Here is our pick of Asian Art in London at 20

We spent four days seeing as much as we could of the 20th year of Asian Art in London, a veritable panoply of wonderful things on display and many on offer. Here are our favorite objects and exhibits, in no particular order.

20171109_160458 Eskenazi Limestone Hands being a portion of a much larger funerary piece and curiously modern in its appearance. Northern Qi period 550-575. Xiangtangshan Cave Temples. From Eskenazi’s exhibition of Six Dynasties Art from the Norman A Kurland Collection.  Photo Paul Harris

20171109_160633 Eskenazi Two Caparisoned Horses From the same outstanding exhibition, two painted earthenware horses, Northern Qi. Photo Paul Harris

20171109_160903 Eskenazi  Two Figures Earthenware Northern Wei period (early 8th century). As with all the Eskenazi exhibits, superb lighting which made photography a delight! Photo Paul Harris

20171110_105831Marchant  Kangxi Famille Verte Within their Kensington Church Street premises old-established dealers Marchant held a breathtaking exhibition of Kangxi famille verte pieces put together by them from stock items dating back more than a decade and including several bearing the provenance of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A great show.  Photo Paul Harris

20171109_155703 Ben Janssens  Their lease at an end in their Jermyn Street premises, Ben Janssens put on his show, as usual marked by the exquisite small objects on display, in temporary space in Old Bond Street. We particularly liked the exhibit in the foreground Group of Black Pottery Horses, Figures and a Carriage (Yuan Dynasty 1279-1368).  Photo Paul Harris

20171109_162345 Berwald Our attention was grabbed by this evocative rendering of a Silk Road mercant and his camel. Tang Dynasty. Photo Paul Harris

20171110_161203 Cohen & Cohen showed their usual large selection of Chinese export pieces, this time in the capacious premises of Colnaghis in St James’s which served to show off the exhibits at their best. Probably the most eyecatching was a pair of wall sconces, design attributed to Cornelius Pronck (1736-40) and entitled The Flamethrower. If you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it . . . offers please in the region of £280,000 for these exquisite pieces.   Photo Paul Harris

20171109_132648East Meets West Exhibition at The Design Centre in Chelsea concentrating on the work of contemporary young Japanese and Chinese artists. Centre, The Winter at Lianghe Village (2011) a woodcut  by Yu Chengyou.  Photo Paul Harris


Our favorites from Asian Art in London . . .

Wandering around Asian Art in London two weeks ago, we saw a good many desirable things which we would have loved to take home. Here is our selection of what we thought of as the most desirable things to grace our own halls. If we only had the cash, of course!

The first two were found at Ben Janssen’s in Jermyn Street where he had his usual selection of captivating small objects, supplemented by an excellent catalogue. His catalogues go straight to my reference shelves as soon as I get home . . .


A bronze incense burner in the form of an elephant

Ming dynasty, 16th – 17th century

Height: 6 1/2 inches, 16.5 cm

Length: 6 1/2 inches, 16.5 cm

A bronze incense burner in the form of an elephant, standing foursquare with its head turned back and its trunk curled between the tusks. The separately cast, openwork cover is decorated with bunched lotus flowers. The elephant wears a howdah engraved with lotus flowers and is richly attired with caparisons composed of ‘jewelled’ straps and tassels. The rim of the cover is engraved with a six-character mark of Xuande (Da Ming Xuande Nian Zi). The elephant’s fittings were originally inlaid in semi-precious stones.

The elephant (xiang) is known to have existed in China during the Bronze Age. Proof that the animal was a popular subject in art from very early times is provided most spectacularly by a large Shang dynasty zun (12th – 11th century BC) in the form of an elephant in the collection of the Musée Guimet in Paris.[ The elephant became extinct in China soon afterwards, but the animal’s enduring popularity as a decorative motif symbolising strength and high moral standards[ is evident from the many extant representations in practically all available materials in Chinese art. A richly caparisoned elephant is often seen in the presence of the Emperor, either as a bearer of tribute gift or as an exotic animal in the Emperor’s menagerie. The hollow body and the openwork cover suggest that this bronze elephant was designed as an incense burner. Although the cover of the present incense burner is engraved with the six-character mark of the emperor Xuande, who reigned from 1425 to 1435, the piece is unlikely to date from that period, but the compactness of the animal and the fine detail of the casting certainly suggests a Ming dynasty date, albeit of a somewhat later period.


We just love the restrained elegance and delicate proportions of this miniature huanghuali table with marble top which is late Ming to early Qing dynasty, 17th – 18th century.

Length: 13 inches, 33 cm

Width: 5 3/4 inches, 14.7 cm

Height: 5 1/8 inches, 13 cm

It is a miniature table made of huanghuali, supported on two pairs of recessed legs located at both ends. The rectangular top is inlaid with a slab of marble and has everted flanges above a shaped, beaded apron. The frontward curving legs are supported by spandrels carved with chi dragons in openwork. The marble slab combines whitish and greyish colours, together with some linear red veins. The wood is well polished and well patinated.

  • This piece is a miniature version of a large qiaotouan table with recessed legs, and embodies all the characteristics of the form.  Similar small table stands with decorative stone panels are shown in the 18th-century illustrations to the novel Jin Ping Mei (‘Flower in a Golden Vase’), where they support the ‘Three Friends of Incense’ – the incense tool vase, incense burner and incense powder box.[1]  Stone panels are especially suitable for incense stands as they resist scorching, and their figuration evokes images that change according to the viewer’s mood or the side from which it is viewed. A comparable 17th-century miniature qiaotouan table made of huanghuali, similarly inlaid with a marble panel on its top, is in the collection of the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture.[2]
  • Provenance: the collection of Louise Hawley Stone (1904 – 1997), Toronto, Canada. She was the Royal Ontario Museum’s first volunteer and was also a major donor, fundraiser, Board member and committee chair.

[1] Wang, Shixiang and Evarts, C. Masterpieces from the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, Chinese Art Foundation, Chicago and San Francisco, 1995, p. 82

[2] Wang, Shixiang and Evarts, C. op. cit. no. 86, pp. 182-3


We found this highly unusual blue, straw and amber-glazed model of a recumbent buffalo (Tang Dynasty, 8th century) At Littleton & Hennessey in St James’. It is modelled recumbent on a oblong base with its right foreleg outstretched, glazed in blue with straw-glazed highlights, the base glazed in blue and amber. Dimensions: 18.5 cm wide x 12 cm high

Domestic animals were popular subjects in the Tang tombs, and are amongst some of the most charming and playful examples of sancai-pottery. The current buffalo is unusual in that it is depicted recumbent, while most of the buffalo we see are depicted standing. However, a seated mythical beast in the Tenri Sankokan Museum Collection in Nara, Japan, has very similar modelling, with its left front leg tucked underneath, and right foreleg outstretched. Compare also the model of donkey in the Shaanxi History Museum, which is blue-glazed like the current piece.

Provenance: The Sze Yuan Tang Collection (思源堂藏)

You will note we have not given any prices on these outstanding pieces. As the old adage goes, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it!




Tang taste for the voluptuous revealed

Ben Janssens TEFAF (1)

Going Through Ben Janssen’s handsome 2015 catalogue, just officially launched at TEFAF, we were struck by the elegant simplicity of this Tang dynasty pottery figure of a court lady, most probably someone of great importance.

This charming mid-8th century piece tells us much about the Tang predilection for full-bodied, voluptuous women. The positively plump figure with the hairstyle known as ‘falling horse bun’ (duomaji) represents the apogee of beauty at the time. This concept of beauty is rounded off by cloud-shaped shoes and a high waisted robe which falls in pleats to the floor. The lady represented here might well have been concubine to the Emperor (the painting  Emperor’s Favourite on a Spring Excursion depicts a woman similarly dressed in the form of concubine Madame Guoguo).

You could have a piece of that, so to speak, for 75,000 euros . . . More information at

Ben Janssens TEFAF (2)

‘Doctor’s model’ or ‘erotic figure’? The Chinese naked lady conundrum

We have just received Ben Janssens magnificent 2015 catalogue. Many of the objects illustrated, and described in learned text , are quite breathtaking in their beauty. All will be on display and for sale (unless previously sold) at TEFAF which starts in Maastricht on March 13.


One small item grabbed our attention almost immediately. The Ivory Erotic Figure of a Lady is a particularly exquisite figure of a reclining, naked Chines lady: the sort of figure usually described in auctioneers’ catalogues as a ‘doctor’s lady’. They were supposedly used by Chinese doctors prevented by etiquette from touching or viewing the naked bodies of their patients. The patient-doctor relationship could be sanitised by the use of such models for pointing out areas of discomfort.

However, in a scholarly text attached to the catalogue details of the piece, the ‘doctor’s lady’ concept appears to be discounted. The careful placement of the lady’s left hand between her legs is simply an erotic device, apparently.

Ben Janssen suggests, ‘The precise function of these figures has been widely debated by historians, leading one to the conclusion that they were likely to be crafted as erotic toys (see F M Bertholet Concubines and Courtesans: Women in Chinese Erotic Art, Brussels, 2010). It has been recorded by the Ming scholar Shen De-Fu (1578-1642) that ivory carvers ‘made small figures of pairs in sexual congress which were of the highest artistic quality’. The present example is especially interesting with a towering hairstyle indicating a high courtly rank, and the uppermost point of the hair knot with a small ruyi symbolising longevity. An erotic figure of a reclining nude lady in a similar pose but with somewhat rougher carving, dated earlier to the Ming dynasty, is in the Irving Collection.

‘Two other closely comparable reclining nude ladies, similar in pose and dated  to the Shunzi (1643-1661) and Kangxi (1662-1722) periods of the Qing dynasty are in the Muwen tang collection.’

This relatively new assessment of the role of such figures may not, however, represent the whole story. We know that the earliest use of the ladies dates back to the Ming Dynasty in the 1300s and they were still being used as recently as 100 years ago.  It is often suggested that doctors would use a carved wooden stick with a carved ivory hand on the end that was positioned as if pointing.  That way the physician wouldn’t have any physical contact even with the small figure, taking the  modesty factor even further.  These pointers do crop up from time to time but are quite rare today. Their existence might suggest that such figures had multiple uses. Indeed, the purporting of them to be  ‘doctor’s ladies’ might have conveniently disguised ownership for more carnal use . . .

This figure for sale has come from a private collection in Germany. It is available at 14,000 (Euros) from Ben Janssens