A very special dragon jar features at Christies HK

One of the highlights of the Christies special  30 Years: The Sale  auction in Hong Kong on 30 May is a magnificent 15th-century 
guan. Here, say Christies, are 7 reasons why it excites collectors


  • With its four powerful five-clawed feet and its head turning backwards, the dragon on this 15th-century jar is depicted with terrific dynamism. It appears to be an early variation of the forward-facing dragon found on blue and white ceramics developed from the Yuan period (1271-1368). The inspiration for such an unusually portrayed dragon probably originated from Southern Song (1127-1279) paintings.
A magnificent very rare large blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan. Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435). 19⅛ in. (48.5 cm.) high. Estimate HK$60,000,000-80,000,000  $7,764,834-10,353,112. This work is offered in 30 Years The Sale on 30 May at Christie’s Hong Kong
A magnificent very rare large blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan. Xuande four-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1426-1435). 19⅛ in. (48.5 cm.) high. Estimate: HK$60,000,000-80,000,000 / $7,764,834-10,353,112. This work is offered in 30 Years: The Sale on 30 May at Christie’s Hong Kong
  • The jar contains details that have not been seen before on porcelain of previous dynasties — short spiky bristles in front of tufts of long flowing hair at the elbows of the dragon, for example. These details do, however, appear on the dragons in paintings by Chen Rong (circa 1200-1266), which were widely admired and had provided inspiration since the Song and Yuan periods.
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In the long history of Chinese ceramics, the Xuande period (1426-1435) is generally regarded as the highpoint of blue and white porcelain production. This was due to a combination of enthusiastic imperial patronage, technical ingenuity and the finest levels of artistry. Xuande was the first Ming emperor to be a really serious patron of the arts. His three most celebrated areas of imperial patronage were court painting, building projects and the manufacture of fine porcelains.


Xuande-period porcelains were low in calcium and high in potassium, which made them more translucent. The glaze was rich and lustrous, while the underglaze decoration demonstrated complete mastery of painting in cobalt on a porous porcelain body. The use of darker and lighter blue tones is more commonly seen on Xuande dishes or stem bowls painted with dragon-and-wave patterns. It is very unusual to see such subtle techniques employed on such a large jar — a feature that underlines its great rarity.


The three main motifs on this jar — dragon, monster masks and clouds — are all painted with varying tones of blue in bold and fluent brush strokes. This powerfully-depicted imperial dragon perfectly symbolises the authority of the emperor. Many connoisseurs consider the painting of dragons on Xuande imperial porcelain to be the finest in the history of Chinese porcelain, and this example has exceptional vitality.


The porcelains of the Xuande reign frequently bore reign marks in regular script. The placement of reign marks on Xuande porcelains was variable — under the rim, inside the vessel, on the base, or on the shoulder, as on this vessel. More often, Xuande reign marks contained six characters, but this large jar belongs to one of two small groups of imperial vessels with four-character marks, which appear to have been made for special occasions. All the vessels in these groups are unusually large and all are decorated with powerful dragons among clouds and masks. In one group the dragons have five claws and backward turned heads, as on this jar, while in the other group the dragons have three claws and face forwards.


The massive size of this dragon jar suggests it was a very special commission. The decoration on it is identical to that on the pair of blue and white ‘dragon’ meiping  vases in the Nelson Atkins Museum, and it is possible that the three vessels formed a set, made for a special imperial occasion or ritual. This magnificent dragon jar, however, appears to be the only one of its type to have survived intact, although fragments of a similar jar have been found at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen.

‘Most expensive Chinese work of art ever sold at auction’

thangka_auction  The thangka sold a few hours ago Courtesy South China Morning Post

He’s done it again! Mainland tycoon Liu Yiqian, founder of Shanghai’s Long Museum, has smashed his own world auction record with the HK$348.4 million acquisition of a 600-year-old embroidered silk thangka at the Christie’s auction today in Hong Kong. HK$ 348m. equates to around US$45 million.

The purchase is said to set a new record for any Chinese work of art sold by any international auctioneer, breaking the record Liu set in April when he spent HK$281.24 million on the Meiyintang Chenghua “chicken cup”.

The massive piece, known as a thangka and sized bigger than a king-size bed, was entirely worked with silk embroidery, depicting Raktayamari, ‘The Red Killer of Death’, a meditational deity in Mahayana Buddhism. Made on command of the Ming dynasty Yongle Emperor, the thangka is the only one of its kind in private hands, according to Christie’s. The two other known examples are both kept in the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet.

“It is a national treasure,” Mr. Liu, the billionaire collector who owns two Long Museums, told The Wall Street Journal. “We need top art works for our museum.”

The thangka, which is three metres tall and two metres wide, was made in the Yongle period (1402 – 1424) of the Ming Dynasty. The imperial embroidered silk item came from an American private collection and had a pre-sale estimate of around HK$80 million, excluding buyer’s premium. The final price of HK$348.4 million included the buyer’s premium.

Liu, chairman of the Sunline Group in Shanghai, is one of the most flamboyant Chinese art collectors. He founded the Long Museum in Shanghai with his wife Wang Wei, also a well-known figure in the art world.

Liu, who successfully won the thangka by phone after a 22-minute bidding competition at Wan Chai’s Convention and Exhibition Centre, said the thangka will remain in his museum for years to come.

Liu caused controversy earlier this year when he drank tea from the historic “chicken cup”. He has an estimated personal wealth of around a billion US dollars.

Chinese-French artist Sanyu hits top spot at Christie’s Hong Kong

Buyers snapped up works by Japanese and Southeast Asian artists at Christie’s evening sale in Hong Kong on Saturday, totaling 635 million Hong Kong dollars (US$82 million), the auction house’s second-highest total in the city for Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art.

potted peonies

Potted peonies by Sanyu, painted 1940s/50s

But demand for some top Chinese artists, including Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Xiaogang,  is cooling somewhat, as China’s anticorruption campaign weighs on demand for expensive items, taking some froth out of the art market, according to experts.

Christie’s said 89% of the 81 lots offered were sold at Saturday’s autumn auction. Eleven artists set personal records, including four from Japan, four from Southeast Asia and two from China.

The most expensive painting of the evening was “Potted Peonies” by Chinese-French artist Sanyu (Chang Yu, 1901-1966). The painting, with a realized price of HK$56.1 million, including commissions, depicts white peonies and black leaves against a dark-brown fiberboard, with small ancient coins scattered like fallen petals near the flower’s white pot, giving the work an auspicious look. The painting, which was sold to a Taiwanese couple, had a hammer price of HK$49 million, versus a pre-auction estimate between HK$30 million and HK$40 million.

sanyu French-Chinese painter Sanyu

Sanyu was trained in Chinese calligraphy in his youth and picked up the styles of         Picasso and Matisse after moving to France. “The French-trained Asian artists have struck a perfect balance between the East and West,” said Eric Chang, deputy chairman of Asia at Christie’s. “They are becoming more sought-after among collectors.”

Hong Kong expert questions security in the China art market

As we reported ten days ago, a heart-stopping presentation during Asian Art in London, sponsored by Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull, was made by a Senior Inspector in the Hong Kong Police, also a private art security consultant, Toby J A Bull. In our view, it was probably the most significant talk in a long series of events.


Toby J A Bull of Trackart Art Risk Consultancy, Hong Kong  Photo Paul Harris

The talk, entitled A Quest for Authenticity in the Chinese Art Market, dealt with a range of areas of concern for dealers and collectors ranging from the nebulous role of Hong Kong in the international trade to tomb robbing, fakes and forgeries, money laundering and theft. He started his presentation with a dramatic quotation from the novel The Gilded Seal by James Twining: ‘Forgery is the paedophilia of the art world. Once the suspicion is raised, you are presumed guilty, even when proven innocent. It’s a shadow that never leaves, poisoning everything you touch. So you need to be either very brave, or very sure that you’re right, before you try forgery in this city . . .’. As a result, the Hong Kong art business is a tightly held industry difficult to penetrate and opaque in the extreme.

Bull emphasised initially that he was not talking on behalf of the Hong Kong Police, although he is a Senior Inspector there. There is no art crime squad within the Hong Kong Police. As he spun his tale, however, it became quite clear why he was not talking on behalf of the Police: the Police Authority simply has no role in preventing illegal activities related to the art world.

The 1997 agreement between China and the UK specifically provided for strict Chinese laws on the protection of cultural relics NOT to apply to Hong Kong: one country, two systems. There are separate Export Laws and in terms of Hong Kong’s Import and Export Ordinance (Part IV), there is provision for a Freeport handling ‘Unmanifested Cargo’ which simply facilitates smuggling. Once goods have passed through the Freeport of Hong Kong they are effectively legitimised with all the necessary export-import paperwork. This is particularly relevant in relation to the import of antiquities to mainland China where an import duty of around 35% is imposed.

The vast volume of goods in containers means that a statistically minute proportion is ever examined. Between 1992 and 1996 (under the UK) HK$ 15 million of Chinese antiquities were seized in HK; the figure went down dramatically between 1997 and 2006 totalling HK$2.3m.; between 2007 and 2012 no Chinese antiquities at all were seized ! Many of these containers carry thousands of copies of antiquities: forgeries. Not only is porcelain copied on an industrial scale within mainland China, but, even, Kuomintang stickers to accompany items said to originate from the haul of evacuated antiquities during the dying days of the civil war 1948-49. The quality of fakes is now extremely high.

There is no unit in the Hong Kong police these days engaged in investigating illegal activities in the local art world despite the fact that large quantities of stolen and forged artefacts pass through the Freeport every week. These include the products of tomb robbing in China. Such looting “requires an elaborate, multi-layered network of grave robbers, middlemen and art dealers.” Such networks flourish in China.

Hong Kong very often benefits. In 2002, antiquities looted from eight outer temples of The Forbidden City were included in a Christie’s Hong Kong auction catalogue and were ultimately withdrawn from sale. Christie’s deemed it an isolated case’ and averred that it ‘devoted considerable resources to investigating the provenance of all objects offered for sale’.

“The majority of art is stolen for money laundering purposes and art sales are often components of the laundering process,” Bull said. The media usually reports in terms of dramatic value the stealing of works of art. This helps the criminals who will fund their ongoing activities at around 3-10% of such publicised value. Effectively, stolen art is used as a financial underpinning to the China-Hong Kong underworld.


One of Toby Bull’s slides from his presentation    Photo Paul Harris

In Hong Kong, anti-money laundering regulatory action is based within the Anti-Money Laundering task Force (AMLTF) of which China and Hong Kong are both members. It investigates both financial institutions and Designated Non-Financial Businesses and Profession (DNBFs). Incredibly, the art market is not classified amongst the DNBF’s!

On occasion, thefts are particularly brazen. In April 2014, the Chinese mainland auctioneer Poly International held an auction in the Hong Kong Grand Hyatt Hotel where the hammer went down for the equivalent of US$3.7m. on a painting by the popular Chinese artist Cui Ruzhuo (see below). It was packed up for delivery to the buyer and stacked for collection whereupon it disappeared and has never been seen since. The Hong Kong Police were involved but were obliged to back off after Poly roundly declared it was simply ‘lost property’. Many in the Police Authority believe it was simply stolen and that Poly were keen to have the whole unedifying matter dropped . . .


May Chinese sales at Christie’s Hong Kong

Estates, Appraisals & Valuations

Imperial Chinese Treasures from a Distinguishes American CollectionDate: 28 May (Wednesday)

Time: 10:30am

Through Connoisseurs’ Eyes – Works of Art for the EmperorDate: 28 May (Wednesday)

Time: 11:00am

An Imperial Favourite – The Yongzheng Emperor’s Dragon ZunDate: 28 May (Wednesday)

Time: 11:30am

The Imperial SaleDate: 28 May (Wednesday)

Time: 11:30am

The Sound of Jade and the Shadow of a Chrysanthemum – Works of Art from the Song DynastyDate: 28 May (Wednesday)

Time: 2:30pm

Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Date: 28 May (Wednesday)

Time: 3pm


Venue: Convention Hall, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Harbour Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong





Allure of jade tempts buyers

Sothebys001-1-300x200 Hutton-Mdivani necklace

The best jade pieces continue to tempt buyers to dig deep in their pockets – especially those in China – despite ups and downs in the market and changing tastes. There have recently been some outstanding prices achieved at auction.

In April of last year, Christie’s in London sold a relatively simple jade necklace featuring two rows of jadeite beads with an art deco diamond clasp for £49,875 (US$77,630) against an estimate of £5,000-6,000. The following May, Sotheby’s in Hong Kong very comfortably exceeded pre-sale estimates with a jadeite bangle selling for $HK1.2m. (estimate 200-250,000), and a jadeite and diamond ring fetching a cool million Hong Kong (estimate 350,000-500,000).

This year, the attention of jade enthusiasts will be directed to an outstanding jadeite necklace (jadeite is reckoned to be the very best type of jade) known as the Hutton-Mdivani necklace and which used to be the property of the heiress Barbara Woolworth Hutton. It will be exposed for sale in April in Hong Kong by Sotheby’s in the Magnificent Jewels and Jadeite Sale and Sotheby’s anticipate it reaching more than US$12m. It was last sold at auction in 1988 in Hong Kong when it fetched US$2m. It was then the most expensive piece of jadeite jewellery ever sold.

barbara hutton

Barbara Hutton wearing the necklace to be sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong Sotheby’s

The importance of the necklace is not just attributed to its intrinsic beauty, but also to the likelihood of its Imperial connections. Sotheby’s suggest that ‘considering the impressive size and quality [of the beads] it is likely they would have been presented to the Imperial court . . . ‘. The auctioneers go on to assert that they could ‘possibly’ have been removed from the Imperial Palace during the instability of the late 19th century. What is known for sure is that when the beads surfaced in Europe at the end of the 19th century they were fashioned into the present necklace by Cartier in Paris.

Although, it remains a matter of supposition as to whether the beads originated from the Qing Imperial court, the necklace is indubitably a remarkable and most beautiful creation. Establishing the worth of more minor pieces remains, however, very much a subjective thing. Speaking to The New York Times, Vicki Sek, head of jewellery at Christie’s in Hong Kong, observed, “There is no formula to value jadeite. Obviously, there is the colour and shade, but you have to factor in the translucence and the material. It’s really a combination of the three.” Tackling the issue of colour, she revealed further complexities. “What is considered a good green colour is difficult to explain. At the top, we have what we call ‘vivid emerald green’, then there is ‘brilliant green’, ‘intense green’ and ‘apple green’ .”

Tricky, eh? Miss Sek admits that this is a form of internal grading at Christie’s, forms of which are used at other auction houses. It is nothing like rating gold or other precious stones. There is no carat system. To complicate matters further, jade does not just come in shades of green but also in lavender (currently popular); red and yellow (the result of oxidation and colour-inducing impurities); black (a deep green, the result of high iron content); and white (lacking colouring impurities).

Translucency is also categorised by most auction houses. At Christie’s they use ‘glassy translucent’ (the best), ‘highly translucent’ (next best) and ‘opaque’, which means you can’t see through the stone and, accordingly, it is not rated nearly so highly.

Real jade is now getting rarer and demand is rising, especially from China where it enjoys mystical properties. Most often it is cut and polished without facets, and the base flattened. This maximises the colour and the piece is then known as being in ‘cabochon’ style, much sought after by true collectors.




Riesco heritage sale proves a damp squib

As enormous legal costs forced the abandonment of a legal challenge, the sale of 24 of the best items from the Raymond F A Riesco collection of Chinese art went ahead on November 27. The sale, at Christies in Hong Kong, did not, however, meet the high expectations.

Croydon Council, despite widespread opposition from ratepayers, the Museums Association and the British Museum, sought to sell the best of the collection, inherited by them in 1964, in order to benefit the local ‘cultural infrastructure’, to wit, a restoration of the notorious Fairfield Halls (the last time the present writer attended this centre of culture was for a concert by one Screaming Lord Sutch in 1968).

Accordingly, 24 items from the connection were offered for sale. They were expected by the Council to realise £13m. Christies estimated that the sales would total between £9m. and £14.2m. In the event, seven of the 24 items remained unsold after the sale and the total was just £8.24m. This total is likely to be reduced by around 20% after the auctioneer’s costs of selling so Croydon stands to be sitting on a net gain somewhere around half of its expectation.

As a result of this unique piece of civic vandalism, Croydon Council have been expelled from the Museums Association and the British Museum is understood to be recalling all items it has out on loan to Croydon. It is expected it will be similarly treated by museums and galleries worldwide.

Croydon will also fail to qualify any longer for any grants or assistance from either the Arts Council or the Heritage Lottery Fund. Some staff have left the Museum of Croydon in protest.

One of the most important items to be sold was a Xuande blue and white moonflask estimated at £1.8-2.5m. It got the highest price of the sale at £2.2m.

Riesco Xuande moonflask Xuande moon flask