islamic leaders honored their allies. This ceremonial dress, whose colors remain fresh, has perhaps never been worn. It is in very good condition, and is estimated £ 400K.
This piece of cloth comes from the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, with some Mongol characteristics. The carbon dating gives an age of 800-1000 years. The specialists of Islamic and Asian art will certainly enjoy comparing its motifs with those of pottery from the same period.
POST SALE COMMENT
Good result in line with the estimate for this rare and precious lot: £ 505K including premium.
the culmination of the mongol empire
2015 sold for £ 600k including premium
The emperors promoted the weaving centres. Trade was active, influences mingled and soon the varieties of styles could no longer define the location of a workshop.
Weaving is one of the earliest arts, essential to interior decoration. Textile materials are degradable and few pieces have been kept in a satisfactory condition. Their inexorable loss prevents an objective view of the history of luxury arts.
On April 21 in London, Christie's sells a hanging carpet woven somewhere in the Mongol empire, lot 100 estimated £ 500K. This fragment 246 x 81 cm is certainly almost complete. The lower border seems to have been deliberately cut off to fit it as a door flap for a large nomad tent.
This piece is a unique example of Mongol flat weave wool carpet, reusing the techniques several thousands of years old of the kilim. Both sides are similar, with a return on the back of the weft which increases the strength and certainly contributes to its remarkable preservation.
It is a synthesis of several older styles, with horizontal colored stripes at the top like a color catalog, and friezes with geometric patterns and trefoils. The central part is figurative, with doves and peonies. The technical refinements and the comparison of patterns with carpets represented in the painted miniatures of the time allow to assess its age at about 700 years.
Yuan - Exquisite Chinese Boxes
2009 SOLD 20.8 MHK$ including premium
It is a large octagonal box 36 cm wide, with its cover. It is 23 cm high including the base, which is a smaller octagon. The mother-of-pearl decoration is inlaid in the lacquer. It shows very fine scenes including Taoist figures, trees, animals and delicately intertwined decorative motifs.
The price of this precious object is not published in the catalog, but the press release states that it could exceed 20 MHK$.
As for the extraordinary Tang box that Sotheby's had proposed in Hong Kong in April, we can marvel at the conservation status of a piece made of such fragile materials. Sotheby's lot had not been sold, probably because the reserve price was too high.
POST SALE COMMENT
Among the outstanding results achieved by Christie's during their week of sales in Hong Kong, we are almost surprised that the Yuan box has not reached its estimate. But it was sold, that's the important fact: 20.8 M HK$ including premium.
Hopefully all these good results will invite for a come back on the market of the sensational Tang box that Sotheby's had tried to sell a few months ago.
Yuan - THE SAGE COnTEMPLATED THE MOUNTAINS
Dynasties pass, but the traditions are transmitted. The outstanding contribution of Mi Fu to the theory of the arts and letters was not lost when, two centuries later, the Yuan overthrew the Song.
According to Mi, the landscape is the quintessential graphic art, at the opposite of other subjects that are anecdotal.The mountains are always changing, with clouds and rain, and the sage who is able to absorb it is the finest artist.
At the time of the Yuan dynasty, 700 years ago, his best successor is Gao Kegong. The artist liked the wooded mountains of Jiangnan, near Shanghai. Then and still for a long time, landscape art was ignored in all other regions of the world.
A handscroll in ink on silk, 27 x 107 cm, is notable for the meticulous precision of the rocks and trees that contrast with the skillful blur of the clouds. The balanced proportions show that the artist achieved his aim of interpreting the landscape without distorting it.
The artwork, estimated HK $ 20M, is for sale by Christie's in Hong Kong on May 31. It is not signed, but according to Chinese tradition usually applied to top calligraphic poems, eminent scholars of subsequent dynasties have inscribed their opinion that it is an authentic work of Gao.
Yongle - The Colors of the Karmapa
Nothing is too good for a visitor of such an importance. Yongle introduces an unprecedented luxury into Buddhist art, with a particular attention to the vividness of colors. A thangka brought to Tibet with the emperor's presentation mark was sold for HK $ 350M including premium by Christie's on November 26, 2014.
Ritual vessels are also required with the brightest colors, which have not yet been developed for porcelain. They will be made of metal painted in cloisonné with enamels, a technique recently imported into China probably from Byzantium. The surviving pieces are extremely rare.
On April 3, 2018, Sotheby's sold for HK $ 21.7M including premium a 25.5 cm high Ming cloisonné altar vase imitating a Tibetan ritual shape with an ovoid body and a rim decorated with a hanging collar.
On July 11 in Hong Kong, Sotheby's sells a 22.5 cm high ewer with its cover, lot 3626 estimated HK $ 20M. The horizontal spout is designed for an easy pouring of hot liquid and the lid is perfectly matching. Beside the five classical colors of the Buddhist rainbow, the pink prepared by mixing white and red enamels is exceptional. The ground is turquoise.
This teapot has the shape of a Tibetan ritual ewer. Its top in monk's cap evokes the black crown which is one of the major symbols of the karmapa. This form had perhaps already been imported into China under the Yuan but the direct reference to the visit to Yongle is attractive. The altar vase referred above was better attributed to the Yongle period than to Xuande for its great sharpness in details. This argument can certainly also apply to the ewer.
Cloisonné Enamels of the Early Ming
2018 SOLD for HK$ 21.7M including premium
On April 3 in Hong Kong, Sotheby's sells an altar jar 26 cm high, lot 3428 estimated HK $ 20M. It wears quite discreetly the Buddhist symbols and its form is of Tibetan ritual inspiration. The decoration of the ovoid body is centered in its circumference by six lotuses of various designs on a turquoise background. The colors are many and bright with a naturalism rare at this time in flowers and leaves.
The wire partitioning is entangled and tight. On the shoulder frieze the use of four color combinations on identical patterns is an additional refinement.
A piece of this quality is extremely rare but an almost identical example is known. The stabilizing heating of the enamels was certainly extremely difficult. They were made during Yongle or Xuande reigns. Both emperors were closely linked to Buddhism.
On April 20, 2017 another similar piece with some misses and wears was sold for $ 810K including premium by Quinn's from an estimate of 400 to 600 dollars. It was dated 18th or 19th century in the post sale release published by Artnet.
Until the falangcai of the Qing nearly three centuries later, such variety and beauty of colors will remain impossible to obtain on porcelains. This probably explains the craze for cloisonné during the short and eventful reign of the Jingtai emperor, second son and second successor to Xuande. From that reign the decoration had become more stylized.
cinnabar lacquer for the ming
The lacquer also became a refined art form. It was applied in very thin layers interspersed by long drying phases before the final polishing and carving. In the Song Dynasty, the lacquer was preferred to ceramics for the luxuries and was popular in the tea ceremony. The cinnabar color, near vermilion, was the most commonly practiced.
The first lacquered bowls were made under the Song. The piece for sale on October 8 by Sotheby's in Hong Kong is a Ming bowl stand, used to support bowls of hot tea, estimated HK $ 10M, lot 3210.
The 21 cm bowl stand is equipped just over its pedestal with a hollow saucer-shaped ring in seven lobes. Despite its complex shape, it is certainly a bulk piece. It is fully engraved with floral motifs illustrating no less than six different blossoms and their corresponding leaves.
It bears the mark of Yongle, the third Ming emperor, intentionally erased to be superseded by the mark of Xuande. However, experts believe that it is slightly earlier when comparing it with the styles of lacquerware that were presented to the Japanese at the beginning of the reign of Yongle.
This specimen would have been manufactured about 620 years ago at the end of the reign of the founder of the dynasty, Hongwu. The marks are authentic. Yongle's may come from an inventory during the installation in Beijing, the new capital, and Xuande's may be a re-appropriation of a remarkable feat that was already difficult to reproduce in his time.
A Dice Bowl for the Use of Xuande
2012 SOLD for £ 1.4M by Bainbridges
The Yongle emperor saw a political advantage in promoting the Chinese porcelain. After the short reign of Hongxi, Xuande became emperor in 1425 of our calendar.
The new emperor, who reigned for ten years, was personally concerned about ceramics, resuming the tradition of court vessels that enabled the porcelain to reach a height under the Northern Song three centuries earlier. Xuande continued to promote Jingdezhen, which received the best cobalts. The imperial mark was applied systematically on the pieces made for the palace.
Considering that the wonderful Chenghua palace bowls will be a limited operation for the fashionable court instead of a personal initiative of the emperor, it may be stated that the Xuande period marks the high end production of the Ming porcelains.
On March 18 in New York, Sotheby's sells a bowl with the Xuande mark, lot 269 estimated $ 2.5M.
This blue and white piece 26 cm in diameter is finely decorated with dragons with five claws per paw, symbolizing the power of the emperor and suggesting that it was foreseen for the personal use of Xuande. Its thick wall that increases the robustness is a technical innovation to fly the dice without damaging the porcelain.
This bowl had been sold for £ 1.4M by Bainbridges on May 17, 2012. Two years earlier, the auction house had sold for £ 43M a reticulated Qianlong vase but the Chinese buyer refused to pay the additional non-declining premium of £ 8.6M, regrettably canceling this beautiful record.
Jingtai - The Usurper of the Heavenly Light
2018 SOLD for £ 1.33M including premium
The Emperor of China received a Mandate from Heaven. In the case of a usurpation, the situation is complicated. By appreciating the usefulness of relying on Tibetan Buddhism, the Yongle usurper had ensured for more than three decades the stability of the Ming dynasty.
After the untimely death of the Xuande emperor, his eldest son and successor the Zhentong emperor is a child. His capture by the Mongols in 1449 CE after a severe military defeat opens a dynastic crisis.
On May 17 in London, Bonhams sells as lot 150 a Ming butter lamp unique by its colossal size entirely in gilt bronze. It is made of two main segments linked together by a cylindrical stem, a bowl and a bell-shaped base. It stands at 103 cm high and its diameters are 102 cm for the bowl and 88 cm for the foot. Its weight is estimated at 335 Kg. Other big lamps are known but with a stone base.
This lamp bears inserted into its bronze an imperial mark of the Jingtai emperor. Raised to the throne during the brief Mongol captivity of his half-brother Zhentong, he had restituted to him neither the title nor the freedom.
Jingtai absolutely needed to prove his legitimacy because a series of setbacks resembled a heavenly disavowal. The famine was persistent. His son, named crown prince at the expense of Zhentong's son, died at the age of five.
The inscription of the lamp includes a mystery. Three of the imperial characters among which the identification of the emperor were not cast into the bronze bulk but framed in overload. Nevertheless the gilding thickness is perhaps homogeneous. The Jingtai emperor probably recovered this piece for his personal rite before it was finished. If so, he erased the name of the emperor who had commissioned the lamp.
A late or apocryphal re-inscription in the name of Jingtai would not make sense from the historical point of view. His short reign was not glorious. He was overthrown by his half-brother when he was dying and was posthumously downgraded to the rank of prince. Few art objects bear his mark and these are mostly cloisonné enamels.
1483 BEAUTY THE LIONESS
In a recent article, I discussed the openness managed by China towards the Muslim world at the beginning of the Ming dynasty. The painting in ink and color on paper that I introduce today is a direct testimony of these relations, once again contradicting the naive illusion of a huge country locked behind its Great Wall.
The piece, 242 x 287 cm, is amazing, and the fact that it has been preserved entire is remarkable. The subject is a life size lioness held in leash by a bearded diplomat. An assistant handles a whip. The beast has a sad face, to show how seriously she plays her role!
This lioness was named Husaini, which means beautiful in Arabic. She came to China as a gift to the Emperor from theSultan of Samarkand, in a symbolic tribute of beneficent rule and harmony widely explained in a large Chinese poemon silk at the top of the image.
The date of this embassy is perfectly identified, and the year corresponds to 1483 in our calendar, the 20th year of Emperor Chenghua.
This painting is probably unique for its size and subject. It is for sale by Sotheby's in Hong Kong on April 8.
1486 The Mid-Autumn Moon
2016 SOLD for $ 2.17M including premium
Under the Ming, scholars often identified as Literati maintain a communication with nature. They occasionally draw, without being art professionals. Mid-Autumn is enjoyed as an opportunity to eat crabs and fish and to have wine to drunkenness with one's best friends.
On September 14 in New York, Sotheby's sells a hand scroll from Ming time that evokes such a happiness. It is signed by Shen Zhou, a literati who founded and animated the Wu school calling for a freedom of poetic expression similar as what was practiced under the Yuan. The scroll 29 cm high is in two parts : a drawing 92 cm long and an autograph calligraphy 10 m long. It is estimated $ 1.8M, lot 530.
The friend brought the paper and invited Shen to record that privileged moment in the bamboo hut of the garden. The drawing in a simple and speedy line is composed from a model by a Yuan master named Wu Zhen.
The poem in calligraphy explaining the circumstances of the artwork and the hedonistic interpretation of the event has been executed by Shen, certainly just after completion of the drawing. The sharp and wide characters essentially in two rows are in the style of a famous Song poet.
We learn that Shen and his friend were both 60 years old. If the poet told the truth about his age, this festival was held in 1486 in our calendar. The Mid-Autumn Moon behaves as a reference for the passing time which they neglected before having white hair. Shen hopes that the Moon brings forty additional autumns to them. This wish was not far from being fulfilled as the poet was to die an octogenarian.
1508 The Sorrow of the Old Poet
2019 SOLD for $ 3M including premium
Far away from the imperial court, he becomes a professional artist and poet. Along with his disciples, he forms the informal School of Wu, a former name of Suzhou. The reputation of this provincial group becomes national.
In 1502 CE, Shen Zhou loses his son. He expresses his sorrow in the following year with a collection of ten poems on the theme of falling flowers. The literary quality of this work provokes a dialogue between the old poet and his disciples through the composition by all parties of additional poems, some of which reusing the rhymes of the original poems.
An autograph handscroll, signed but undated, consisting of the complete set of the original ten poems plus three responses by the same author, is estimated $ 1.2M for sale by Sotheby's in New York on March 22, lot 1168.
This piece applies the style of Huang Tingjian, one of the greatest masters of calligraphy under the Song. It is very comparable in its writing to a scroll kept at the Taipei Museum which includes an autograph painting and a frontispiece as well as a response dated 1508 CE by his best disciple. Shen Zhou dies in the following year at 82 years old.
Please watch the video shared by the auction house.
1525 The Passion of Zhu Yunming
2019 SOLD for $ 1.58M including premium
Zhu Yunming is a wild opponent to the neo-Confucianist orthodoxy of the Ming. His career is not spectacular. Ca 1522 CE, soon after his 60th birthday, he manages to retire with a pretext of poor health. He can now devote himself to poetry and calligraphy.
On September 12 in New York, Sotheby's sells a calligraphy of the Ode to the Goddess of the Luo River made by Zhu in 1525 CE, lot 1028 estimated $ 800K, The 33 x 850 cm hand scroll is rolled out in the video embedded in the tweet below.
This story is typical of the deepest roots of Chinese poetry, on the theme of passionate love between a mortal, often a prince, and a goddess or a nymph. The catalog does not indicate the source of the copied text but the best-known version was written by Cao Zhi 1300 years earlier, at the time of the final explosion of the Han dynasty. Zhu's page in Wikipedia is illustrated by a calligraphy of another poem by Cao Zhi.
Zhu had an impetuous temperament and a specific skill for cursive writing. This Ode is the masterpiece of the end of his life, favoring a fierce speed of execution to promote the impression of spontaneity and to highlight the variations of rhythm of the poem.
In this First Look, discover calligrapher Zhu Yunming's elegant brushwork in his masterpiece 'Ode to the Goddess of the Luo River', a highlight in our upcoming Fine Classical Chinese Paintings & Calligraphy sale on 12 September in #NYC. #SothebysAsianArt https://t.co/P9YELlzxzz pic.twitter.com/jKV4AToD1s— Sotheby's (@Sothebys) September 4, 2019
1542 THE MONGOLIAN TRAIL
Mongolia is a huge country. Mongol emperors encouraged mapping, and knew to gather relevant information abouttheir most remote provinces. This knowledge was of course maintained when the Yuan conquered China, and their Ming successors continued the tradition.
From west or from east, the trip of the silk road is a dream. An exceptional map was admired at an exhibition in Rome in 2011. It is for sale tomorrow June 3 by Poly in Beijing.
This monumental scroll is 30 meters long and 59 cm high. It was realized in ink and colors on green silk under the Ming, probably under the Jiajing emperor as the earliest comment is dated from the year 21 of his reign, 1542 in ourcalendar.
It is a landscape map, like some of our old portolans, with simplified drawings of monuments, rivers and mountains.Scholars who analyzed it admire its mapping accuracy. Starting from the Chinese border at the western end of the Great Wall, it crosses the whole of Asia up to Arabia.
It is both a beautiful painting and a highly important document. The auction house does not publish an estimate. A Chinese source translated on the web is expecting 80 million yuan.
China Daily reported in December 2017 that a Ming map of the Silk road has been donated to the Palace Museum in Beijing. The available information is matching the map discussed here above.
1564 the mughal superbird
2016 sold for £ 820k including premium
Oriental storytellers like to confront their heroes with mythical animals. The Emperor Akbar is an outstanding patron of culture but he is illiterate, probably because of a disability of dyslexia. His father returning from a long exile had imported to India the tradition of Persian miniatures. Akbar's reign became the golden age of Mughal illuminated tales.
Around the sixth year of his reign, 1562 in our calendar, the young Akbar aged 20 requests an illustrated version of the Hamzanama. This huge project will occupy for fifteen years the artists of his personal workshop led by Persian masters. 1400 miniatures are made in nearly full page on large sheets 71 x 53 cm.
In Akbar's time, the Hamzanama is politically correct for the Muslim world because its hero Amir Hamza, the uncle of Muhammad, is predating the Hegira. The capture of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739 is a disaster for this masterpiece which is dismantled. Many pages were probably just destroyed, which would explain why less than 200 are surviving.
On October 20 in London, Christie's sells a fantastic page of Akbar's Hamzanama, lot 89 estimated £ 200K. Another painting known with a very similar writing of the lines under the picture is dated AH 972, 1564-1565 in our calendar.
Hamza has just come to terms with the Rukh. The bird carries the hero to his home. In flight far above the landscape, Hamza is suspending to the legs of the gigantic bird.
1580 the golden shoed horse
2016 sold for £ 257k including premium
The second reign of Humayun was very short. His son and successor was nicknamed Akbar ("the Great"). With this liberal sovereign the Mughal empire is experiencing its cultural heyday. It is estimated that approximately one hundred artists worked around 1580 to paint miniatures and illuminations for the outstanding epic books and albums of the emperor.
Akbar is a keen hunter and rider. The style of the Mughal miniature stands out from the Safavid miniature by the very realistic displaying of animals.
On October 19 in London, Sotheby's sells a gouache 16 x 23 cm on 20 x 27 cm leaf on the theme of the shoeing of a Mughal horse, lot 10 estimated £ 200K.
The animal is tall at the neck and majestic. He bears on his back a luxurious fabric. No less than three assistants take care of him. One of them holds a front leg while another one is fixing the iron shoe with golden nails. The third character who is perhaps the foreman keeps the horse quiet by holding the guide near the nostrils.
This miniature was probably executed at the time of the culmination of Akbar miniatures. An early inspection was made in the 8th reigning year of Jahangir, 1611 in our calendar.
A Pair of Golden Bookcases for the Wanli Emperor
2009 SOLD 11.8 MHK$ including premium
Wanli, who reigned 400 years ago, was one of the last emperors of the Ming dynasty. A pair of lacquered and gilded bookcases, for sale by Sotheby's in Hong Kong on April 8, bears his mark.
Each piece of furniture is quite small: 151 cm high, 91 cm wide, 50 cm deep, open, with three levels of storage. The luxury of carving and the intense rich gilding make the auction house declare that it was a personal furniture of the emperor ... and that no comparable piece has ever been offered at auction. The pair is estimated 15 MHK $.
The deep and crisp sculpture shows dragons surrounded by clouds. It is laying on all sides, and on the edges of shelves. The wood is one of the most precious, known as nanmu.
At the same time in Europe (1581-1620), luxury furniture is also characterized by a thick sculpture. Although the Wanli reign saw the visit to China of Jesuit travelers, it is not clear if these two regions of the world influenced one another with regard to the style of furniture.
POST SALE COMMENT
I thought frankly that this pair of Imperial furniture should greatly exceed its estimate. It did not even reach it, but it was still sold : 11.8 MHK$ including premium.
2010 SOLD for RMB 43M by China Guardian
In May 2011 a bed made in huanghuali was sold for RMB 32M by China Guardian.
The Folding Throne
The folding chair is named jiaoyi. A homogeneous group of four Ming armless chairs in huanghuali was sold for £ 5.3M including premium by Bonhams on November 9, 2017 over a lower estimate of £ 150K. Their almost square backrest with a bow-shaped headrest (guanmaoyi) certainly precedes the very elegant quanyi characterized by its horseshoe-shaped rail that serves altogether as backrest and armrest.
The quanyi is better suited than other forms of Chinese armchairs for the creation of collapsible models, its front rail being folded into the curvature of the arms.
On September 13 in New York, Christie's sells a quanyi-shaped jiaoyi in huanghuali from later Ming period, lot 876 estimated $ 1M. Its folding is shown by an operator in the article prepared by the auction house. The catalog refers to a similar seat sold for RMB 27.4M including premium by Poly on December 8, 2018.
A use as an occasional imperial throne is likely under the Ming but was not illustrated until the Qing. A painting by Castiglione stages the Qianlong emperor sitting on a folding armchair during a negotiation with Kazakh emissaries.
Four Chinese Armchairs
Highly appreciated by the Ming, the huanghuali is a hardwood that enables to create furniture with bold shapes. Its color varies from reddish brown to golden yellow while its grains may display seductive pseudo-figurative patterns.
A set of eight Ming seats in huanghuali would be the holy grail for a collector. I do not know if such a wonder remains in private hands and the submultiples, four and two, are much in demand. The consistency of colors and grains ensures the homogeneity of a group. The virtuosity of the craftsman is also considered.
The almost square back with the top rail in the form of a yoke or of an official's hat is the guanmaoyi. A set of four folding armless chairs was sold for £ 5.3M including premium by Bonhams on November 9, 2017 over a lower estimate of £ 150K. A pair with arms was sold by Sotheby's on March 23, 2011 for $ 2.77M including premium over a lower estimate of $ 200K.
The quanyi, designating a chair with a circular back, is also known as the horseshoe-back armchair. The best craftsmen round the circle by reducing the number of elements of the crest rail, obtaining a rigidity which also makes it possible to optimize the stretchers. Despite an apparent lightness, their seats are strong.
On March 17, 2015, Christie's dispersed the Ellsworth collection. The bidders recognized the best qualities of a quanyi in the group of four that constituted the lot 41. Moreover the other two pairs that would make it possible to constitute a set of eight were identified in the catalog. Lot 41 was sold for $ 9.7M including premium over a lower estimate of $ 800K.
Another homogeneous set of four quanyi in huanghuali from the Ming period is estimated $ 800K for sale by Christie's in New York on September 13, lot 878.
1617 The Possessor of the World
2011 SOLD 1.42 M£ including premium
Jahangir is a Persian word meaning "possessor of the world". To identify this prestigious attribute, he is holding a globe in the palm of his hand. He is sumptuously dressed, and his head is wreathed with a radiant sun. The scene is complemented by a soliflore-shaped vase with three beakers.
An inscription indicates the date: 1026AH (1617 in our calendar), when Jahangir was 48. The work is attributed to the favorite artist of the emperor, Abul Hasan, better known by the honor or noble title of Nadir al-Zaman ("Wonder of his time").
Connoisseur of art, the Emperor accepted his portrait to be done, which is unusual for a Muslim ruler of that era. For such a piece that is probably unique in its size, the estimated £ 1M seems too reasonable.
POST SALE COMMENT
Good price, slightly above the estimate, for this work that is probably unique: £ 1.25 million before fees, 1.42 million including premium.
Here is its size including its calligraphic border: 210 x 141 cm.
1620 THE SHIP OF THE NANBAN
The Japanese had accepted to receive regularly the Portuguese traders. They were interested in the offered goods, mainly silk, lacquer and ceramics from China, and had fun in watching these strange travelers whom they named'Nanban', meaning Southern Barbarians.
The ship came from far away. Huge, strong and beautiful, it could bring several hundred passengers. The visit, usuallyonce a year, generated an intense activity in Nagasaki harbor. After a few decades, in 1638, the Japanese were tired ofthis new tradition and closed their borders again.
The memory of these events is maintained in screens, which are the most refined form of Japanese art during this period, most often made in pairs. The extensive use of gold leaf and the different shades of blue for sky and seaenabled to create exquisite artworks. A sharp and colorful graphics shows with realism the boat along with the business on board and on the ground.
On March 23, 2011, Christie's sold $ 4.8 million including premium a pair of screens signed by one of the best artists in Kyoto, showing the highly exciting event of the arrival of the unique elephant who participated in any of these trips.
On September 18 in New York, Christie's sells a 155 x 350 cm screen divided into six panels, whose other screen of the pair is not located. It is neither dated nor signed, and was probably made after 1620. It is estimated $ 700K.
1638 Traditions and Colophons
2012 SOLD 1.76 M$ including premium
The figurative Chinese art, like their pottery, has been for centuries a matter of continuous improvement. The best painters wanted above all to be regarded as perfect imitators of the great old masters and endeavoured to transfer their reputation.
This activity involves a deep feeling in art criticism, especially when considering that scientific methods of authentication were not yet existing. The court artists frequented assiduously the scholars who commented directly on the artworks through the signed and dated colophons which prolonged the scrolls.
On September 13 in New York, Sotheby's sells a mountainous landscape made by one of the last artists of the Ming court, Lan Ying. This huge horizontal handscroll, 49 x 1022 cm, is estimated $ 1.2 M. Here is the link to the catalog.
Famous in his time, Lan is known as an imitator of more than twenty masters. In these troubled times preceding thefall of the Ming, he feels in harmony with artists who, three centuries earlier, sought the Taoist peace despite the foreign domination of the Yuan.
So, the scroll for sale is an imitation of Wu Zhen. Five contemporary colophons enable to date it in 1638 of our calendar. Commentators praised: the artist reached the same perfection as the master. One of them even told that he accompanied Lin when he visited the mountains to perceive the landscape just like the Yuan artist had viewed it.
POST SALE COMMENT
This monumental work remained in the lower range of the estimate. It was sold $ 1.76 million including premium.
Realized in the same period by Hongren, a smaller handscroll, 15 x 347 cm, was sold $ 3.2 million including premium.
RHINOCEROS OFFERS HIS HORN
The rhino horns carved in high relief are rare and sought after. The species is now threatened and protected, and onlythe ancient artworks can be considered. They most often have the function of libation cup and the shape of acornucopia.
They were highly esteemed during the Ming dynasty. The artists of the time knew to provide them with a beautifulpatina of honey color, almost golden. The finest specimens were cut into bowls.
As often in China, the Ming emperor reserved the art for his own use, and everything was done to please him. Horns which enabled to make bowls with an axial symmetry as perfect as porcelain were taken for him as far as Africa.
There is no doubt that the bowl from the later Ming period for sale on April 8 at Sotheby's in Hong Kong is an exceptional piece. Estimated HK $ 18M, it is very large for its class, with a perfect circular cross section of 16.5 cm in diameter. Its decoration is imperial: a big dragon chasing a few smaller congeners which are more specifically chilonga or hornless dragons. The hollowed interior is smooth.
We appreciate that the Ming bowls in rhino horn are extremely rare. Yet another model (maybe earlier) was sold HK $24M including premium by the same auction house on October 8, 2010. Of similar width, it was decorated with lotus petals on both its outer and inner walls.
TWO PAIRS OF HUANGHUALI ARMCHAIRS
2011 BOTH UNSOLD
I mentioned recently in this group the sale made by China Guardian in Beijing in May, during which a huanghuali bedwas sold 32.2 million yuan. This remarkable result was not isolated. In the same sale a pair of huanghuali armchairs with official's hat back was sold 23 million yuan.
The quality of the wood can generate large differences of price. A pair of armchairs whose wood rings were verydecorative was sold $ 2.7 million including premium by Sotheby's in New York on March 23, 2011, from an estimate of $ 200K.
Two pairs of very similar design are for sale in the same room on September 14. The openwork backs are also"official's hats" (guanmaoyi), meaning that the top rail is slightly overflowing, with a central bulge. They are high and wide and the catalog invites to use them for meditating in the lotus position.
The most expensive of the two pairs, estimated $ 1.2 million, has a nice honey tone. The other pair, estimated $ 800K, is reddish brown. These links lead to the catalog shared by Sotheby's.
The furniture is dated from the seventeenth century of our calendar, which was the transition period from Ming to Qing.
Only fifteen portraits are known : eight men including one European and seven women. Several of these surviving figures have similarities in facial features, dress or background. Two or perhaps three pairs are identified among these fifteen works. Several artists have probably operated but it should not be excluded that some paintings were copies in period.
A non-Muslim origin in the Armenian community of Isfahan is proposed, either by Armenian artists or by European artists staying in their community. The Armenians were in regular contact with the Europeans for exporting the silk and also served as their interpreters in the Persian court.
Although most clothing details are Safavid, some foreign elements appear. The beauty of the art and the richness of the clothes suggests that they were made on commission for the wealthy aristocracy.
On October 25 in London, Sotheby's separates a pair of oils on canvas forming pendants 162 x 83 cm each with a same decoration in reverse composition one another. The man is at lot 115 and the woman at lot 116. Each lot is estimated £ 850K.
The woman wears on her belt a large medal decorated with a crowned figure which has not yet been identified but may become a starting thread to the history of this group of paintings.
The Joseon Dragon
2011 SOLD 3.9 M$ including premium
It is a baluster pot 58 cm high and 44 cm in diameter made in kaolin porcelain. Such a dimension with a perfect geometry is a technical achievement. It is decorated in underglaze cobalt blue, as many of the best ceramics of Southeast Asia.
Two dragons (one on each side) hover among the clouds. Open mouth, the back emitting flames, they are pretty nice and as friendly as the jovial dinosaurs that are offered to today's children.
Each leg ends with five toes with sharp claws. It is a royal sign. The dragons of popular imagery had only three or four fingers. The number 5 symbolizes the elements of the Korean cosmography, water, wood, fire, metal and earth, whose interactions have made this pottery. It is probably no coincidence that this is also the number of fingers of the human hand.
An almost identical jar is one of the masterpieces of the Asian art collection of the Museum of Ceramics in Sèvres.
The sale takes place on March 23 in New York.
POST SALE COMMENT
Great result for this Korean imperial jar for which the estimate had not been published. It was sold for $ 3.9 million including premium.
Blue and White from Korea
2010 SOLD 660 K$ including premium
Its bulging shape (49 cm high, 38 cm maximum diameter) is unusual for a porcelain from this provenance. Made between two hundred and three hundred years ago, it is elegant and very finely decorated with floral arabesques. Its rarity and quality allow Christie's to assume that it was made for the royal family.
It is dated from the Joseon era. This tells us nothing more, because this dynasty ruled Korea during half a millennium.
The Korean art is much more rare at auction than those of their large neighbors, China and Japan, and less known. Thus good surprises are still possible, and even probable, on this market. This lot is estimated $ 500K.
POST SALE COMMENT
The somewhat mysterious origin of this piece could have pushed its price, in such a market dedicated for specialists. Sold 660 K $ including premium, it remained reasonably within its range of estimates.
1785 THE EXQUISITE REALISM OF MARUYAMA
In Japan, graphic art is closely related to furnishings. The screen is an important and original piece. Designed to be folded and moved, it enables to change the look of the room where it is adding to the iconography of the hanging scrolls.
A little over two centuries, Maruyama Okyo caused a scandal in the world of traditional Japanese art by showing landscapes of great realism. His sense of perspective may be due to the influence of Western art. He worked in ink, decorated with soft colors.
Bonhams is selling on May 12 in London a pair of screens bearing the signature and seal of the master. Each consists of six paper panels of 172cm x 61 cm. We see a beach, the sea and its waves, birds standing and in flight. The text states: Okyo painted it by the middle of spring of Snake year (which provides the precise date of 1785 of our calendar).
The Bonhams press release alludes without details on a millionaire auction in New York. I found it at Christie's: on September 18, 2007, a pair of screens depicting cranes in close-up was sold $ 1.1 million including expenses.
The two artworks are not comparable, because the screen of Christie's was plated with gold leaf. Bonhams gives for its lot an estimate of £ 155 K (or, if you prefer, ¥ 23 million).
NO POCKET FOR KIMONOS
2009 SOLD 58 K$ INCLUDING PREMIUM
To carry things, the Japanese used small bags hanging from the waistband of their kimono. The best known on the art market is the inro. To avoid these precious bags slipping, their cords were blocked by a small device known as a netsuke.
The netsuke is by design a small object. Its first role was utilitarian, and it was made in all types of common materials. From the late eighteenth century, it becomes an art in itself, as the subjects represented are so varied: animals, chimeras, demons, characters.
The creativity of the artists is unlimited, but all these artworks have one thing in common: they are malicious and friendly. The netsuke became a much popular collector's item that can be found at all prices.
Many are signed, but signatures are endless and make it difficult to establish the history of these artists. Masanao name is one of the most prestigious, but it is affected to several homonyms.
On September 16 in New York, Bonhams sells a carp made in ivory in the late eighteenth century by Masanao at Kyoto. This netsuke is estimated $ 40K. The fish is shown twisted in a compact position in a diameter of 5 cm. It was signed in an oval reserve on one of the fins.
POST SALE COMMENT
Very good result for the carp of Masanao: 47.5 K $ hammer, 58 K $ including fees.
1787-1793 THE TIGER OF MYSORE
2009 SOLD 390 K£ INCLUDING PREMIUM
Bonhams reminds us in its press release: Tipu Sahib said that he preferred to live one day as a tiger than a lifetime as a sheep. Nicknamed the Tiger of Mysore, the Sultan was one of the main protagonists in the fight against the British in India, during the wars of colonization.
During a routine valuation, Bonhams found in England a corner ornament of the throne of the Sultan. It is a stylized tiger head 6.9 cm high, showing the teeth in a non friendly attitude. It consists of a sheet of gold plated on a resin and inlaid with gems. It is presented on a marble pedestal mounted on four claw feet in gilded metal.
Experts date it between 1787 and 1793. It was thus not long in place, since the throne was dismantled during the sacking of the capital, Seringapatam, in 1799. Tipu died in battle during this event.
The sale will take place on April 2 in London. The treasures are priceless: Bonhams does not provide an estimate for this one.
POST SALE COMMENT
Very interesting result for this prestigious but small piece: 330 K £ excluding fees, 390 K £ fees included.
1810 COOL EVENING ON THE SUMIDA RIVER BY HOKUSAI
The Ukiyo-e is a unique and famous feature of Japanese iconography. It depicts the daily activities and the varied pleasures of the floating worlds.
The sample that Christie's shows on March 17 in New York has three qualities that make it exceptional.
It is not a print but an original on silk, treated with ink, colors and gold. It is the work of one of the greatest artists, Hokusai, in one of his best periods (circa 1810). It is quite large (53 x 115 cm).
It shows three young women: two ladies and a servant. There is no doubt we are on the banks of the Sumida River beneath a willow tree, when the summer evening becomes cool .
The details give life to this interesting and fun composition. With her sleeves up, the servant is in the river, busy catching eels for dinner. The ladies do not pay attention. One of them is serious, but the other, behind her in a much less wise position, hides a pipe on one side and a tobacco tray on the other.
For this slice of life from two centuries ago, it takes 800 K $.