High hopes for sale of the so-called Thornhill Cup

L & T Thornhill stem cup

It is rare that such high hopes are evinced for a piece of Chinese porcelain but Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull are rather more than bullish about the prospects for what is known now as ‘The Thornhill Cup’. Such are their ambitions for this object that they are to sell it in the Far East (Hong Kong) on May 31 , near to the big spending buyers. Even they will have to dig deep in their pockets with an estimate of between £2m. and £4m. Step forward Liu Yiqian?

According to L&T, the Ming Xuande (1426-35) mark and period blue and white stem cup is an excellent example of its type and is certainly a museum quality piece. This rare masterpiece is part of the Ernest S. Thornhill Collection of Asian Ceramics, comprising of some 270 pieces belonging to Staffordshire University, where it was bequeathed in 1944. The University’s Board of Governors has approved the sale of the stem cup, which, together with the rest of the collection, has been hidden away in storage for a significant number of years.

L&T’s Lee Young implies in his press release that the company is sparing no effort in bringing all experts and art advisers on board in recommending the stem cup to clients and potential purchasers. “In our industry, it is a privileged position when one is charged with selling an item of such historical importance. We have assembled a dedicated specialist team comprised of some of the leading lights in Asian art to ensure the best possible outcome is achieved.”

stem cup mark

The stem cup is crowned by the elegantly painted six-character reign mark within the cup, and circled by double rings, repeated on the inside and outside rim, and on the foot.

This is a truly remarkable and rare piece, of a type not seen at auction for many years. The motif of flying dragons was popular in the Yuan dynasty, but was revived in the Xuande as can be seen in this case. The fearsome five-clawed dragon flies amongst flames, chasing the eternally flaming pearl, above a sea with crashing waves tipped in white, with rocks seen around the base. The wares’ unique qualities include the glaze, which is thick and lustrous, with a buttery softness to it that responds to touch, and a luminosity unsurpassed in later wares.

This glaze is untainted by age, and, says L& T,  ‘consequently the piece still gives us the same pleasure today as when the Emperor Xuande held it in his hands. Today, very few examples exist outside museum collections. ‘