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The Intervention of Imperial Taste

Sotheby's New York
March 15, 2017
Sale No: 9660


Lot 3, "Anhua-Decorated Tianbai-glazed Meiping vase," Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period, 12 5/8 inches high

By Carter B. Horsley

Ming The Intervention of Imperial Taste, is a small auction March 15, 2017 at Sotheby's New York with high estimates.

Lot 3, an "exceptionally rare and fine Anhua-Decorated Tianbai-glazed Meiping" vase from the Yongle Period of the Ming Dynasty is the cover lot.

According to the catalogue entury, the vase is "evenly potted of generous proportions with the full rounded shoulders rising at a gently flared angle from the base and sweeping to a short waisted neck, finely incised around the body with a broad frieze of leafy peony scrolls bearing four large, full blossoms, with smaller subsidiary buds, framed below by a band of classic scroll at the foot, and a ruyi-lappet collar filled with lotus sprays at the shoulder, all within double-line borders, covered overall with a fine and smooth 'sweet white' (tianbai) glaze, continuing over the mouth rim, the base left unglazed to reveal the fine white body."
In a catalogue essay entitled "Immaculate like piled-up now, Regina Krahl provides the following commentary about the work:

"White porcelain was of special significance for the court during the Yongle reign (1403-24) and this vessel represents one of the classic styles commissioned from the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen. The present piece is remarkable for its particularly fine potting and its smooth and tactile glaze and illustrates the phenomenal advances made by Jingdezhen’s potters, since porcelains began to be made there officially in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).

Monochrome white wares were so important in the Yongle period that a special glaze of smooth, creamy appearance was developed to create a distinctive monochrome white style as against porcelain that had been left undecorated. What has become known as tianbai, ‘sweet white’, is a glaze that has shed the bluish tinge of the earlier Jingdezhen qingbai (‘bluish-white’) wares, is less opaque than the earlier shufu wares, and has a richer, more luscious presence than contemporary glazes used over underglaze-blue designs, which were primarily meant to be invisible so as not to obscure the blue decoration. The pure white porcelain, which is not unlike porcelains we are using today, resulted from the combination of a kaolin-rich paste with very low iron and titanium content and a glaze containing mainly glaze stone and no glaze ash.

The term tianbai was apparently coined by Huang Yizheng, a writer of the Wanli period (1573-1620) in his Shiwu ganzhu (‘Purple Pearl [memory bead] for Remembering Things’) of 1591, which discusses a range of topics including different types of tea. In this book he characterizes the glaze, which he thought was common both in the Yongle and Xuande (1426-1435) periods, as “white like congealed fat, immaculate like piled-up snow” (Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 35; and Zhongguo Guojia Bowuguan, ed., Zhongguo Guojia Bowuguan guancang wenwu yanjiu congshu/Studies on the Collections of the National Museum of China. Ciqi juan: Mingdai [Porcelain section: Ming dynasty], Shanghai, 2007, p. 13).

Although the majority of Yongle finds at the Ming imperial kiln site in Jingdezhen are apparently ‘sweet white’ wares (in two consecutive Yongle strata at the eastern section of Zhushan Zhonglu in Jingdezhen city over 98%), preserved specimens are much rarer than contemporary blue-and-white porcelains, which can only reflect the immense difficulty to create specimens, where the glaze turned out satisfactorily and which therefore were delivered rather than being destroyed and interred near the kilns (see Hong Kong 1989, op.cit., p. 19).

The importance of white wares is certainly due in part to their relevance in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, which the Yongle Emperor passionately patronized and which is reflected in Buddhist shapes such as ‘monk’s cap’ ewers and stem bowls, as well as probably tens of thousands of porcelain bricks ordered for the Porcelain Pagoda in Nanjing, of which over 2000 have been unearthed at the kiln sites. The imperial commissioning of white wares, however, extended well beyond pieces used in a Buddhist context. Besides foreign shapes, particularly copied after metal wares from the Islamic lands of the Middle East, and shapes whose source and usage are still not properly understood, there are wares of purely Chinese character such as the yuhuchunping or the meiping. Meiping vases, or jars, since in the Yongle period they were probably still used as wine containers rather than flower vases, were made in various sizes and despite – or perhaps exactly because of – their quintessentially Chinese flair were not only popular in China, but also abroad. Fine Yongle examples are preserved in the Chinese palace collections in Beijing and Taipei as well as in the Safavid and Ottoman royal collections in Iran and Turkey, but otherwise are very rare.

It seems that the exact outline of the meiping shape was much experimented with at Jingdezhen. It had already been altered from the Yuan (1279-1368) to the Hongwu period (1368-1398); two new versions of Yongle and of Xuande date are known from rejects at the kilns, another appears to be preserved in a single example in the Shanghai Museum. Given the superb silhouette of the piece offered here, it is not surprising that this present version triumphed and was most frequently used in both periods not only for white but also for blue-and-white specimens.

Compare an undecorated example of more heavy, less elegant proportions, with a thick rim flange, the only ‘sweet-white’ Yongle meiping published from the Ming imperial kiln site excavations, in Jingdezhen chutu Ming chu guanyao ciqi/Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, cat. no. 101 (fig. 1); with a larger, plain ‘sweet-white’ meiping of quite different proportions in the Shanghai Museum, also attributed to the Yongle reign, in Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan zangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections : A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 3-18 (fig. 2); and an undecorated meiping, excavated with cover and stand from the Xuande stratum of the Ming imperial kiln sites, which is closer again to Yuan prototypes, illustrated in Mingdai Xuande yuyao ciqi/Imperial Porcelains from the Reign of Xuande in the Ming Dynasty, Beijing, 2015, pl. 63. A smaller lotus-decorated Yongle meiping, similar to the present piece in shape, is compared with a Yuan dynasty piece, both in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in Oriental Ceramics. The World’s Great Collections, vol. 10, Tokyo, New York and San Francisco, 1980, col. pls 46 and 47.

Meiping such as the present one are known with various subtle, incised designs, most of which are also known from contemporary versions painted in underglaze cobalt blue. The lush peony pattern of the present piece, with small lotus sprays in a cloud collar around the shoulder and a florid classic scroll at the base, is extremely rare. White jars of this shape are better known with a variety of lotus designs, generally of smaller size. Compare a piece in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Minji meihin zuroku [Illustrated catalogue of important Ming porcelains], vol. 1, Tokyo, 1977, pl. 25, together with the blue-and-white counterpart, pl. 11; another in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Monochrome Porcelain, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 99; one in the National Museum of China, Beijing, is illustrated in Zhongguo Guojia Bowuguan guancang wenwu yanjiu congshu/Studies on the Collections of the National Museum of China. Ciqi juan: Mingdai [Porcelain section: Ming dynasty], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 25, with a blue-and-white version, pl. 10.

Four such meiping with lotus design were preserved in the Ardabil Shrine in Iran, see John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, D.C., 1956 (rev. ed. London, 1981), cat. nos 29.719-722, one of them illustrated pl. 115, together with its blue-and-white counterpart, pl. 51; and one in Topkapi Saray in Turkey, see Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, cat. no. 636, with a related blue-and-white design, cat. no. 623.

Yongle ‘sweet-white’ meiping with lotus designs were sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 5th November 1997, lot 1368; and in our London rooms, 17th December 1996, lot 71; and 13th November 2002, lot 104, the latter again at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29thMay 2007, lot 1481; a larger one of slightly different proportions was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 31st October 1994, lot 561."

It has an estimate of $2,300,000 to $2,800,000.  It sold for $3,142,500 including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article.

The total for the sale was $11,339,000.

Lot 4

Angela McAsteer Chistie's discussing Lot 4, a blue white moon vae,  Ming, Yongle Period, 11 3/8 inches high, at press preview

Lot 4, "exceptionally rare and important" blue-and-white moon flash, Ming, Yongle Dynasty, is 11 3/8 inches high.

In a catalogue essay entitled "Carnations Swaying in the Wind: An Iconic Yongle Moon Flask," Regina Krahl provides the following commentary:

"Yongle (r. 1403-1424) imperial porcelains are admired for their intrinsic beauty and physical quality, but this moon flask stands out: it is an iconic piece. Enticingly shaped and alluringly painted with one of the most enchanting flower designs, it is as pleasing to hold as it is to behold. Its fine workmanship and its harmony of form and decoration reflect the fundamental strengths of China’s porcelain production in this period. Its irresistible charm elevates it beyond the universally high standard of the Yongle imperial kilns. With only one companion piece of the same design, preserved in the Ottoman royal collection, this large moon flask is one of the most remarkable upright vessels of early Ming (1368-1644) imperial porcelain still in private hands.

It was in the Yongle reign that the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province were brought under strict imperial control. The Yongle Emperor clearly recognized the diplomatic potential of a product that was highly sought-after throughout Asia and of which China held a monopoly. Fine porcelains were of course also sent to the court and are remaining in the palace collections of Beijing and Taipei; yet some of the best pieces produced during that period were officially shipped abroad or granted to foreign embassies arriving in China, as prestigious gifts.

In the Yongle reign, the imperial court controlled not only the design and production of the wares from the imperial kilns, but also their distribution. Yongle porcelain was not available through the usual trading channels, which had brought Yuan (1279-1368) porcelains to the lands of the Near and Middle East and to East Africa. In excavations in the Middle East, where successive strata testify of the existence of continuous trade in Chinese ceramics, Yongle wares are notably absent. They were made and distributed under strict court supervision, with seconds being destroyed and buried so that they could not be copied, which clearly increased their value and their demand. Middle Eastern copies of Yongle designs, which are not uncommon, generally date from a least a century later, since models were not easily available to imitate.

The distribution of Yongle porcelains in the Yongle reign was probably largely due to the ambitious official maritime expeditions of the eunuch, Admiral Zheng He, who during the Yongle and early Xuande (1426-1435) periods undertook seven gigantic voyages westward, touching down at all important ports in Southeast and South Asia, along the Persian Gulf, on the Arabian Peninsula, along the Red Sea and almost halfway down the east coast of Africa. Besides silks, porcelains were the preferred Chinese goods abroad, and were exchanged against rare animals, medicinal and food plants, pearls, precious stones, ivory, tortoise shell, rhinoceros horn, incense and other luxury goods. Porcelains such as this moon flask, which is quintessentially Chinese in style and would immediately have been recognized as such in the Middle East, were so highly valued probably exactly because of their perceived exotic flair.

In China, the somewhat elliptical sides of these moon flasks were either recognized – or perhaps specially fashioned – to echo the shape of Chinese fans that traditionally served Chinese painters as canvases for nature studies. It is therefore not surprising that such subjects came to mind to Jingdezhen’s porcelain painters, when they approached these flasks.

The flowers depicted on the front and reverse of this flask, carnations and asters, are otherwise hardly seen on Chinese porcelain, and the romantic manner in which they are here represented is extremely rare among plant designs on Chinese porcelain, which generally are stylized into patterns, with flowers depicted as detached sprays floating in mid-air or as continuous scrolls. The painterly aspect of the present flower motifs is further emphasized by the indication of uneven ground from which the flowers grow, evoking real plants in a garden setting. In their naturalistic depiction, the two scenes are reminiscent of the treatment of plants in Chinese paintings. Nearly circular fan paintings with such studies of single flowering plants are well known from the Song dynasty (960-1279) and continued to be popular into the Ming (1368-1644). Compare, for example, two anonymous Song fan paintings, one depicting a branch of double-flowering peach, the other chrysanthemums with a butterfly hovering above, both preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and illustrated in Zhonghua wuqian nian wenwu jikan. Song hua bian/“Five Thousand Years of Chinese Art” Series. Sung Painting, part IV, Taipei, 1986, pls 69 and 90 (figs 1 and 2).

Only one companion piece exists of the same shape, size and design, the celebrated moon flask fitted with an Ottoman silver-gilt rim mount and screw cap, preserved in the Ottoman royal collection in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, Turkey. That flask has been illustrated over and over and has repeatedly featured on book covers and dust jackets. It was chosen, for example, for the dust jacket of the catalogue raisonné of the Museum’s Chinese ceramics, which are rich in fine early Ming blue-and-white wares, see Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, where it is also illustrated in color, p. 423 and discussed as cat. no. 613, and where further publications are listed. It graces the cover of the exhibition catalogue Ceramic Masterpieces of the Orient from the Topkapi Palace, Turkey, Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, 1990, with both sides illustrated again, cat. no. 18; as well as the dust jacket of Nakazawa Fujio and Hasegawa Shoko, Chūgoku no tōji/Chinese Ceramics, vol. 8, Gen Min no seika/Blue-and-White in Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Tokyo, 1995, with the opposite side illustrated as col. pl. 43; both sides are also illustrated as reference figures in the exhibition catalogue Jingdezhen Zhushan chutu Yongle guanyao ciqi [Yongle Imperial porcelain excavated at Zhushan, Jingdezhen], Capital Museum, Beijing, 2007, p. 15, fig. 3, by Ma Wenkuan, who characterizes its decoration as being “of pure and fresh beauty and excellence, great in elegance and serenity”.

The designs on both flasks are clearly based on the same draft, and vary only slightly in detail. While the carnations are similarly, perhaps somewhat more freely, rendered on the present piece than on the Topkapi Saray flask, the layout of the asters is here more compact, with some small leaves on the outer edges omitted to create a more concise composition. The Topkapi Saray flask bears two drilled owners’ marks on the base, one consisting of three dots very similar to the mark on the present flask, the other probably representing Arabic writing, but illegible. Such marks were applied particularly in Iran to early Ming porcelains, and both flasks may have come from China directly to Iran in the Yongle period before being separated and one ending up in Turkey.

Only one other Yongle moon flask is similarly decorated to echo a fan painting, the famous flask in the Sir Percival David Collection in the British Museum, which depicts birds on flowering branches between curling cloud motifs; it is equally reproduced in numerous publications, for example, in Regina Krahl and Jessica Harrison-Hall, Chinese Ceramics. Highlights from the Sir Percival David Collection, London, 2009, no. 28 and p. 59 (fig. 3). A moon flask of the same design appears in a painting by Iran’s most famous painter Riza-yi ‘Abbasi (c. 1565-1635), court painter under the Safavid Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1587-1629), who donated the Safavid royal collection of Chinese porcelains to the Ardabil Shrine.

Only two further flasks, one also in the Topkapi Saray Museum, the other in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, are comparable in size and status, both showing the same supporting designs of upright petals on the neck and petal panels at the shoulder and foot, but are decorated in between with foreign musicians and dancers; see Krahl, op.cit., cat. no. 612; and Minji meihin zuroku, [Illustrated catalogue of important Ming porcelains], vol. 1, Tokyo, 1977, pl. 14.

This double-handled, oval-sectioned shape is probably derived from pottery vessels that can ultimately be traced to the 18th Dynasty of Egypt (c. 1543–1292 BC), but continued to be popular there for centuries. Examples from 6th/7th century Roman Egypt were known as St. Menas flasks since, filled with oils or holy water, they served Christian pilgrims to the tomb of St. Menas near Alexandria as souvenirs, which gave rise to the term ‘pilgrims’ flasks’. It was around that time that such flasks (bianhu) arrived in China, probably with Sogdian merchants, and were copied in lead-glazed earthenware.

By the time the imperial potters at Jingdezhen became interested in this shape, it retained only a basic relationship to the original form. The sophisticated, faintly elliptical, circular outline of this flask and its bulging sides, which make the softly rounded shape so endearing, are superbly counterbalanced by the slender cylindrical neck and fanciful curled handles, which add a light and elegant touch. It is a shape that clearly represented a challenge for potters used to throwing vessels on the potter’s wheel. Different ways of forming it were experimented with in the Yongle period. A similar piece, of slightly smaller size than the present flask, made from two vertically joined halves – which might seem the obvious way to fashion it – was abandoned at the kilns and has been recovered from the waste heaps of the kiln sites; see Jingdezhen chutu Ming chu guanyao ciqi/Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, cat. no. 62. Instead, a different method of joining, which can be seen on the present flask, of two halves aligned horizontally, became prevalent and was retained throughout the Ming dynasty.

A number of smaller (around 25 cm) Yongle moon flasks of this form are preserved, painted with fruit or flower scrolls encircling the whole body, which no longer evoke fan paintings. Even such examples have very rarely been offered at auction and hardly remain in private hands. Two flasks decorated with a flowering camellia scroll are in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 1, pls 87 and 88; one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is illustrated in Minji meihin zuroku, op.cit., pl. 16; one in the Shanghai Museum, in Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan zangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections : A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 3-9, and on the books’ dust jacket; and one in the Musée Guimet, Paris, in Fujioka Ryoichi and Hasebe Gakuji, eds, Sekai tōji zenshū/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 14: Min/Ming Dynasty, Tokyo, 1976, col. pl. 13.

A smaller moon flask with formal lotus scrolls from the Qing emperors’ summer resort Bishu Shanzhuang at Chengde in Hebei province is illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji [Complete series on Chinese ceramics], vol. 12, Shanghai, 2000, pl. 17. A similar flask with a peony scroll, with reduced neck, engraved with the name of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707) and a date equivalent to 1659-60, is published in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, pl. 4:17, where the possibility of a slightly later, Xuande (1426-1435), date for this design is evoked; another flask of this pattern is illustrated in John Ayers, Chinese Ceramics. The Koger Collection, London, 1985, pl. 51 and Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. 4, London, 1994-2010, no. 1635, and it was later sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 9th October 2012, lot 37.

Of similar Yongle moon flasks with scrolling lychee branches around the body one example is also in the British Museum from the Oppenheim collection, ibid., pl. 3:20; one in the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, from the collections of Alfred Clark and Ataka Eiichi, was included in the Museum’s exhibition Imperial Porcelain: Recent Discoveries of Jingdezhen Ware, Osaka, 1995, cat. no. 218; and one in the Matsuoka Museum of Art, Tokyo, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 18th May 1982, lot 144, was included in the Museum’s exhibition Tōyō tōji meihin zuroku [Illustrated catalogue of masterpieces of Oriental ceramics], Tokyo, 1991, cat. no. 70; and is illustrated in Sotheby’s: Thirty Years in Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2003, pl. 208; a fourth was sold in our London rooms, 5tJuly 1977, lot 201."

The lot has an estimate of $2,200,000 to $3,000,000.  It failed to sell.

Lot 6 blue

Lot 6, blue and white reserve decorated "peony" dish, xuande mark and period, 15 1/4 inches in diameter.

Lot 6 is an "exceptionally raree and large fine blue and white reserve decorated "peony" dish, xuande mark and period, 15 1/4 inches in diameter.

In a catalogue essay entitled "Royal Blue," Regina Krahl provides the following commentary about this lot:

"This magnificent, large ‘royal blue’ dish was made to impress the imperial court and reflects the search for new classics at China’s imperial porcelain kilns during the Xuande reign (1426-1435). Its extremely rare reverse decoration technique had been experimented with already in the late Yuan period (1279-1368), but in order for it to find favor at the early Ming court (1368-1644) it needed to be refined technically. The Xuande period is marked by a sudden keen imperial interest in ceramics. While in the Yongle reign (1403-1424), many of the finest items made at Jingdezhen were still sent abroad, in the Xuande period, with the generalized use of the imperial reign mark, production at the imperial kilns appears to have been destined almost exclusively for the palace.

Although the rich cobalt-blue ground worked spectacularly well to highlight bright fruit and flower designs, the material costs – due to the high quality and quantity of cobalt required – and the technical expertise required by the indirect reserve decoration process probably made production on a larger scale of wares in this style impractical even for the imperial kilns. The production time would have far exceeded that of dishes painted in the positive, in blue on white, so that this technique was clearly not suited for production in larger numbers. Apart from occasional trials, it was more or less abandoned after the Xuande reign, to be properly revived again – like many other early Ming styles – only in the Yongzheng period (1723-1735).

The resist technique as used on this dish appears complicated. The design was first incised into the unfired white body and the mark on the outside inscribed in underglaze blue. Then either the design only or the complete inside and outside – opinions vary – was or were covered with a transparent glaze, and subsequently the background around the design with a blue glaze. The plain rings around the center and the foot, however, appear as if scratched through the blue glaze, and in some areas, more transparent glaze appears to have been added after the blue, creating in places a very thick white layer, which has partly obscured the incising. The overall effect was much refined since the Yuan dynasty, the surface being smooth and even, without any gaps where blue meets white.

Only three other dishes of this decoration technique, design and size appear to be recorded. Although the silhouette effect seems at first glance almost stencil-like, since the basic composition is always the same, each dish is individually hand-decorated and varies from the next. On a companion dish in the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, from the Ataka collection, for example, the two parallel stems in the center, of which one belongs to the main peony bloom and the other to the small bud and leaves behind it, seem to have been inadvertently overpainted in blue, so that the bloom appears to be floating. Yet overall, the dish obviously pleased the courtly quality control in the Xuande reign (so that rejection was not considered), as it still does today: in Japan the dish has been designated as ‘Important Cultural Property’. The dish has been frequently illustrated and exhibited; it is published, for example, in Sekai tōji zenshū/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 14, Tokyo, 1976, col. pl. 30; and was included in Chūgoku no tōji/Special Exhibition of Chinese Ceramics, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1994, cat. no. 267.

Another dish of this design, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated Mingdai Xuande yuyao ciqi/Imperial Porcelains from the Reign of Xuande in the Ming Dynasty, Beijing, 2015, pl. 89; and a third such dish, also formally in the collection of Baron Guy de Villelume in France, where it was displayed together with the present dish, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 2nd December 2015, lot 3112.  

This peony design with fruit sprays inside and a chrysanthemum scroll outside is otherwise very rarely seen in any coloration, but was executed at the Jingdezhen imperial kilns equally in cobalt-blue on white, in iron-brown on white, and in cobalt-blue against a yellow background, very similarly conceived in all versions, with even the fruit sprays distributed around the center in the same order and at the same coordinates; rejected examples of all three styles from the imperial kiln site were included in the exhibition Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi/Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. nos 85-1 to 85-3 (figs 1-3); and a successfully fired example with this design in a very pale café-au-lait colour is in the Shanghai Museum, see Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan zangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections: A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 3-50 (fig. 4).

Only about a dozen related Xuande dishes are known, all except one of smaller size. The one larger dish is a broken piece in the Meiyintang collection, illustrated in Sekai bijutsu taizenshū /New History of World Art: Tōyō hen [Oriental section], vol. 8: Min [Ming], Tokyo, 1999, pl. 144, sold in our London rooms, 10th November 2004, lot 590, and published in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1667.

The waste heaps of the Jingdezhen kiln sites also brought to light sherds of a somewhat smaller dish (35 cm) decorated with a daylily – a pattern, of which no perfect example appears to survive – which was exhibited in reconstructed form at the Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, op.cit., cat. no. 82-3.

Otherwise dishes decorated in this technique are known in two well-known designs that later became very popular painted in blue against a yellow ground, both smaller: one with a flowering pomegranate branch, the other with gardenia in the center, both surrounded by four fruiting branches. Six dishes (approximately 29 cm) are known of the pomegranate design: in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, included in the exhibition Mingdai Xuande guanyao jinghua tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, cat. no.198; in the Palace Museum, Beijing, see Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang gu taoci ciliao xuancui [Selection of ancient ceramic material from the Palace Museum], Beijing 2005, vol. 1, pl. 111; in the Asia Society, New York, from the Sedgwick and Rockefeller collections, illustrated in Denise Patry Leidy, Treasures of Asian Art: The Asia Society’s Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, New York, 1994, pl. 178, and sold twice in our London rooms, 9th November 1954, lot 72, and 2nd July 1968, lot 122; and another was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th April 2007, lot 839, and is illustrated in Julian Thompson, The Alan Chuang Collection of Chinese Porcelain, Hong Kong, 2009, cat. no. 13. A second dish of this design from the Sedgwick collection, also attributed to the Xuande period, but unmarked, is illustrated in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, no. 4:41; and a deliberately destroyed example recovered from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen, was exhibited at the Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, op.cit., cat. no. 84.

All these dishes have the mark reserved in a cartouche below the rim, like the present piece, and the unglazed bases tend to be burnt a vivid orange to a dark reddish brown, perhaps due to application of an iron-rich wash, although this seems to be missing on the Ataka example. Smaller dishes decorated in this technique (c. 25 cm), of the gardenia pattern, have a glazed base with the regular reign mark inscribed within a double circle. Six dishes of this smallest size are recorded, of which three are in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, see the Museum’s 1998 exhibition, op.cit., cat. no. 82, and Soame Jenyns in Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 31, 1957-59, pl. 6c; one in the Guangdong Provincial Museum, see Zhongguo taoci quanji [Complete series on Chinese ceramics], vol. 13, Shanghai, 2000, pl. 26; one in the Anhui Provincial Museum, illustrated in Wenwu 1982, no. 9, p. 20, figs 1 and 2; and one, sold in our London rooms, 13th March 1973, lot 235, published in Tōji taikei, vol. 42, Tokyo, 1975, col. pl. 15 and p. 129, fig. 15, today probably in a private Japanese collection.

This latter gardenia design was closely copied in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), see Lu Minghua, op.cit., pl. 5-33, for an example in the Shanghai Museum attributed to the Yongzheng period, when pieces with contemporary white-against-blue designs were also produced in this technique, see Krahl, op.cit., vol. 2, no. 843. A blue-glazed ground was in the Xuande period also used for a few bowls and small dishes with reserved fish-pond designs, which are executed, however, in a slightly different technique, with details painted in slip."

The lot has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000.  It sold for $2,172,500.

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