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Ming: Luminous Dawn of Empire

Sotheby's New York

10 AM., March 20, 2018

Sale 9837

wintergreen jar

Lot 105, Wintergreen glazed jar and cover, Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period, 4 3/4 inches in diameter

By Carter B. Horsley

This March 20, 2018 of Ming: Luminous Dawn of Empire March 20, 2018 auction at Sotheby's New York has only 14 lots.

Lot 105 is a simple but very fine Ming wintergreen glazed jar and cover from the Yongle Period.  It is 4 3/4 inches in diameter.

The catalogue contains an essay entitled "Solitary Gem in Jadeite Green" by Regina Krahl that provides the following commentary:

"It will be hard to find a porcelain vessel more pleasing in shape or more ravishing in color than this small covered jar from the imperial Yongle workshops of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province. The smooth, bulging vessel with its softly rounded cover, enveloped in a luminous, glassy, blue-green tinted glaze, has a gem-like quality as encountered only in the Yongle period (1403-1424). With its superbly designed form, its outstanding material and its perfect execution, it is a masterpiece from a golden era of China's porcelain production. No other ‘jadeite green’ jar of this shape, complete with its cover, appears to be recorded; altogether only six pieces including this jar, dressed in this dazzling glaze, appear to be extant; and only two comparable jars have retained their covers, both from the Qing court collection and today preserved in the Palace Museums in Beijing and Taipei.

"The reign of the Yongle Emperor, whose rule commenced in Nanjing and ended in Beijing, was marked by extraordinary innovation in technology, imagination in design, and rigorous pursuit of quality. Specially designated imperial workshops created not only porcelain, but also lacquerware, cloisonné, textiles, Buddhist gilt-bronzes and other works of art, all of unparalleled excellence, thus initiating an unprecedented flowering of China’s arts and crafts. The imperial porcelain workshops at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province increased quantity as well as quality of their production with awesome rapidity, as the excavations of the kilns’ waste heaps have documented. As new glaze colors and firing techniques, new shapes and designs were tried out, the potters' technical leap forward was so immense, that thereafter no real innovation took place for centuries, until the introduction of foreign technology from the West in the eighteenth century supplied new impulses once more.

"While many porcelains of the Yongle period were created specifically for diplomatic missions, to be distributed as imperial gifts to foreign potentates, and are characterized by larger sizes and a bolder aesthetic approach, more delicate and sophisticated wares such as this jar, were produced at the same time to cater to the needs of the imperial family and the court at large in the new palace buildings in Beijing. The present jar, which was probably designed to hold chess pieces, may have been destined for the Emperor’s private quarters towards the back of the Forbidden City. Such pieces were made with the greatest care, in very small numbers.

"Many different glaze colors were experimented with at the imperial kilns during this period, and even closely related, yet clearly distinguishable shades could be created with daunting precision. No less than three types of pale greenish glazes, for example, appear to have been developed and employed side by side in the Yongle reign, all of which look rather different in real life, but less so in illustrations. In the West all three are thus generally referred to as ‘wintergreen’. In China, however, they are clearly differentiated by different terms.

"The sparkling bluish-green glaze of the present jar – arguably the most desirable and the most prestigious green hue – is in China called cuiqing. Cui means ‘kingfisher’ and is used to denote any kind of blue green reminiscent of the bird’s plumage, for example, that of a kind of green bamboo, or that of jadeite. What in China is generally called ‘wintergreen’ (dongqing), but also ‘Eastern green’ (dongqing written with a different dong character), is a more typical celadon color, more yellowish and less glassy, probably intended to imitate Longquan celadon, which is known from Yongle stem bowls. Finally, a paler, more watery, bluish-tinged glaze is seen on some deep conical bowls with incised lotus scrolls, which have been attributed to various fifteenth-century periods and in China are now generally dated to the Yongle reign. That glaze is called qingbai (‘bluish- or greenish-white’), thus again relating it to a ware of the past.

"‘Jadeite green’, or cuiqing, porcelains are among the rarest monochrome pieces successfully created at that time. Only five other pieces glazed in this color appear to be recorded: The pair to this jar, of the same shape, but lacking its cover, is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, published on the Museum’s website ( Two closely related jars with this kind of glaze are preserved from the Qing court collection, both of very similar form, with a similar cover, but with three small lugs attached around the shoulder: one now in the Palace Museum, Beijing, (fig. 1), is illustrated in Mingdai Hongwu Yongle yuyao ciqi/Imperial Porcelains from the Reigns of Hongwu and Yongle in the Ming Dynasty, Beijing, 2015, pl. 122; and again in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Monochrome Porcelain, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 123; the other, now in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, (fig. 2) was included in the Museum’s exhibition Shi yu xin: Mingdai Yongle huangdi de ciqi/Pleasingly Pure and Lustrous: Porcelains from the Yongle Reign (1403-1424) of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 2017, catalogue, pp. 82-3. Two other jars of this latter shape have survived without a cover: one, retaining the three lugs, is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, (fig. 3) illustrated in Wu Tung, Earth Transformed: Chinese Ceramics in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 1998, pp. 112-3 and on the dust jacket; the other, with the lugs ground down, has been sold at Christie’s New York, 16th/17th September 2010, lot 1357.

"After the Yongle period this subtle coloration, which requires impeccably prepared materials and utmost control of the firing, was abandoned and never properly revived, even though a large range of exquisite bluish-green glaze tones were created again three centuries later, in the Yongzheng reign (1723-1735), quite possibly modeled on pieces such as this jar, which undoubtedly would have caught the Yongzheng Emperor’s eye.

"The celadon glaze (dongqing) is known from five contemporary Yongle stem bowls: two in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Mingdai Hongwu Yongle yuyao ciqi, op.cit., pl. 141 and The Complete Collection of Treasures, op.cit., pl. 124; and in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuguan cang gu taoci ciliao xuancui [Selection of ancient ceramic material from the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2005, vol. 1, pl. 88; one in the Tibet Museum, illustrated in Xizang Bowuguan cang Ming Qing ciqi jingpin/Ming and Qing Dynasties Ceramics Preserved in Tibet Museum, Beijing, 2004, pl. 26; and two sold in our rooms, one with anhua dragons around the interior and a four-character Yongle mark incised in the center, sold in Hong Kong, 24th November 1981, lot 133, and again in these rooms, 22nd March 2001, lot 90; the other unmarked, sold in our London rooms, 7th April 1981, lot 252, and in our Hong Kong rooms, 11th May 1983, lot 105. For a pale bluish-green (qingbai) glazed piece in the Palace Museum, Beijing, see the bowl from the Qing court collection illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures, op.cit., pl. 125, there also attributed to the Yongle period.

"The endearing shape of this jar is also extremely rare, but is similarly seen on monochrome 'sweet-white' jars with incised decoration, now all lacking their covers; one such piece, preserved in the Shanghai Museum, is published 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. 4-12 (fig. 4); another was sold in these rooms, 4th June 1985, lot 1, from the J.M. Hu Family Collection; and a third jar of this form in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, was included in the exhibition Mingdai chunian ciqi tezhan mulu/Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Early Ming Period Porcelain, Taipei, 1982, cat. no. 55, illustrated with a non-matching cover. Like the ‘jadeite green’ jars, these white jars with incised design were also made in two similar versions, with and without lugs; for the latter see an example illustrated in Bo Gyllensvärd, Chinese Ceramics in the Carl Kempe Collection, Stockholm, 1964, pl. 664.

"The shape may be following earlier jars for chess pieces, although the proportions and form of the cover were much adjusted in the Yongle period...."

The lot has an estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It failed to sell.

Lotus Bud vase

Lot 113, Blue and White Lotus Bud vase, Ming Dynasty, Chenghua Period, 10 1/2 inches high

Lot 113 is a blue-and-white Lotus Buid vase from the Ming Dynasty, Chenghua period.  It is 10 1/2 inches high.

The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:

"The short Chenghua reign (1465-1487) is renowned as one of the most remarkable periods of China’s porcelain production, where the body and glaze materials used at the Jingdezhen imperial kilns reached the highest quality and where the potters were particularly inventive in their designs. The present bottle – an extremely rare upright vessel from the imperial manufacture of this period – is most unusually fashioned and masterfully executed. Geng Baochang, who illustrates it in colour in his standard work on Ming and Qing porcelain, calls this bottle a model example (dianxing) of Chenghua blue-and-white (Ming Qing ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain], Hong Kong, 1993, p. 88).

"The most distinctive feature of Chenghua porcelain is its superb, smooth, silky texture, which derives from an extremely pure material and is a delight not only for the eyes, but also to the touch, and unequalled by porcelains from any other period. The tactility of its surface is one of the features immediately noticeable when holding this piece.

"The Chenghua period is not noted for its production of vases or any upright shapes and no such pieces, except for small covered jars and one small unmarked wine ewer, are included, for example, in the exhibition catalogue of Chenghua porcelains from the imperial collection now in Taiwan, Chenghua ciqi tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ch’eng-hua Porcelain Ware, 1465-1487, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2003.

"A neck fragment of a companion vase was, however, excavated from the Ming imperial kiln sites at Jingdezhen and is illustrated in Gugong Bowuyuan yu Jingdezhen taoci kaogu xin chengguo. Ming Qing yuyao ciqi/The New Achievements on Ceramic Archaeology of the Palace Museum and Jingdezhen. The Porcelain of Imperial Kiln in Ming and Qing Dynasties, Beijing, 2016, no. 091 and p. 387, fig. 4 (fig. 1), where it is stated, p. 386, that blue-and-white bottles in general are very rare in the Chenghua reign and that no heirloom or excavated bottle of this form is recorded. The imperial kiln sites also brought to light, however, fragments of one other unmarked blue-and-white flask, shaped like a holy water bottle, ibid., pl. 092.

"The neck fragment of the present shape was discovered to the north of Longzhu Pavillion of Zhushan in Jingdezhen in a stratum containing both marked and unmarked Chenghua items, located immediately above a layer pertaining to the ‘Interregnum’ period (1436-1464), and below another Chenghua stratum, thus obviously belonging to the early Chenghua period. Porcelain production at the imperial kilns in the Chenghua reign is generally divided into an early and a late phase (with some scholars proclaiming a less distinctly defined third phase between the two), whereby the early phase is believed to have begun a few years into the reign, around 1468. This early production for the court, which in many ways still follows styles from the Xuande period (1426-1435), is particularly noted for its freely decorated blue-and-white wares, while the later period is most famous for its polychrome doucai style and its more formal blue-and-white ‘palace’ bowls.

"While the painted decoration on the present bottle still echoes styles known from the Xuande reign, its shape, with its unexpected, playful, sculptural elements of a lotus-bud mouth and lotus-leaf handles with pierced openings, is totally innovative and does not seem to be following any precedents. Although the basic shape may have been inspired by bronze bottles, hu, from the late Bronze Age, the floral mouth and handles have nothing to do with such models; compare, for example, a silver-inlaid bronze hu of the Western Han period (206 BC – AD 9) from the Sze Yuan Tang collection, with garlic-shaped mouth with pendent leaf motifs and applied animal masks to hold ring handles, illustrated in Li Xueqin, The Glorious Traditions of Chinese Bronzes, Singapore, 2000, cat. no. 89.

"The painted designs of the present bottle are drawn from Xuande blue-and-white, which reinforces the assumption that the piece was made in the early phase of Chenghua production....

"Only one companion bottle appears to be recorded, a bottle sold in our Hong Kong rooms 9th October 2007, lot 1557. Another bottle of this design, but somewhat differently executed and probably slightly later in date, was offered in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th October 2006, lot 1162; and in the Jiajing reign (1522-1566) this design was again copied by the imperial kilns: a similar bottle of Jiajing mark and period was included in the exhibition Enlightening Elegance. Imperial Porcelain of the Mid to Late Ming. The Huaihaitang Collection, the Art Museum, Institute of Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2012-13, cat. no. 36 (fig. 2).

"When the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735) tried to revive the production of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, he selected Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) porcelains either to be closely copied or to serve as inspiration for new, contemporary designs. In his reign a very tall blue-and-white bottle was produced, which looks like a compromise between the present vase and an archaic bronze hu, the former providing the lotus-bud mouth, the latter the animal-mask handles; see Sotheby’s Hong Kong – Twenty Years, 1973-1993, Hong Kong, 1993, no. 171."

The lot has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000.  It sold for $2,895,000.

Ewer  110

Lot 110, Blue and white ewer, Xuande mark and period, 13 inches high

Lot 110 is a fine blue-and-white ewer with a Xuande mark and period.  It is 13 inches high.

The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:

"This ewer of Xuande mark and period (1426-1435) appears to be unique, although its form and design are familiar from examples of the Yongle reign (1403-1424). The reigns of Yongle and Xuande in the early Ming period (1368-1644) marked the first great era of China’s imperial porcelain production, when the Jingdezhen kilns in Jiangxi province were strictly controlled by and worked exclusively for the court. Although the imperial porcelain production of the Xuande reign is characterized by continuity, as many of the shapes and designs introduced in the Yongle period were retained, the potters never simply duplicated earlier models, but created updated versions by deliberately modifying profiles and fine-tuning details.

"The present ewer shape, with its unusual curved, square-sectioned spout that does not seem to emanate from a potter’s repertoire of forms, is a perfect case in point. Ultimately indebted to Middle Eastern metal prototypes, it was taken up by Jingdezhen’s craftsmen in the Yongle period in two different versions, one more eccentric, faintly lobed and with a star-shaped collar around the neck, closer to the metal original, the other circular and with a circular collar and thus more in tune with a potter’s manufacturing methods, as seen in the present piece. In the short period between the early Yongle and the Xuande reign, this latter shape, which is much rarer than the former, was itself modified twice.

"The early Yongle stratum of the Jingdezhen imperial kiln sites already brought to light the discarded remains of a monochrome white ewer of this form, with the square spout fully opened, a model of which no example appears to have survived intact, see 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, cat. no. 6 (fig. 1).

"A blue-and-white version of this shape may have been developed somewhat later in the Yongle reign. Painted with hibiscus, musk mallow, peony, chrysanthemum, rose and other flowers, all with matching blooms and leaves densely interlaced around the body, pinks around the neck, and key-fret, classic-scroll and petal-panel borders, it combines the archetypal designs of early Ming blue-and-white. The spout is now partly closed and pierced only with a double-gourd shaped opening; see the ewer illustrated in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, no. 3:15.

"This Yongle version is the direct prototype of our Xuande piece, which shows the same lush flower scrolls and supporting designs. Yet it has one distinct, if tiny difference: its spout also has a double-gourd shaped opening, but while the Yongle gourd has a pointed tip, following the shape of the fruit, on the present ewer, it is shaped more like a double-gourd vessel with a flared neck.

"No other ewer of this form of Xuande mark and period appears to have survived, but a virtually identical piece was reconstructed from sherds recovered from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns at Zhushan in Jingdezhen. That ewer has been much published, for example, in the Hong Kong Museum of Art catalogue, 1989, op.cit., cat. no. 79; in Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi/Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 22; in Jingdezhen chutu Yuan Ming guanyao ciqi/Yuan’s and Ming’s Imperial Porcelain Unearthed from Jingdezhen, Yan-Huang Art Museum, Beijing, 1999, cat. no. 118; and in Jingdezhen chutu Mingdai yuyao ciqi [Porcelains from the Ming imperial kilns excavated at Jingdezhen], Beijing, 2009, pl. 076 (figs 2-4).

"In the Yongle period a whole range of Islamic metal shapes were reproduced in white and blue-and-white porcelain, and many of them continued to be made in the Xuande period, with slight adjustments to their proportion and details. This ewer shape appears to derive from slightly earlier Persian models, 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, pp. 103-4, where several bronze vessels from the Keir collection, dating from around the 12th century are illustrated in comparison to an unmarked blue-and-white example, pl. 3-22 (fig. 5); another silver- and copper-inlaid brass prototype from Herat, present Western Afghanistan, of the 13th century is illustrated in James W. Allan, Islamic Metalwork: the Nuhad Es-Said Collection, London, 1982 (rev.ed. 1999), pl. 5. As mentioned above, this metal shape was in the Yongle period copied in two different ways in porcelain: while the present shape, which represents the rarer form, shows less similarity to the metal original, the more common version, with a star-shaped collar around the neck and vertical panels around the body follows the metal original more closely.

"Unmarked blue-and-white ewers of both forms were sent abroad, probably as imperial gifts to foreign rulers, but equally entered the Chinese court collection. For ewers from the Safavid royal collection in the Ardebil Shrine in Iran see John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, D.C., 1956 (rev.ed., London, 1981), pls 54 and 55; and T. Misugi, Chinese Porcelain Collections in the Near East: Topkapi and Ardebil, Hong Kong, 1981, vol. III, p. 160, no. A.82; for an example from the Ottoman royal collection in Turkey see Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, no. 622.

"Yongle blue-and-white ewers of both versions in the National Palace Museum were included in the Museum’s exhibition Shi yu xin: Mingdai Yongle huangdi de ciqi/Pleasingly Pure and Lustrous: Porcelains from the Yongle Reign (1403-1424) of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 2017, catalogue pp. 114-115; further examples from the Qing court collection are also preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, see 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 37, 38 and 92.

"While all other extant porcelain examples are unmarked, Geng attributes those ewers that are closer to the metal prototype to the Yongle reign, and the version, which is similar in shape to the present piece, to the Xuande period. In the Hong Kong Museum of Art catalogue, op.cit., 1989, Liu Xinyuan compares the shapes of Yongle and Xuande ewers of this model in a line drawing, p. 30 top right, and remarks, p. 69, on the fact that by the Xuande period the handle runs down more vertically and has lost its former curve. One of the ewers in Taipei and one in Beijing are illustrated with a cover, but the covers might be later additions.

"Only three blue-and-white ewers of the present design, all unmarked, have ever been sold at auction: one, sold at Sotheby’s London, 3rd December 1963, lot 106 (fig. 6). Another, acquired in Bengal, India, by Sir John Murray MacGregor of MacGregor (1745-1822), Auditor General of Bengal under the Hon. East India Company, with an engraved Persian inscription that indicates that it once belonged to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) and a date corresponding to the twentieth year of his reign, AD 1625, was sold at Christies London 15th July 1981, lot 73 and in our Hong Kong rooms, 17th May 1988, lot 18; the third was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 2nd May 1995, lot 17, is now in the Au Bak Ling collection and was included in the exhibition Hundred Masterpieces of Imperial Chinese Ceramics from the Au Bak Ling Collection, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1998, no. 19.

"Many blue-and-white designs of the Yongle period were copied in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), particularly to the order of the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735), among them also ewers of this form, but only the related version with star-shaped collar, see Rose Kerr et al., Chinese Antiquities from the Wou Kiuan Collection: Wou Lien-Pai Museum, Chelmsford, 2011, cat. no. 136; and two pieces sold in our London rooms, one more closely copying the Ming prototype, 15th April 1980, lot 289, the other interpreting the design more freely, 15th December 1981, lot 248."

It has an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.  It sold for $3,135,000.

Longquan  102

Lot 102, celadon-glazed Peony bottle vase, Yuhuchunping, Ming Dynasty, Hongwu Period, 13 inches high

Lot 102 is a good celadon-glazed Peony bottle vase, Yuhuchunping, Ming Dynasty, Hongwu period.  It is 13 inches high.

The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:

"This yuhuchunping, with its full blooms loosely carved among lushly rendered foliage, its jade-like glaze and its well-proportioned, elegant shape, exemplifies the Longquan potter’s skill and creativity.

"Longquan and Jingdezhen sourced from the same type of ‘pattern books’, assembled during the Hongwu Emperor’s reign (1364-1398) when manufacture standards were regularized at both imperial kilns. Yet, some complicated designs may have been primarily designed for Jingdezhen, as they were more suitable for the painting brush than for the carver’s tool. The Longquan carver copied the designs to the best of his ability, showing hereby his creativity. The present design, known from blue-and-white and underglaze-red yuhuchun vases of this period, is splendidly executed, in an even more naturalistic and free rendering than seen on its Jingdezhen counterparts. Here, the artist cleverly used his technique to its utmost advantage by fashioning the deeply incised pattern in such a way as to reveal a shading of darker green where the glaze pooled, giving the piece a most attractive appeal.

"This type of pear-shaped vase was in demand both for the domestic and foreign markets, and continued to be popular into the fifteenth century, with a variety of carved designs. A similar example, fired for the court, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is illustrated in Tsai Mei-fen, ed., Bilü – Mingdai Longquan yao Qingci/Green – Longquan Celadon of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 2009, no. 52, where the vase is compared to an excavated piece from the tomb of Zhang Yun, dated to the 28th year of the Hongwu reign (1395) and to a vase, of simpler design, unearthed from the tomb of Chen Wen of Pingjiang in Anhui, dated to the 12th year of the Yongle reign (1414), together with similar examples, no. 51 and nos 53-58....

"Blue-and-white and underglaze-red counterparts of these yuhuchunping are in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Qinghua Youlihong/Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), Gugong Bowuyuan Cang Wenwu Zhenpin Quanji/The Complete Collections of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 14 and pls. 196 and 197 with peonies and pl. 198 with lotus. Another blue-and-white example in the Philadelphia Museum of Art is illustrated in Margaret Medley, Yuan Porcelain and Stoneware, London, pl. 51b."

The lot has an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000. It failed to sell.

Water dropper  111

Lot 111, "Qilin" water-dropper, Xuande mark and period, gilt bronze, 3 5/8 inches long

Lot 111 is an exquisite "Qilin" gilt-bronze waterdropper with an Xuande mark and period.  It is 3 5/8 inches long.

"Xuande reign-marked water droppers are extremely rare, and no other example appears to have been published. However, the depiction of the well-cast ferocious facial expression, finely combed-effect of the whorls of its mane and its powerful horns can be compared to the dragons on a Xuande bronze censer, also with a reign mark and of the period, included in the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong exhibition Arts from the Scholar's Studio, Fung Ping Shan Museum, Hong Kong, 1986, cat. no. 139.

"The rigid spine, prominent archaistic features and the almost deliberate dramatic quality of the present piece are characteristic of early Ming sculpture and recall the stone sculpture lining the spirit road of the Ming Tombs near Beijing, such as a qilin, depicted in a similar pose on a ceremonial archway, in situ at the Valley of the Ming Tombs, Beijing, illustrated in Ann Paludan, The Chinese Spirit Road, New Haven, 1991, pl. 220.

"For a water dropper in the form of a mythical animal attributed to the Ming period, see one included op cit., cat. no. 208; and another sold at Christie's London, 20th-21st June 1984, lot 353. Compare also slightly later incense burners of similar qilin form, but with one horn on its head; such as one cast in a similar kneeling position sold at Christie's London, 14th-16th December 1983, lot 326; and a standing version sold at Christie's London, 8th June 1993, lot 140."

The lot has an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000. It failed to sell.

Thangka 106

Lot 106, Vajrasattva and Prajnapamita embroidered silk thangka, Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period, 52 by 35 inches

Lot 106 is a striking embroidered silk thangka of Vajrasattva and Pranapamita from the Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period.  It measures 52 by 35 inches.

The catalogue entry provides the following commentary:

"This sumptuous thangka illustrates the Yongle Emperor’s (r. 1403-1424) devoted patronage of Tibetan Buddhism and the extraordinary ritual objects that were produced as a result. It is remarkably well-preserved, retaining the brilliant surface which has been created using a special and particularly laborious satin stitch technique with silk floss (single thread). An imperial quality is created through the extravagant use of yellow, a color that possesses the highest symbolic quality as it signifies both the emperor, and renunciation and humility. Thangkas of this type were produced and presented by the imperial court as gifts for Tibetan religious officials. Official accounts, in particular the court record of daily events, Xizang shiliao, document numerous imperial gifts to Tibetan lamas, and to their temples and monasteries in the Chinese capital and Tibet.

"The central scene depicts Vajradhara in the posture of yabyum (‘father-mother’) with his consort, Prajnaparamita. According to the Sakya order and Karma orders of the New (Sarma) School of Tibetan Buddhism, which had significant influence in the court of the Yongle Emperor, Vajradhara is the Primordial Enlightened Being (Adi Buddha), the embodiment of all Buddhist wisdom and the teacher of all tantras. He wears a five-pronged crown, which symbolizes the Five Dhyani Buddhas. An anthropomorphic representation of the Mahayana text of the same name, Prajnaparamita represents supreme wisdom and according to the Mahayana school, the Mother of all the Buddhas. Thus their pose embodies the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male) that is believed by many Mahayana Buddhists to be necessary for enlightenment. The sensuality of these figures extends to the smallest details, as evidenced in Vajradhara’s delicately curved fingers that clutch a vajra (thunderbolt scepter denoting clarity of mind) and a ghanta (prayer bell associated with wisdom), the delicate rows of beads of Prajnaparamita’s girdle and the intimate gaze locked between the two figures....

"Characteristic of the Yongle period is the physiognomy of the figures, with their round faces and broad forehead, along with the richness of the diadem and jewels, the flamboyant flowing scarf and the ornate lotus-petal throne. The format of this embroidery, however, with the flared fabric mounts, closely resembles Tibetan paintings of the period. According to Michael Henss, these early ‘pictorial embroideries, tapestries, and brocades fall in between established art historical domains in two ways: they cannot be classified as paintings, nor are they textiles in the usual sense; Chinese by technique and origin, but Tibetan by subject and composition (see ‘The Woven Image: Tibeto-Chinese Textile Thangkas of the Yuan and Early Ming Dynasties’, Orientations, November 1997, p. 26).

"Although no closely related examples appear to have been published, elements of the iconography represented in a similar style can be seen on other thangkas attributed to the same period; see two examples depicting Padmapani, seated on a similar lotus petal throne and stepped pedestal and enclosed within a comparable mandorla comprised of elephants, griffins, lions, makharas, asparas and surmounted by a garuda, included in the exhibition Heaven’s Embroidered Cloths. One Thousand Years of Chinese Textiles, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1995, cat. nos 28 and 30. Compare also two massive silk-embroideries that also feature a vajra and triratna (‘three jewels’) border, published in Michael Henss, op. cit., figs 9 and 10, where the author notes that this motif is rarely seen on textiles before 1400 (p. 30)."

The lot has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $495,000.

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