Outstanding Chinese ceramics on show in Manila’s Ayala Museum

Ayala Museum ext lr

Ayala Museum, Makati Manila, exterior   Photo Paul Harris

Last week, we had the opportunity to visit The Ayala Museum in the Makati business district of Manila, the capital of The Philippines. A privately owned museum, it is notable for its wide-ranging collection of ceramics, approximately 70% of which derive from China. The collection, given on long term loan by The Roberto T Villanueva Foundation, represents decades of collecting of thousands of items dated from the 9th to the 19th centuries. Some of the items held, in our opinion, surpass even exhibits at The National Palace Museum in Taipei and those at The Palace Museum and The Capital Museum in Beijing.

blue & white twin bird water dropper 14thc

A 14th/15th century double-headed water dropper (detail)

The current exhibition is entitled Millennium of Contact: Chinese and Southeast Asian Trade Ceramics in The Philippines. Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics excavated in the Philippines effectively tell the story of how the country forged social and commercial ties with China and its neighbours. This display of more than 500 ceramics provides one of the most comprehensive surveys of Chinese and Southeast Asian trade wares found in the Philippines, spanning a thousand years.

These trade ceramics are not only a feast for the eyes, but their origins and the periods in which they were produced also provide important data about the past. There is evidence of the lively trade that occurred between China and Southeast Asia. China exported ceramics to The Philippines and, in return, secured supplies of rare corals and stones, silks and spices. This trade went on for many hundreds of years. Some of the ceramics were developed specifically for this overseas market but others would pass for Imperial wares: most of those on display and dating from after the end of the 13th century were manufactured in Jingdezhen.

Most of these ceramics have now been at the Ayala Museum for 25 years. One of the boards in the exhibition tells the fascinating story of the Grau sisters whose lives were dedicated to the collection. One, Consuelo Grau, was married to Roberto T Villanueva. Her sister, Remedios Grau, curated the Collection. Both sisters were students of the anthropologist H Otley Beyer. Today, the vast collection is held at Ayala and the pieces currently on display represent but a fraction of the total holdings. The signage for the exhibition is excellent and the layout, by country and chronology, is logical and apposite. Our only cavil is the absence of support materials like a catalogue, postcards or hand sheets. However, we are assured that a catalogue may appear at a later date.

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General view of the exhibition at The Ayala Museum, Manila, The Philippines

Courtesy of the Roberto T Villanueva Foundation and the Ayala Museum we are able to reproduce below some of the very fine exhibits on show.

b yuhuchun vase buffalo rider

Above Blue & white yuhuchun vase 14th century; iron-spotted figure of a buffalo rider, 14th century. Both manufactured in Jingdezhen

b fluted celadon vasePrint

Above Fluted celadon vase 14th century; blue & white bowl decorated with mandarin ducks and lotus pond design, 14th century

Possibly one of the most interesting of the exhibits is a 9th century white globular jar from Henan Province. The exploding globular body of this white jar bears a shape that is strongly identified with wares produced in the 9th century. That part of the glaze has flaked off is evidence that the glaze did not fuse well with the body, probably due to under-firing.

b tangjar

White ware came into Southeast Asian markets only during the Song dynasty when silk, porcelain, and lacquer ware were traded in lieu of diminishing copper cash in 1291. White-glazed ceramics have since then been highly prized in China and elsewhere. There are other 9th century white wares from Hebei Province that have been found in the Philippines in small quantities. The Tang dynasty (618-906 A.D.) saw most of the white ware produced in north China. This 9th century white jar is the earliest piece in the Villanueva collection. It is from the kiln in Gongxian, Henan Province, north China. Because the vast majority of Chinese trade wares found in the Philippines are from kilns in south China, this white jar is a rare find (Courtesy Virtual Collection of Asian Masterpieces).

The Exhibition is curated by Rita Tan, President of The Oriental Ceramic Society of The Philippines, and was made possible through the support of the Roberto T. Villanueva Foundation
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Outside the Ayala Museum last week    Photo Paul Harris

10cm. bowl sold for half a million at Woolley & Wallis


A 10 cm. doucai lingzhi bowl: all-in price a shade under half a million pounds sterling

Last week’s Woolley & Wallis sale provided some very good results for the Salisbury auctioneers. A particularly successful result was achieved for a very small Chinese doucai lingzhi bowl estimated at £100,000 to £150,000 and which got £340,000 on the hammer. The end price was just short of half a million as the item was subject to 20% VAT, with premium (and VAT on premium) all to be added, bringing the ultimate cost to over £480,000.

Just 10.4 cm. in diameter, the bowl in question bore a six-character mark to base and was of the Yongzheng period (1723-35). Reputedly acquired in Hong Kong in the 1950s or ’60s, it was bought by a private Chinese collector.

Small Yongzheng cups and bowls are becoming quite a profitable speciality at Woolley & Wallis. Only last November a pair of doucai lingzhi wine cups were sold for a premium inclusive price of £378,200 in the Salisbury rooms.


Jasmine, a Chinese telephone bidder for Woolley & Wallis, pictured with one of the jardinières. The pair sold for £150,000 hammer.

Another high achiever at the sale was Lot 325 – a fine and rare pair of Chinese ImperiaI pale celadon jade models of jardinières. Qianlong, they were particularly rare and beautiful,the flaring bodies raised on three short feet, each jardinière issuing a gilt metal blossoming spray, one of prunus, the flowers in white jade, coral and enamel, the other peach, its flowers and leaves in agate and hardstone, with smaller petals in kingfisher feather, each with a small bird perched in its branches, its body adorned with kingfisher feathers. At the bases rockwork, flowering rohdea, narcissus, nandina (the holy bamboo) and lingzhi fungi are depicted in lapis lazuli, red coral, amber and spinach-green jade, the jardinières each raised on an elaborately carved reticulated five-legged zitan stand, and bearing paper labels for John Sparks Ltd. They were 32.5cm and 31cm respectively, 39cm and 37.5cm overall.

Estimated at £40,000-60,000, they went to £150,000 hammer. Thirty-five lots from the collection of Robert Frederick Hathaway (d. 1991) of Cape Town, South Africa, sold for £240,000 representing a 100% sold rate. The total for the 2-day sale was a very respectable £2.7m.

Cranes fly high and tiger leaps at Dreweatts!


 Cranes appeared to prove their legendary auspicious powers in an auction at Dreweatts Donnington Priory last week, when a pair of cloisonné enamel double crane censers flew beyond their pre-sale estimate, selling for £124,000 to a bidder on the phone. They had been estimated at £6-8,000! Earlier in the sale, a Warring States-Western Han style, bronze model of a tiger also made an equally impressive £64,480 against an estimate of £3-5,000.


Early in the sale, Lot 8 offered was a Warring States-Western Han style, powerfully cast tiger, prowling forward with raised head, quasi-triangular ears, eyes alert and pug- nosed snout that enhances the visual effect of its wide open mouth, ferociously baring its teeth, in an aggressive attitude, inlaid with gold and silver designs of clouds, spirals, geometrical and fur-like patterns, all on a rich background of maroon-patinated bronze, the neck incised with two character inscription, 13.2cm long, with a19th century hardwood collector’s fitted box 仿战国西汉 错金银青铜石虎形. Dreweatt’s catalogue benefited from well referenced information on both the lots which scored high in the sale which was, surely, no coincidence.
‘TIGERS IN CHINESE ART  The tiger is one of the oldest and most revered animals in Chinese history. According to Han mythology, the tiger was one of the Four symbols for the cardinal points, representing the seven constellations of the west and the autumn season. In conjunction with the Green Dragon of the West, the Vermillion Bird of the South and the Black Tortoise of the North, the tiger positioned the burial within the spatial-temporal features of the universe.
‘In literature, the Queen Mother of the Western paradise, one of the most important deities of the Han Daoist pantheon, is described as having tiger’s teeth and tail. In burials, the deity sat on a throne decorated with a tiger and a dragon, the opposing yin-yang forces moving the universe, which the Queen Mother transcended.
Also underscoring auspicious symbolism for peace, tigers were associated with a successful reign, and were highly regarded as protectors and guardians for their power, strength and courage.
‘The character hu , 虎 , for tiger, is in fact homophone with hu , 护 , meaning protection, which must have clearly been sought to protect the tomb occupants against the malign influences they may encounter in their afterlife. In conjunction with other real and imaginary creatures, tigers also decorated the base of Han miniaturised mountainous landscape, a visual metaphor for the barriers of human morality that must be crossed whilst transitioning to immortality.
(..) Having transcended sacred mountains, one will gain supernatural powers, controlling the wind and rain, and finally reach to Heaven, the Abode of the Celestial Emperor,” mentioned the “Masters of Huainan”,Huainanzi , 淮南子 , a philosophical classic compiled in the second century BC, referring to the tortuous journey through a winding obstacle-laden landscape, which one must embark on, in search of the elixir of eternal life.
‘During the Han dynasty, the soul was expected to encounter many dangers on its journey to paradise, including malignant ghosts, spirits, and ferocious beasts. Mountains were highly praised in China for their high peaks, close connections with heaven, the ability to produce water, life-giving element, and their many cavities, where immortals were thought to inhabit. The Huainanzi , for instancerefers to the mountain as a Chilly Wind Peak climbed by people who achieved deathlessness and became gods.
‘Mountains were also conceptualised as treacherous realms for their inhabitants had unpredictable, supernatural, powers and were thus considered as potentially malignant. “If someone entered the mountain possessed of no magical arts, he will certainly suffer harm. Some will fall victim to acute diseases or be wounded by weapons (…) Sometimes the man will encounter tigers, wolves, and poisonous insects. One cannot enter the mountain lightly !” mentions the “Master embracing simplicity,”Baopuzi , 抱樸子 , compiled between the third and fourth century AD.
‘Clearly, in addition to serving as the gateways to the land of immortality, mountains were also considered as the borderlands through which the soul must pass after death. A comparable tiger was included in Eskenazi’s 1998 exhibition, published in Giuseppe Eskenazi, 1998, Animals and Animal Designs in Chinese Art , New York: catalogue no. 5, foldout cover of catalogue ; another example will be offered by Bonhams for sale in New York on 16th March 2015, estimated $200,00-300,000.
‘A pair of mat or “sleeve weights” cast in form of gold and silver inlaid tigers, were included in Christian Deydier’s exhibition at the XXVIII Biennale Des Antiquaries, Paris, September 2014, published in Christian Deydier, 2014, Ancient Chinese Bronzes , Paris, catalogue n. 9, p. 49. For additional references see Shawn Eichman, 2000, Taoism and the arts of China , Chicago, p. 129; Lukas Nickel, 2000, Some Han dynasty paintings in the British Museum , vol. 60, n. 1, p. 59-78; Wu Hung, 2010, The Art of the Yellow Springs, Understanding Chinese tombs, Honolulu. ‘

Within half an hour, the sale saw another remarkable result when Lot 27, a pair of cloisonné crane censers, came up for sale. They were catalogued as A pair of cloisonné enamel double crane censers, each group finely modelled as a large crane and young standing on an elaborate champlevé and cloisonné enamel rockwork- shaped pedestals interspersed with blooming flowers, standing on tall legs detailed with cylindrical bands, the smaller crane with one leg slightly bent, their long necks naturalistically curved, the taller crane grasping a double-peach sprig in its pointed beak, the bodies and feathers realistically detailed in black and white enamels within gilded borders, with the red crests wings covering the hollow body, 150cm high


Again, Dreweatts showed the advantage of real cataloguing as a result of diligent research, ‘Cranes are an important component of the Chinese decorative system which is based on the use of images whose auspicious symbolism was conveyed by their intrinsic qualities and the homophonic nature of the Chinese language. The underlying principle to such a system was the belief that all natural phenomena and things on Earth were an expression of Heaven’s will towards the human conduct. Auspicious events, therefore, were reproduced in writing or images in China and believed to function just like their physical counterpart and thus perpetuate their benign effects. In this way, buildings, tombs, gardens, paintings, ceramic, lacquer, metal wares and textiles were decorated with flowers, birds, animals and other auspicious symbols.
‘Cranes have a long-lived tradition of connection with immortality beliefs in China. As birds with a long life span, they were associated with longevity, immortality and wisdom, especially following the rise of Daoism from the Han dynasty. We may recall the flying cranes appearing on the domed ceiling of the tomb of Wang Chuzhi of the Five Dynasties and the high-ranking tombs of the Liao, and the frequent occurrence of cranes in relation to the miraculous rebirth as immortal beings in vernacular literature dating from the 12th century.
‘Cranes were also praised for their ability to dance to music and described in the Ruiying tu of the sixth century BC as gathering around the legendary Yellow Emperor as he practiced music on Kunlun mountains, accompanying scholars as they played music in Tang and Song paintings and appearing in official celebrations and gatherings. Accompanying the rites, music provided a moral and physical definition to a dynastic rule. In this context, therefore, cranes were interpreted as heavenly indicators of the emperor’s benevolence and sage governance. It may not be incidental that the word for crane is in fact homophone with the Chinese word for harmony he.
‘Cranes became even more closely related to a successful reign/emperor during the prosperous period of Northern Song Emperor Huizong (r. AD 1100-1126) as the search for auspicious images increased and the Xuanhe ruilan ce, comprising some thousand volumes recording auspicious sightings, was compiled. During this time, cranes appeared as pennants and employed as part of the imperial regalia that accompanied many official affairs on the court. Cranes also appeared in many Song court paintings. Cranes above Kaifeng, in particular, has been attributed to or commissioned by Emperor Huizong. The work depicts twenty cranes appearing in flight above the Golden Gate to the Imperial Palace on the 3rd day of the Lantern Festival – believed to be 26th February 1126) as if sent by Heaven to sanction and celebrate one of the most glorious days of Huizong’s reign when the court was at its highest splendour and the emperor was united with his subjects as they wished him longevity for the year to come.
It may therefore be little surprising that cranes were also ubiquitously found at the court of the Qing emperors, especially that of Qianlong (AD 1735-1795), emperor known for his virtuousness and appreciation of antiquity. In this instance, cranes not only appeared in paintings but even three-dimensionally as components of miniaturised immortal palaces made of jades, agate and other precious stones and in greater size flanking the imperial throne, such as the one presented here. Standing on an elaborate cloisonné stand, not only does this creature serve a highly visual appealing purpose, but in much the same way as the glorious emperors of the past, was surely employed by the Imperial House of the Qing as a powerful symbol embodying the contemporary brilliance of the Chinese Empire.
‘For the occurrence of cranes in the arts of the Qing dynasty see Pine, plum and cranes painted by Shen Quan (AD 1682-1760), Cranes against Sky and Waters by Yu Xing (AD 1692-after 1767), and the miniature landscape representing the immortal island of Penglai in gold, pearls and precious stones, all part of the Imperial Collection at the Palace Museum in Beijing and illustrated in the Royal Academy catalogue China. The Three Emperors 1662-1795, 2005, figs 268-269.
For an account on the interpretation of auspicious images see Jessica Rawson, The power of images: the model universe of the First Emperor and its legacy, in Historical Research 75, May 2002, p.123-154 and The Auspicious Universe, by the same author, in China. The Three Emperors 1662-1795, Royal Academy, 2005, p. 270-305.
For an account on the interpretation of cranes at the court of Huizong see Peter Sturman, Cranes above Kaifeng: The Auspicious Image at the Court of Huizong, in Ars Orientalis, 1990, p. 33-68.
For the occurrence of cranes during the Han dynasty see Anna Seidel, Post-Mortem Immortality or The Taoist Resurrection of the Body, 1987.’



Unusual Chinese art image 61 Mechanical toy from 1970s

This is a mechanical toy goldfish made in China between 1975 and 1979 and which is held in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The fish is made of lithographed tin plateand plastic with a clockwork mechanism. The eyes, nose and tail fin are fashioned in plastic. When wound up, it moves on two wheels and the side fins open and close.

Size 5cm (height) by 9.5cm. by 11.5cm.

Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum via Tumblr Orientally Yours


Has Liu Yiqian got his $36m. back?

It seemed like the sale of the century when Shanghai taxi driver turned billionaire, 52 year-old Liu Yiqian, spent over US$36million on a tiny 500 year-old chicken cup at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong in July 2014. Those who thought he was mad, felt their fears confirmed when he paid for it ( with 24 separate swipes of his Amex card) and promptly sat down and drank tea from it.wpid-liu-drinks-from-chicken-cup-lr.jpg.jpeg

It seemed like an awful lot of money: he beat London art dealer Eskenazi to the post. But in Shanghai three weeks ago, we picked up word on the street that he has made all the $36m. back already. Apparently, he licensed reproduction of the chicken bowl and more than 100,000 have been produced in Jingdezhen, the porcelain city. They sell at around $50-60 a piece, complete with elegant box and are, indeed, selling like hotcakes! There is also a rather more expensive replica at around $1,000. He presented one of the replicas to the UK’s Prince William on his visit to Shanghai recently.

The production quality is really quite good and it has caught on with Chinese who can’t quite afford the real thing but would like to grace their coffee table with something associated with great wealth. There is also a rather more expensive reproduction for the better heeled.



Two views of the reproduction chicken bowl, above


Silk Route explorer’s pendant to come up for sale at Woolley & Wallis


A jade pendant, with an interesting story behind it, is to be sold on the 20th May by Woolley & Wallis in their Asian Sale. The Chinese white and grey pendant comes from the collection of Swedish silk route explorer Sven Hedin. Delicately carved with a fruiting grape vine, with two squirrels clambering amongst the fruit and a single bat picked out in white and grey, it is suspended from a cord with a blue bead, 5.5cm. in height.

Sven Hedin (1865-1952) was a Swedish pioneer and one of the world’s great explorers. He travelled extensively throughout his life in China, Tibet, Central Asia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Russia. In 1901, he discovered the ancient Chinese garrison town of Lou-Lan in the Taklamakan dessert and the many manuscripts he found there are of immense historical importance and value. He was also a geographer, photographer and topographer, producing the first detailed maps of the Pamir Mountains, the Taklamakan Desert, Tibet, the Silk Road and the Transhimalaya (Gangdise), as well as publishing several works about his expeditions and discoveries.

Provenance: from the collection of Sven Hedin (1865-1952), and thence by descent. It is estimated at £4,000-6,000 and would make an interesting purchase for someone who likes a story behind their acquisition.


Tong Bin the Immortal Father of porcelain manufacture

In the Chinese porcelain capital of Jingdezhen is to be found The Wind and Fire Immortal Temple in the grounds of the city’s Ancient Kiln Museum. The temple is dedicated to Tong Bin, the Immortal of Wind and Fire.

 wpid-jingdezhen-ancient-kiln-museum-tong-bin-lr.jpg.jpegShrine to Tong Bin, Ancient Kiln Museum, Jingdezhen

By reputation, Tong Bin was the master of kiln firing in the city during the Wanli period who sacrificed his life firing the giant Imperial jar. As a result he was honoured as the kiln god. The temple itself was built during the Jiaqing period (1796-1820) and is 485 sq m in size with areas for the Ancestral Hall and Bedchambers and a deep pool located in the centre of the structure.


Goats of the year at Chiswick Auctions?


An unusual picture is scheduled to come up at Chiswick Auctions on May 5 in their second specialist Asian art sale. It is being titled Welcoming Spring and depicts a figure riding a goat and surrounded by a further 81 goats. It is, of course, the year of the goat but that does not help in explaining what it is all about . . .

The number 81 is possibly significant. We recently saw a picture featuring 81 gods but they were depicted in traditional human form. The number 81 is auspicious . . .

This week’s sale boasts 300 lots and the goat picture is estimated at a reasonable £3,000-5,000.

Rare and beautiful Imperial jade models to come up at Woolley & Wallis

There is a very beautiful (and also very rare) pair of Chinese Imperial pale celadon jade models of jardinières coming up at Woolley & Wallis’s Asian sale later in May. Said to be Qianlong, they would appear to be quite outstanding, they also have some provenance and are estimated at £40,000-60,000.


The flaring bodies are raised on three short feet, each jardinière issuing a gilt metal blossoming spray, one of prunus; the flowers in white jade, coral and enamel, the other peach, its flowers and leaves in agate and hardstone, with smaller petals in kingfisher feather, each with a small bird perched in its branches, its body adorned with kingfisher feathers.

At the bases rockwork, flowering rohdea, narcissus, nandina (the holy bamboo) and lingzhi fungi are depicted in lapis lazuli, red coral, amber and spinach-green jade, the jardinières each raised on an elaborately carved reticulated five-legged zitan stand, paper labels for John Sparks Ltd., 32.5cm and 31cm respectively, 39cm and 37.5cm overall.

Provenance: property of a distinguished private collection, purchased from John Sparks Ltd.

References: Classics of the Forbidden City, Architecture and Decoration of the Forbidden City, p.189, no.155 where cloisonné and jade examples in the Chu Xiu Gong palace can be seen; see also Imperial Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, p.249, no.287, where a pair of larger jade jardinières are illustrated; and The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Treasures of Imperial Court, pp.34-49 for further of related pieces.



What’s really going on in China

opinion hl

We have just returned from three weeks in China, visiting Shanghai, Jingdezhen and Beijing, and are currently travelling in Japan. It is more than ten years since we lived in Shanghai and it is quite remarkable to reflect on how things have changed dramatically in the last decade or so.

It was staggering to spend, at the Paulaner Brauhaus in Xintiandi (downtown Shanghai), a swingeing £9.80 (US$15) on a pint of draught beer. Ten years ago, that would have paid for a week’s modest drinking. It was equally staggering, in Japan this week, to pay just over £2 (US$3.00) on a pint of draught beer. It all used to be quite the other way round. Japan was the most expensive country in East Asia and up and coming China amongst the cheapest.

Now it has all changed. Mr Shinzo Abe has introduced measures to boost the Japanese economy using central bank easing (Abenomics as it is known). The yen has declined in value dramatically and, all of a sudden, Japan is a bargain basement country. What’s more, it is full of Chinese tourists (at least Tokyo is) and they seem to be frantically buying up rice cookers. Apparently, they are a fraction of the price they are across the water in Shanghai.

Are there any messages here for those of us in the world of art and antiques?We think there are. China is in the process of transit from a low cost economy where most everything was cheap to a high cost economy. There will, of course, always be a large section of the population in China which is cripplingly poor but there is an ever growing middle class which has large savings (often in a hole in the wall rather than a bank) and spare cash at the end of the month.

The pressure of all this cash is bound to push up prices, quite apart from the aspirational factor whereby the newly wealthy seek to improve themselves and their neighbours with newly acquired high taste and culture. Hundreds of millions of Chinese will be looking for a piece of porcelain here, and an ancient scroll there.

We think we know what that implies. The giddy rise in prices in China is set to continue and that can’t be bad for business . . .