On surprises and uncertainty in the Chinese art market

opinion

In our first editorial of the year we predicted turbulence in the Chinese art market with unexpected prices and lots of surprises (http://chineseart.co.uk/news/unpredictability-will-set-the-tone-for-2016-as-mis-catalogued-vase-exceeds-the-quarter-million-pound-mark/ ). Following a series of ‘mysterious’ and inexplicably high prices at the beginning of the year, the results of last month’s Asian sales again graphically illustrated that point of view.

christies Qianlong vases Qianlong vases: £13m.

The headline price was, of course, a staggering £13m. (yes, thirteen million pounds!) for a pair of 23cm high Qianlong vases decorated with butterflies in falangcai enamels and exposed for sale by Christie’s in London St James’s. They were estimated at £2-3m. To us, bearing in mind the prices achieved by two broadly similar pairs in 2003 and 2008, a price of £5-6m. would not have seemed altogether unreasonable. We think £13m. is, frankly, ludicrously speculative for a couple of pretty 18th century vases, notwithstanding their noble provenance.

Down at Christie’s South Kensington, sadly due to be closed in a matter of weeks, there was a final unexpected price for a pair of 9cm high landscape-painted seals, decorated and signed by He Xuren (1882-1940), which were estimated at £30,000-50,000, and which soared to £180,000. There was no particular provenance and they had been acquired relatively recently, according to the auctioneers.

a-fine-and-rare-pair-of-famille-rose-landscape-sealsrepublic-period-1912-1949-dated Pair of seals £180,000

Up the road at Sotheby’s a large (45cm.) cinnabar lacquer charger achieved £1.3m. against its pre-sale estimate of £400,000-600,000. Probably Yuan, or at least early Ming, it did at least come with good provenance having been in at least three significant collections, including that of Sir Percival David (1892-1964) one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century.

For Bonhams, their highlight was the sale of 49 thangkas from The Jongen-Schleiper Collection and of which we previously wrote (http://chineseart.co.uk/news/probably-the-thangka-sale-of-the-century-coming-up-at-bonhams/) . The triptych depicting the lineage of the Panchen Lamas of Tasilhunpo climbed to £455,000 which was truly spectacular for a 19th century thangka.

In the view of the trade magazine Antiques Trade Gazette, some of these spectacular prices reflect ‘supply issues after decade boom’.  Wrote Roland Arkell, ‘Certainly, many [sale] catalogues were self-consciously trimmed to reflect growing selectivity and the increasing need to err on the side of caution wherever debatable items are brought for valuation.’ ATG highlights a ‘circular’ movement of goods, emanating from China, sold in the UK and quite probably returning, on the back of the provenance afforded by a London sale, to China! It warns of an undermining in the market which could ultimately result from this if it becomes an established trend.

We are not altogether convinced by this. At our sister business Chinese Art in Scotland (www.chineseartinscotland.co.uk), we have increasingly turned to objects which can be valued entirely on their intrinsic beauty rather than marks or reputed provenance. That means, of course, that we have increasingly turned our backs on porcelain, unless it is of such indisputable beauty and craftsmanship that it does not matter if it is mid, or even late, 20th century.

Instead, there are exquisite objects around which are rather more difficult to fake and which have yet to be ‘discovered’ by the market: small furniture, wood carvings, 18th century bronzes, soapstone figures, and curiosities which fit no particular category. Lyon & Turnbull last month sold a collection of Chinese inksticks, estimated at £2-3,000 for £191,000 which goes to substantiate this point.

We recently bought for a modest hammer price, from a well known auctioneer, a massive solid bronze figure (100kgs or thereabout and which requires three people to lift!) catalogued as a Japanese warrior. In fact, it is a bronze of the legendary and hugely popular Chinese unfrocked Buddhist monk, Ji Gong. You can’t doubt that something of that weight and substance, superbly crafted, is a superb investment.

It is our considered view that there are still many beautiful objects out there. And there are bargains. Let the players in the £13m.market get on with it. In our view, they are bidding at the top of the market for names (in this case, Qianlong) and provenance, unable to countenance the beauty and investment value of objects at what they might think of as ‘downmarket’. Rather better, and much more fun, to buy things in the low thousands with virtually unlimited potential.

You can well be sitting on the next ‘inexplicably high’ price!

Probably the Thangka Sale of the Century coming up at Bonhams!

complete set of thangks of Kalachakra

Complete set of thangkas of Kalachakra. Picture courtesy Bonhams.

Bonhams are highly delighted to offer on Thursday 11 May in New Bond St, London, The Jongen-Schleiper Collection of Fine Thangkas. The collection comprises nearly 60 thangkas, which have been collected during the 1970s. Many of the thangkas were published in the important reference work by Armand Neven, Etudes D’Art Lamaique et de L’Himalaya, Brussels, 1978; and a number were also published in M.Brauen, ed., The Dalai Lamas: A Visual History, Zürich, 2005. This unique collection offers a rare opening onto the highly diverse, complex and colourful world of Tibetan devotional paintings, with thangkas estimated from as low as £800 and up to £300,000. Most probably this high estimate will be exceeded, in our opinion.

One the highlights of the collection is an exceptionally rare complete set of thangkas of the Panchen Lamas of Tashilhunpo, circa 1835, estimated at £200,000 – 300,000, Lot 26, (measuring each with mounts 266.5cm long x 165.5cm wide). The set which includes three paintings depicting the First, Fourth and Third Panchen Lamas, would have been presented with the Fourth Panchen Lama in the honoured central position as they were commissioned during his time.

A further highlight of the collection is an exceptionally rare complete set of thangkas of Kalachakra, circa 1780, estimated at £60,000 – 80,000, Lot 42, (with the largest measuring with mounts 225.5cm long x 116cm wide). The superb triptych of paintings is a rare visual document of the complex philosophies contained in the Kalachakra Tantra, a Sanskrit text emphasising the importance of time, cycles and the use of man’s most subtle energies as a means to transform from mundane existence to enlightened consciousness.

Two superb rare thangkas of Lamas and the Life of Buddha, 18th century, estimated £40,000 – 60,000, Lot 7, (the largest measuring with mount 118cm long x 74cm wide), are very rare in their compositions as the central figures depict a Tibetan teacher or Lama rather than Buddha. An inscription on one of the thangkas identifies the central figure as Drokun Gewa’i Shenyen, a 17th/18th century Drugpa Kagyu Lama from Eastern Tibet.

A lecture by Jeff Watt, a leading scholar and curator of Tibetan and Himalayan art, who also wrote the introduction to the collection catalogue, will be held in New Bond St., London on Monday 8 May at 6pm; please RSVP at sophie.plender@bonhams.com.

Asaph Hyman, International Head, Chinese Art commented yesterday: “We are delighted for the opportunity to bring this uniquely diverse collection of Tibetan thangkas, which has been prized by its owners for the last four decades, to the forefront of today’s Tibetan art collecting, to be admired by future generations.”

Something of a scoop for Bonhams!

Complete set of Panchen Lamas of Tashilhuno

A complete set of the Panchen Lamas of Tashihuno  Picture courtesy Bonhams.

 

Underrated Chilong vase sells at Bonhams for £110,5000

Bonhams chilong vase

A Chinese vase “forgotten” for years in a living room in Cumbria has sold Bonhams for more than £100,000.

The 18th Century famille rose Chllong bottle vase, thought to have maybe graced a Chinese imperial palace, was discovered at a Bonhams valuation day in Kendal in the English Lake District.

The owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, said the vase was “plonked” on top of some furniture and she took it along at the last minute.

Bonhams senior valuer Chris Jarrey said they were “bowled over” when the vase was unwrapped from the owner’s towel.

He said: “She had a bag full of items, of which this [the vase] was the last item she brought out expecting it to be the least interesting.She had a box of quite nice silver spoons and one or two other bits and pieces, and then she just pulled this out, it was wrapped up in an old towel and she could see the expression on our faces.”

Mr Jarrey said the Chilong vases were “highly desirable” as they were produced for Chinese emperors.

Bearing the six-character seal mark of the great Emperor Qianlong, the vase was expected to fetch £50,000-80,000 so it came in just ahead of expectations. It sold for £110,500 at Bonhams Fine Chinese Art sale in London today.

Even bigger prices are expected next week with major sales at auction houses all over England, including Woolley & Wallis, Chiswick Auctions, Dreweatt & Bloomsbury and Dukes of Dorchester. Even remote Northumberland has an auction with more than 50 Chinese lots tomorrow, Saturday (www.the-saleroom.com).

A stunning, large jade with a story to tell . . .

jade buffalo at bonhams

An important 17th century grey-green jade water buffalo, known as the Atterbury Buffalo, after one of its previous owners, leads Bonhams Fine Chinese Art Sale in London on 12 May. It is estimated at £450,000-600,000.

As long ago as 1949, when this jade was sold by E.W.L.Atterbury, it was described as ‘magnificent’ and ‘important’ and it is highly likely that it was originally made for a Chinese Imperial Palace. There are very similar examples in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the British Museum that have well documented Imperial provenances. It is extremely rare to find animals of such striking size, and exceptionally large jade animals such as the present lot – it is more than 12 inches long – form a very select and unusual group within the tradition of Chinese jade carving.

The buffalo has long featured in Chinese art, reflecting its agricultural importance and its significance as a sacrificial animal. Buffaloes are also recorded as having an important role in certain imperial ceremonies during the Ming and Qing dynasties, particularly in Beijing in the third lunar month, when the emperor personally ploughed three furrows within the grounds of the Temple of Agriculture and made sacrifices to mark the beginning of the agricultural year and ensure a good harvest.

The Cunliffe Collection

The same sale also features items from the famous Cunliffe collection, formed by the second Lord Cunliffe over two decades from the mid-1940s. This is the third selection of fine ceramics and works of art from the collection to be offered at Bonhams – the first sale took place in 2002.

Highlights include:

A rare silver-inlaid bronze ‘champion’ vase Song/Ming Dynasty (£20,000-30,000). Inspired by archaic bronze vessels produced during the Western Han period, this vase encapsulates a highly auspicious symbolism conveyed by the combination of eagle, ying and bear, xiong, which form the rebus for ‘champion and hero’.

A rare underglaze-blue yellow-ground ‘gardenia’ saucer dish, Zhengde six-character mark and of the period (£20,000-25,000). Dishes depicting gardenia designs in cobalt blue on a yellow ground were produced from the Xuande through to the Jiajing reigns. Examples dating to the Zhengde period, however, are very rare.

Newly discovered ‘Chilong’ bottle vase

A rare imperial famille rose ‘Chilong’ bottle vase Qianlong seal mark and of the period (estimate £50,000-80,000) is particularly fine. Incorporating Western techniques and Chinese traditional designs, the present vase is a remarkable example of the ability of craftsmen during the Qianlong period. It also has an interesting present day history. It was brought to a Bonhams valuation day in Cumbria by the owner who had inherited it and had no knowledge either of what it was or how much it might be worth.

Bonhams chilong vase

A particularly fine Qianlong vase to be offered for sale at Bonhams in London

 

 

Rare Tingqua export painting coming up at Bonhams

248, Tea preparation  Tingqua (1809-1870)

The Tingqua  tea trade export painting which comes up at Bonhams this week

This week in London is, of course, a bumper week for Asian art sales, set in the context of Asian Art in London. There is a plethora of goodies but this picture which comes up in the Bonhams sale on Tuesday has caught our eye.

It is a rare export painting by Tingqua (1809-1870), estimated at £20,000 – 30,000 (Lot 248), depicting various stages involved in the production and preparation of tea. Reckoned to be the most famous and prolific of all Chinese watercolour and gouache painters, he was known to foreigners as Tingqua, though his true name was Kwan Luen Chin. Tingqua was the brother of Lamqua, an accomplished Chinese painter in the Western style who had been the protégé of the English painter George Chinnery.

Tingqua chose gouache and watercolours as his medium in part out of familial deference to his older brother, who worked primarily in oils. Tingqua’s studio at 16 China Street, Canton, specialised in gouache and watercolour paintings influenced by Western artistic traditions. These works became known in America primarily through the American China trader Augustine Heard, who brought a substantial collection of Tingqua paintings back to the United States circa 1855. These are now located at the renowned collection in The Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

Outsider Bonhams overtakes the field to come first in Asian Art in London auctions

Bonhams six Asian Art sales in London this week produced a number of stunning results for Japanese and Chinese art, confirming the strength of this market sector for a company that was once very much of an outsider eclipsed by ‘the big two’. The company’s sales total of £11.2m was well ahead of other auction houses offering Asian sales this week.

Bonhams UK and Asia Chairman, Colin Sheaf, said: “The strong sales for Asian art in London reflect well on the company policy of treating  sales of Asian art on a global basis. Japanese art is clearly most saleable at auction in London and New York where we hold our premier sales. Chinese art sales are split between Hong Kong, London, New York and San Francisco with every object being consigned to the city where it will sell best. This policy is succeeding as our exceptional sales in London and Hong Kong this month demonstrate. It has never happened before that a work of Japanese art takes top spot in this annual Asian Art in London week.”

The top Japanese work in Bonhams sales was by Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891), an artist admired by Western collectors for over a century. A very rare lacquer panel based on a Noh play, made in 1883 in imitation of Western paintings on canvas and executed in lavish silver on black lacquer, it had been estimated at £80,000–120,000, but after furious bidding made £842,500 in the Misumi Collection of Important Works of Lacquer Art and Paintings.

The three Japanese sales at Bonhams this week – The Wrangham Collection, the Misumi Collection and Fine Japanese Art – made a total of £3.4m over two days.  The 16-item Misumi Collection was a white-glove sale and fetched £1,424, 500.

The top item in Bonhams three Chinese Art sales was a rare imperial gilt bronze ‘double phoenix’ vessel , from the Imperial Qianlong period (1736-1795) lavishly decorated with hardstone and glass. It sold for £482,500 against a pre-sale estimate of £50,000-80,000. The ‘double-phoenix’ vessel is an exceptional example of Qing magnificence at its peak. It exemplifies the sumptuous Imperial taste during the Qianlong period with no expense spared in its lavish production.

The three Chinese art sales at Bonhams – Asian Arts at Knightsbridge, The Roy Davids Collection and Fine Chinese Art made a total of £7.8m

The second highest price in the Chinese art sales was £440,500 for a porcelain  ‘lotus pond’ jar from a European private collection that had not been seen at auction for over half a century. The jar bears the mark of the Chinese Emperor Chenghua who ruled between 1464 – 1487. For centuries most Chinese connoisseurs have considered Chenghua period ceramics as the finest ever created in China.

Lotus pond jar

Colin Sheaf, Bonhams Asia Chairman, says: “Three decades in the Chinese Art trade does not entirely prepare you for an object like this. When I saw it for the first time, after years of storage, it had that certain something, that charisma of the truly spectacular object which creates a frisson of excitement in anyone who knows about Chinese porcelain.”

Bonhams Roy Davids Collection Sale vase highlights role of women in China

Next week, during Asian Art in London, auctioneers Bonhams mount no less than half a dozen sales in their New Bond Street and Knightsbridge premises, which puts them well ahead of the pack in the energy stakes.

Particularly interesting, in our view, is the 153-lot auction of the collection of Mr Roy Davids. Although the period over which he collected Chinese porcelain was not particularly long (the first items were acquired around the late 1990s and the final accessions in 2012).  The selective quality of the items in his collection cannot be doubted and they are particularly strong in the areas of famille verte, blue and white and Imperial yellow.

A fine porcelain vase showing the ‘Four Elegant Accomplishments’, important cultural activities suitable for Chinese scholar gentlemen, but most unusually seen here with women taking part in these activities, heads the sale of the Roy Davids Collection on November 7th.

This striking vase, lot 54, estimated to sell for £80,000-110,000, is a fine and rare famille verte baluster vase from the Kangxi period 1662 to 1722 with the body finely enamelled with a continuous scene of elegant court ladies engaged in the four activities – painting, calligraphy, playing the qin, a stringed musical instrument, and engrossed in weiqi, a board-game in which strategy is key.

Lot 54 - Roy Davids Collection

In later Imperial Chinese society, women were confined to the home and were not encouraged to be educated. During the late Ming dynasty, however, against a background of social change and economic prosperity, some women managed to challenge these conventions. The famous late Ming philosopher Li Zhi (1527-1602) even declared in his ironically titled Book to be Burned that women were equally intelligent as men and took female students, much to general surprise. Celebrity courtesans accomplished in the genteel arts of music and literature entered male society, heralding a new model of feminine identity almost equal to the male literatus. The present vase reflects this unusual emergence of accomplished females, and celebrates them as being knowledgeable and intellectually engaged, whilst still being refined, delicate and attractively feminine.

The women are exquisitely detailed, their delicate features offset by richly patterned robes and extravagant gilt jewellery, revealing their high cultural status and wealth. The scenes are also extraordinarily dynamic, with the tall figures filling the surface, and very actively involved in their chosen pursuits, whether dipping the brush in the ink for the next stroke of a half-finished painting, or reaching into a pot for another weiqi counter.

Roy Davids, a former Marketing Director for Sotheby’s, has an eye for a beautiful object, be it a superbly illustrated book or a striking Chinese vase. He bought both at auction and from dealers like Marchant.

The vase has been widely exhibited, including a show in a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and was on loan to the Denver Museum of Art from 1995 to 2005.

Colin Sheaf, International Head of Asian Art at Bonhams, says: “Roy is a shrewd judge of excellence and this Chinese porcelain Collection is another endorsement of his taste. The works mostly cover a period of 300 years during which Chinese ceramics led the world in sophistication of design and decoration. Doubtless the vast majority will be snapped up by Chinese buyers keen to repatriate their national cultural heritage.”

 

Sale of 15th century ‘Lotus Pond Jar’ stirs excitement at Bonhams London

Lotus pond jar 

Bonhams in London have today announced the sale of a Ming object which is causing particular excitement. ‘Once in a while something truly rare, special and unique appears in the art market and the buzz being created at Bonhams by the sale of a small, fairly modest looking jar painted with a lotus motif from the Ming period, is tangible.

‘The ‘lotus pond jar’ is one of the top items in Bonhams next sale of fine Chinese Art on November 6th in New Bond Street, London. Estimated to sell for £400,000 to £600,000 it is evident that these figures may only be an indication of this prized jar’s value.’

The jar has come from a European private collection and has not been seen at auction for over half a century. [Its sale coincides this year with the British Museum’s major exhibition on the art of the Ming dynasty and also that of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh].

The jar bears the mark of the Chinese Emperor Chenghua who ruled between 1464 – 1487. Earlier in the same century Chinese potters at the Imperial kilns began for the first time to write on top-quality vessels. And this mark is said to be the ultimate sign of Imperial ‘quality control’.

Pond jar 2

For centuries most Chinese connoisseurs have considered Chenghua period ceramics as amongst the finest ever created in China. The exceptionally clear glaze did not require heavy ornamentation but could be sparingly and elegantly decorated. The most sensational development in Ming Dynasty porcelain was the arrival of a lustrous white glaze on which to paint over a design for fixing in a secondary firing of the vase.

Adding to the romance, beauty and significance of this jar is the use of the lotus flower as a decorative device, something closely associated with the Lord Buddha.

The creamy white body is finely painted in a soft underglaze blue with delicate outlines further enamelled in rich iron-red, soft yellow, and vibrant green with an elegantly arranged profusion of variously opening lotus flowers and spreading and crinkling leaves. The design is further highlighted by two small butterflies in flight.

Pond jar 3

Colin Sheaf, Head of Asian Art at Bonhams and the company’s Deputy Chairman and Asia Chairman, says: “Three decades in the Chinese Art trade does not entirely prepare you for an object like this. When I saw it for the first time, after years of storage, it had that certain something, that charisma of the truly spectacular object which creates a frisson of excitement in anyone who knows about Chinese porcelain. Its very simplicity is of course part of its charm, as this reflects the ambition of all great Chinese art.”

The November 6 sale does, of course, coincide with Asian Art in London.

Bonhams record breaking Chinese sale nets £8.6m.

 

Strong bidding from a packed saleroom yesterday brought Bonhams in London a staggering £8.6m. for its Asia Week Chinese sale.

It’s been a good week for Bonhams Just a week ago Bonhams unveiled its new Hong Kong saleroom which will provide one of the best selling spaces in that city. But in London at Bonhams new £30m headquarters yesterday, more than 150 enthusiastic bidders led to a 70 per cent sold rate, and the two top lots sold in Asian Art Week. A sale of Japanese art at £1.5m and a Chinese Art sale at the Knightsbridge saleroom which made  £1.7m, brings Bonhams Asian Art Week sale total to £11.8m.

Colin Sheaf, Chairman of Bonhams Asia, commenting after the sale said: “This was our second (Asian sale) in the new building and it continues to attract attention as a fantastic selling space that provides museum-like facilities to show off the art to best effect. This definitely helped to make the sale the great success that it was. Despite the size of our new main saleroom it was completely filled with standing room only. The result is once again proof that Bonhams is attracting the most outstanding Chinese works from all over the world.’

A bank of 14 telephone bidders and the internet played a key part in this sale. Some 86% was bought by buyers from Asia, with Hong Kong private and mainland Chinese dealers dominating the sale all the way through.

White jade 2 Mysterious but £494,000!

Top lot in the London sale was the mysterious white jade ‘hinge-fitting’ with its six-character Qianlong Imperial mark which sold for £494,500 against a pre-sale estimate of £200,000 to £300,000 (see our previous feature).

The precisely constructed elements of a white jade hinge-fitting made for the Qianlong Emperor (reign 1736-1795), might have served to remind him of his duty to be scrupulous and precise in his own rule. Scholars still do not know the precise meaning of this culturally intriguing object. Bearing a Qianlong six-character fang gu mark and of the period the pure white stone is of exceptional clarity, unusually carved with two rectangular hollowed tubes, each of the wider sides carved in mirror image to suggest an archaistic mask.

buddha pale green jade Pale green jade Buddha

A very rare pale green jade 18th/19th century figure of Buddha sold for £482,500. Jade generally performed well in the sale, as did a very rare monumental gilt-lacquer porcelain figure of Buddha from the Qing Dynasty.

huanghuali cabinet Huanghuali cabinet

A beautiful and rare large 17th century huanghuali tapered cabinet made £242,500.

There have been a number of Chinese sales in London this week but Bonhams total appears to have far outstripped larger rivals. The important 12-fold screen, which we noted earlier, did not reach its reserve (it was estimated at £800,000-1.2m.). It is, of course, sometimes difficult to find a home for such a large piece.

 

Desire broadens in the Chinese art market

opinion hl

Not only does the market remain firm this year, contrary to gloomy predictions of a slump, but also there is increasing evidence of a distinct broadening in the market. By this, we mean that whole areas of new collecting are opening up and that objects once regarded as ‘too academic’, or simply obscure, are becoming the subject of some furious competitive bidding at auction. To a large extent, auctions continue to lead the market: the only public forum for the noting and recording of prices internationally.

It was not so long ago, back in 2012, that good pieces of blue and white were favoured by the market and there were some record prices achieved, both in London and in some provincial salerooms like Tennants in Leyburn, Yorkshire. Now that the supply of high quality pieces of blue and white new to the market is drying up, with only a handful of previously unseen items appearing, the seemingly insatiable appetite, principally from mainland China, for interesting items is broadening into areas hitherto hardly considered for collecting.

A case in point was a Quianlong mark and period hat or wig stand which achieved a stunning £444,240 at Cambridge auctioneers Cheffins on March 27. It is 27cm. high and incorporates what the auctioneers say is ‘a rare gilt café au lait ground together with panels glazed to imitate turquoise’. Not the real thing, you understand. It is intriguingly constructed and reasonably attractive, but you can understand why it was estimated simply at £10,000-20,000. After all, there is not a great history of collecting such obscure objects and until last month they did not appear to be particularly coveted.

Quianlong hat and wig standNearly half a million quid: Quianlong hat or wig stand

In the future, we are sure that there will be more of this type of ‘surprise result’. Auctioneers are realising that a good story may intrigue potential buyers of unusual objects and achieve gratifyingly high prices. On May 15, Bonhams are to sell two highly unusual things: an enormous, quite possibly Imperial, screen and an unusual jade puzzle. The price either will achieve is really anybody’s guess – Bonhams have estimated up to £1.2m. on the screen and are talking about a quarter of a million for the intriguing jade puzzle. Really this is all new territory. Estimates are all very well if the buyers can be tempted into competition and, as we all know, it only takes two bidders so you don’t have to exactly generate worldwide interest . . .

The antiques guru on Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV (accessible in Europe via Freesat) recently singled out Northern and Southern Song pieces as the next big growth area and we recently bid up to £8,000 for a nice piece of purple-splashed jun ware with good provenance, and then let it go to a Chinese buyer on the internet. A few years ago, 5-800 would have been more than adequate to obtain such a piece.

So there are going to be some big prices in the near future for the more unusual items, previously unfavoured. Of course, there may be some disappointments along the road as not been read, or predicted, accurately enough.

Bonhams to sell enormous Imperial Chinese Immortals screen

Lot 88 Chinese screenED 

An outstanding Imperial Chinese twelve-leaf screen comprising 64 magnificent porcelain panels depicting tales from Chinese mythology, which may well have graced an Imperial throne room, will be sold at Bonhams Fine Chinese Art sale in London on May 15.

Bonhams estimate it to sell for £800,000 to £1.2m. The immortals are characters from Chinese mythology who symbolize, amongst other things, good fortune and longevity.

In the Imperial halls, such screens were often used as backdrops to thrones, reinforcing the Imperial eminence and stature behind the throne. No cost was spared in their production, using precious materials generously, such as zitan and huanghuali woods, cinnabar lacquer, gilt on black lacquer and embellishments with porcelain panels, hardstones, and cloisonné and painted enamels.

This particular Imperial famille rose and huanghuali twelve-leaf screen is dated to the Jiaqing reign period (1796-1820).

The Qianlong Emperor abdicated his throne in 1796 out of filial respect to his grandfather the Kangxi Emperor, but continued ruling in effect until his death in 1799. Therefore, it is generally recognised that the Imperial taste and demand, as well as the zenith of craftsmanship achieved during the Qianlong period (1736-1795), continued well into the subsequent Jiaqing period (1796-1820). The present screen can be ascribed to this group with its peerless quality combining two mediums, huanghuali wood and porcelain panels, attaining an imposing and opulent effect imbued with symbolism.

Panel 2 ED  Panel 1 ED

Each of the twelve leaves is finely carved from huanghuali, framing the porcelain plaques and set within the massive tiered huanghuali dais. Huanghuali wood, one of the most luxurious close-grained sub-tropical hardwood timbers used from the Ming dynasty onwards, was, and still is, highly sought after for its rich yellow-hued grain.

The twelve leaves of the screen are resplendently inset with 64 famille rose porcelain plaques. These are superbly enamelled with mythical imagery of Daoist Immortals, auspicious flowers and birds, laden with puns, rebuses and symbolic significance.

Asaph Hyman, Director of Chinese Art, commented: “The rare screen is a statement of Chinese Imperial art at its zenith demonstrating Qing dynasty master-craftsmanship. As it was made for a Qing Palace, no cost was spared in its production making use of the finest materials and artisan skills”.

 

Bonhams to sell intriguing jade puzzle

White jade 2

Usually, cataloguing an item for auction does not pose any particular problem. A vase is a vase, a brush pot is a brush pot, and ginger jar is a useful term which covers many options, and there are plenty more terms which might be applied to objects with very specific uses. However, Bonhams have come with a most curious and intriguing item which, well, defies accurate description . . .

Ostensibly, it is a white jade hinge-fitting. But, of course, it is not so pedestrian an item as to actually be a hinge. The precisely constructed elements of this white jade hinge-fitting, made for the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795), might have served to remind him of his duty to be scrupulous and precise in his own rule. This beautiful object, estimated at £200,000 to £300,000, is in Bonhams sale of Fine Chinese Art on May 15th in London.

Scholars still do not know the precise meaning of this culturally intriguing object. Bearing a Qianlong six-character fang gu mark, and of the period, the pure white stone is of exceptional clarity, unusually carved with two rectangular hollowed tubes, each of the wider sides carved in mirror image to suggest an archaistic mask.

The hinge-fitting embodies much of the artistic and historical pre-occupations of the Qianlong period. Carved from exceptionally fine and lustrous white stone, with even the minor flaws most cleverly incorporated into the scrollwork, the thinly hollowed supremely challenging, yet technically flawless, piece is representative of the highest skill of the 18th century craftsman. Furthermore it falls into a group of jade pieces carved with the Qianlong fanggu mark, specifically carved with archaistic designs inspired by archaic bronzes, to reflect the concerns of the Qianlong Emperor with drawing moral strength and righteousness from the examples of the ancients.
A few examples of jade pieces designed to the same specifications as the present lot are preserved in the most prestigious museum collections, including a white jade piece in the Palace Museum, Beijing.

White jade 3

The design has been and remains, to scholars, collectors and curators, a most intriguing puzzle. The form has ancient origins, and its ancient bronze prototype can be found in the Catalogue of Xiqing Antiquities, which was an illustrated catalogue of ancient bronzes in the Imperial Collection, completed in 1751. However even the cataloguers could not describe the bronze prototype other than as a ‘Han Dynasty ornament’ and to state that the two tubes are movable.
It is interesting to compare the present lot and those in museum collections with another white jade hinged piece which is further unusual in being inscribed with an Imperial poem. The poem appears to refer to the jade piece as a ‘ruler’ to be used to ‘compare lengths’ with ‘precisely fitting workmanship’. This pre-occupation with the idea of measuring is also connected to the idea of the benevolent ruler who is guided well.

This is a vastly intriguing little piece and it will be interesting to see how it fares on March 15. Perhaps somebody knows better than the rest of us what it is all about.

White jade