In recent years, relatively recently-produced Chinese porcelain has started to make waves in the auction rooms. Early 20th century pieces and many of those created right through the Republic period (1912-49) are now just as much in demand as rather earlier pieces.
Cotswold auctioneers Chorley’s forthcoming sale, on Tuesday 20 & Wednesday 21 March, offers an important private collection of Republican era porcelain. The highlight will be a set of four rectangular porcelain plaques by Bi Botao (1885-1961) representing the four seasons. Bi Botao was a member of the well-known group ‘The Eight Friends of Zhushan’. The group comprised the best porcelain artists of the period and revitalised the Chinese porcelain industry after the political unrest in 19th Century China and the subsequent fall of the Qing dynasty. The plaques, which are delicately painted with frogs, a spider, turtles and a snake respectively, estimate £18,000 – £22,000 They were acquired by avid collector Peter Wain.
The Wain provenance is particularly important as it was he who was among the first to bring Republican porcelain to the attention of the West. His great-grandfather was a potter in Stoke on Trent and Wain himself worked at the Royal Doulton factory during his holidays when he was a student. During his army service he was based in Hong Kong from 1968-1971 and it was here that his love of history and of ceramics led him to his vocation. This was the height of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and he was able to buy 20th century pieces including ceramics, paintings and posters at very reasonable prices.
On leaving the army he became a dealer in Oriental porcelain. He initially purchased Republican era wares cheaply on America’s west coast, where they were generally available owing to waves of emigration from China after the Japanese invasion. The items purchased in America formed the basis of his first exhibition at Olympia in 1990. The market was limited but enough people expressed an interest in them to persuade him that he should pursue this line.
Drawing on this encouragement, Wain began sourcing items for his 1993 exhibition ‘Heavenly Pieces’ and undertook his first buying trip to China. ‘Heavenly Pieces’ turned out to be a huge success – it sold out. The present sale includes items from this exhibition including a pair of Meiping vases, circa 1920, decorated prunus blossom in bold enamels in the Yongzheng Imperial style. The inscribed poem refers to immortality ‘One Thousand Autumns’ supposedly conferred by peaches and linghzi, estimate £6,000-8,000.
After the success of this exhibition numerous buying trips were made; with challenging economic circumstances in China it was possible to buy important pieces without difficulty. Several such trips preceded the 1998 exhibition ‘Awaiting Spring’ which focused on Qianjiang art on Chinese porcelain. Several items from that exhibition are on offer in our March sale including a pair of square section vases by Zhang Yun (Zhang Ziying) dated 1898 and painted with coordinated landscapes, these are estimated at £800-1200.
Wain believed that the age of a piece or fashion should not impact on our appreciation of the best quality pots. He acted as agent for the contemporaneous Chinese potter Zlai Xaio Xiang, who undertook porcelain painting demonstrations at his Olympia and NEC fair stands. One such demonstration piece dating to 1997 is a decorated brush pot. The growth in the market for Republican porcelain was largely driven by Peter Wain and with the rise in prices even they have now begun to be copied – previously only a problem with much earlier Chinese porcelain. This sale provides collectors with a rare opportunity to buy pieces sourced by Peter Wain and, therefore, of sound provenance.