A tale of Yongzheng dragon chargers £218,500 or £1,500?

Yonzheng charger Sold by Sotheby’s for £218,500

One of Sotheby’s best prices last week was for ‘a rare iron-red and underglaze-blue nine dragon charger Yongzheng mark and period’. It was formerly the property of collectors George and Cornelia Wingfield Digby.

Despite considerable historic damage, and an unconvincing repair job, it made £218,500, inclusive of buyer’s premium. It is, of course, not the only one around: there are almost identical ones in The Shanghai Museum in People’s Square, Shanghai, and in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. There are also a few, rather later copies in circulation . . .

The charger sold last week was described in Sotheby’s catalogue as being a ‘nine dragon charger: a central dragon within the central medallion, with four to the interior, around the rim, and another four underneath to the exterior. There is a six character mark to the base within a double circle, size  47.5cm., 18 ¾ in.’
But the condition report reveals extensive historic damage. ‘The dish was broken into five pieces. It has now been repaired with the cracks still visible under the naked eye. There are large areas of overspray, possibly also concealing associated rim chips. The base is oversprayed, with the mark painted over. There are some chips to the foot, the largest measuring 0.7×0.4cm. The central interior has a 0.2×0.1cm area of paint loss (under the glaze) to the lower left of the dragon tail. Minor glaze firing imperfections such as iron spots and burst glaze bubbles.’
Of course, it is slightly surprising that such a desirable piece should have been so poorly restored but, most likely, it was a simple matter of getting the wrong person for the job. It is, indeed, a very fine piece in all its variations – and you can get one for a lot less than a quarter of a million pounds, and in rather better condition!
Yongzheng mark Yongzheng mark to base

Sotheby’s include a very good explanatory note in the catalogue. ‘Dishes of this magnificent size and formidable decoration were made to impress. Such wares were used at Imperial banquets and on special celebratory occasions, such as the ‘Thousand Elderly Banquet’ held in honour of senior citizens when thousands of invited guests were served a great feast. The Manchu custom of banqueting closely followed the Mongolian and Tibetan tradition of shared communal dining.A Yongzheng dish of this design and large size in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, vol. 3, Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 223; another in the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, was included in the exhibition Seikado zo Shincho toji. Keitokuchin kanyo no bi [Qing porcelain collected in the Seikado. Beauty of the Jingdezhen imperial kilns], Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, 2006, cat. no. 53; and another in the Meiyintang collection is published in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1723. Compare also a Yongzheng dish sold three times in our rooms, once in London in 1995, and twice in Hong Kong, in 2005 and 9th October 2012, lot 125, from the collection of Dr Alice Cheng; another sold in our London rooms, 6th December 1994, lot 179; and a third, with a slightly reduced rim, sold at Christie’s London, 10th April 1978, lot 49.’

This piece would have been made in Jingdezhen and the decoration is a Yongzheng  interpretation of an early-Ming pattern. The Yongzheng emperor is reputed to have sent porcelain from the palace to Jingdezhen in order to establish rather better production standards as well as to serve as models and inspirations for designs. This dragon design follows after a Xuande prototype, where dishes were painted with a side-facing five-clawed dragon amongst crashing waves in the centre, the side decorated with three dragons striding amid clouds. An example of this Xuande dish, excavated at the waste heap of the Ming Imperial Kilns in Zhushan, was included in the exhibition Xuande Imperial Kiln Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 87. (Source: Sotheby’s)

Sotheby’s give some excellent well-researched background to the piece. ‘The creative ingenuity of the Yongzheng potter is evident from the successful transference of a pattern that was originally made for much smaller vessels. The different design elements on this dish are perfectly composed to give no hint of overcrowding or spatial gaps that could hinder the overall harmony. While maintaining the essence of the original design, the artist created a motif that is familiar yet fresh: the side-facing dragon has been replaced with a frontal dragon and the crashing waves no longer cover any part of the dragon’s body to give a greater sense of the creature’s dominance and strength. The use of red heightens the contrast between the dynamism of the background and that of the dragons while endowing the scene with further auspicious meaning. Moreover, the extent of the Qing craftsman’s proficiency is evident in the additional crested rolling wave band encircling the rim of the dish which frames and draws the expansive design together, an element that was not necessary for the smaller Ming dishes.

‘Yongzheng dishes of this type continued to be favoured by the Qianlong emperor who commissioned the making of very similar vessels. Examples of dishes from both periods are illustrated in Min Shin no bijutsu [Ming and Qing art], Tokyo, 1982, pls. 154 and 172; and another Qianlong example in the Nanjing Museum was included in the exhibition Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1995, cat. no. 81, and also illustrated on the dust jacket.’

Calculated choice or fevered speculation? The outlook for 2014

viewing auction itemsThe end of the year is traditionally a time both to review the past year and look forward to the next. The two go hand in hand. Without an understanding of the past you have no basis upon which to predict the future.

The last year has provided many pointers. There have been prices in the low millions for the best objects. New areas have crept up over the horizon and provide an opportunity for the rather less well heeled: embroidery, clothing, Imperial badges, and so on. It seems to us that the market for Chinese art is approaching an identifiable state where it will divide: there will be a much clearer division between the serious connoisseurs, who buy as a result of a process of considered and calculated choice, and the ‘amateurs’ and speculators, who operate rather lower down the market as a rule, but not altogether exclusively. At this end of the market, they will continually seek out new areas for acquisition and investment and will maintain price levels.

The serious connoisseurs, mainly Chinese resident in the PRC, will continue to snap up the very best items, ideally backed up by impeccable provenance, at a level where price is regarded as a relatively insignificant factor. They will operate at a level well into six figures (around £500,000+) into the millions. There will be no real limit on their financial reach so figures in excess of £10m.+ can be confidently expected. However, the individuals, and the corporate networks behind them, are less than a few dozen. They will compete vigorously at the top of the market in pursuit of undoubted quality and provenance. This will continue to drive up the prices for the very best examples of Chinese historic art.

Lower down the market, are the more modest collectors and . . .  the speculators. Mr Chen Kalun, deputy curator at the wonderful Shanghai Museum, (in my view, the best museum in the world) recently opined that, ‘Less than 1% of the collectors across the country [China] can be counted as real collectors.’ Allowing for the fact that he is maybe being a trifle snobbish in the manner of museum curators, let’s say that this 1% constitute the calculated connoisseurs, who buy from deep-seated knowledge and appreciation accumulated over the years. The rest are those we might term enthusiasts seeking to move into the market and the speculators. They may boast relatively small budgets but, equally they are very, very numerous in a population well in excess of 1.5 billion people.

We hear a lot in the Chinese market about the wealthy and the fact that they will only buy the best, the perfect, the item with provenance. They are, in fact, few in number. Most Chinese people – especially the increasingly wealthy middle class (‘nouveau riche’ if you prefer the sobriquet) – are still learning about their heritage and their art, after decades of it being derided by political forces. When this market matures, over the next few years, the demand for anything Chinese boasting some age and beauty, will explode in a way unimaginable to us today.

These are the people already behind ‘blind’ internet purchases, eagerly scouring the net for their heritage. For the moment, they are relatively few in number. When this thing really gets going – and it will build over the next few years – dealers will wish they had more stock, sellers will regret what they have parted with,and auction houses will be desperate to seek it out from the most distant and dusty of attics. The message is clear. ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet . . .’.

Paul Harris is owner and chief editor at ChineseArt.co.uk as well as owner of Chinese Art in Scotland and The Coldingham Gallery. He collects himself, lived and worked in China, and consults for private collectors and corporate buyers abroad.