Chronology : 15th century 1480-1499 16th century 1500-1519 1520-1539 1540-1569 1570-1599 1610-1619
Chenghua - Imperial Chickens
2014 SOLD 280 MHK$ including premium
The best period of Chenghua porcelains is the second decade of his reign. Improvements are made to the choice of materials, enabling a higher temperature. The apex of any ceramic art is then achieved with a dense paste, a transparent and robust glaze and an extraordinary tactile effect.
The doucai color, started under Xuande, also gets some dramatic progress under Chenghua. Mixing enameled colors over the glaze allows a wide range of shades.
The figures of Chenghua ceramics are simple and naive. However, his chicken wine cups had an almost mystical reputation. The rooster is the emperor, and the hen protecting her chicks is his favorite concubine. It is an opportunity fir the historian to remind that Wan Guifei herself intervened to improve the quality of imperial porcelains.
One of these wonders is in perfect condition, on a pristine white background, without any crack or scratch. This piece 8.2 cm in diameter is decorated underglaze in cobalt blue and multicolored on its surface.
It was sold for HK $ 29M including premium on April 27, 1999 by Sotheby's, purchased at that sale by Eskenazi. It is estimated HK $ 200M, for sale by Sotheby's in Hong Kong on April 8.
POST SALE COMMENT
The absolute pinnacle of the art of porcelain was achieved by the Chinese Imperial pieces of the second part of the reign of Chenghua. This cup was sold for HK $ 280M including premium.
I invite you to play the video shared by Sotheby's :
The Palace Bowls of the Chenghua Emperor
2013 SOLD 140 MHK$ including premium
During this reign that lasted 24 years, the porcelain workshops of Jingdezhen had an intense activity, which can be divided into three phases.
The blue and white of the beginning looks similar as Yuan and early Ming styles. The first major technical innovation is then the doucai, by which other colors could be added through a second firing.
And suddenly, about the 17th year of his reign, the unique technique of the so-called Chenghua palace bowls is launched. The porcelain is back to blue and white, but its tactile quality is extraordinary, comparable only to the Ru porcelain of the Northern Song, 380 years earlier.
Chenghua palace bowls are decorated with delicacy and simplicity, with flowers or fruits of botanical accuracy. On 7 April 2011, Sotheby's sold HK $ 90M in post sale a bowl 15 cm in diameter decorated with fruit and leaves of melon.
On October 8, Hong Kong, the palace bowl to be sold by Sotheby's, similar as the above in shape and size, is decorated inside and outside with humble musk-mallows. Also same as the melon bowl, it wears the Imperial mark. Expected beyond HK $ 80M, it will be described in a separate catalog. Here is the link to the home page of the sale.
The Ru of the Song had been interrupted by the Yuan invasion after only a few years. Similarly, the production of Chenghua bowls did not survive his reign. Easier to execute, the doucai had a great future and is one of the major steps that lead to the perfection of colors of the falangcai under the Qing.
POST SALE COMMENT
Chenghua palace bowls are among the greatest wonders in the history of art. This specimen was sold for HK$ 140M including premium.
Chenghua - Perfect Tactility of Ming Bowls
2011 SOLD 90 MHK$
The "palace bowls" were produced for a very short period not exceeding 7 years, from 1481 to 1487 in our calendar at the end of the reign of Chenghua, the seventh emperor. This utensil is by nature an object to be touched. These Chenghua bowls reach a perfection of tactility that will never be exceeded.
They are very rare, and the copy for sale by Sotheby's in Hong Kong on April 7, estimated HK $ 80M, takes its place among the masterpieces of Chinese porcelain.
Measuring 15 cm in diameter, it is inscribed with the six-character mark of Chenghua and decorated with melon vines including leaves and fruits.
POST SALE COMMENTS
Perfection of manufacturing and scarcity were not sufficient arguments to justify the estimate. Unsold.
A later buyer let this bowl win its rightful place in the cultural hierarchy of the results.
The press release of Sotheby's indicates that it was sold HK $ 90M privately after the sale.
Traditionally, such announcement includes fees.
Chenghua - The Tableware of the Principal Concubine
2016 SOLD for HK$ 64M including premium
These pieces are innovative by the extreme care in realizing the porcelain, both fine and sturdy with a tactile quality that will never be available again. The gently curved shapes of their walls are also new, in several variants.
Cups are used for wine and bowls for food. These pieces bearing the imperial mark are mainly made for the use of the principal concubine Wan Guifei whose demands were evidently extreme. They are highly rare and not even found as failed or waste pieces, demonstrating the rigorous surveillance made on site in Jingdezhen by imperial eunuchs.
This limited production was so expensive that the emperor's advisers were able to terminate it after about ten years, during the 20th year of the reign corresponding to 1485 of our calendar, two years before the death of the emperor and his concubine.
The color technique is not new: cobalt blue in two hues for bowls and doucai for cups. The drawing is innovative with asymmetrical compositions often adorned with spirals. The chicken cups are prestigious. One of them in an admirable state of preservation was sold for HK $ 280M including premium by Sotheby's on April 8, 2014.
The bowls decorated with flowers can be exquisite such as the musk mallow bowl sold for HK $ 140M including premium by Sotheby's on 8 October 2013. Vines of melons are a rare theme symbolizing an auspicious prosperity to the offspring. The bowl from the Meiyintang collection with a nice balance of blue and white was sold in post sale for HK $ 90M at Sotheby's on April 7, 2011.
On April 6 in Hong Kong, Sotheby's sells another melon bowl, lot 25 estimated HK $ 50M. This piece is unique in the details of its pattern by the quantity and density of the fruit. Its size is 15.4 cm in diameter.
Chenghua - The Delights of Lady Wan
2019 SOLD for HK$ 57M including premium
Wan, who was a consort without the title of Empress, was authoritarian, jealous and corrupt. When the craftsmen of Jingdezhen received the imperial order to do even better than their predecessors for table pieces, it can only be on the initiative and for the personal use of Wan.
Chinese chemists were extremely competent. They select the best materials and purify the cobalt. Potters develop slightly flared curves, ensuring lightness without losing strength, with a rim diameter around 15 cm for the bowls. The inspectors reinforce their controls but the quality of production was so good that very few fragments have been found in Jingdezhen.
The touch sweetness of the bowls with the Chenghua mark was unprecedented and will never be achieved again, except for the doucai chicken cups of the same reign. The cobalt blue under glaze is used in several shades for the first time although without matching the glossy blue of the Xuande porcelains.
The floral design is also innovative, with a very airy composition that completely contrasts with the density of patterns of the previous periods. The meticulousness of the artists goes so far as to reveal defects in the flowers that are carefully copied from one unit to another of the same variant. Eleven different designs have been created, ten flowers and a fruit, often chosen for their fragrant or tasty qualities.
The finest bowls are illustrated both on the outside and inside, with the same flowers. The decorations are bordered at the top and bottom by dark blue circles. A musk mallow bowl was sold for HK $ 140M including premium by Sotheby's on October 8, 2013. A bowl with very pure friezes of day lilies will be sold by Sotheby's in Hong Kong on October 8, lot 1002. The press release of August 28 announces an estimate in excess of HK $ 50M.
These productions of very high quality were too expensive despite the well-known illegal incomes of the concubine. The prestige production was slowed in 1482 CE and finally stopped in 1485. Under this reign, ordinary wares remain in the style of Xuande.
The porcelain stone and glaze used for Chenghua period (1465-1487) imperial porcelains are arguably the finest ever achieved at Jingdezhen. A blue and white Day Lily Palace Bowl, one of the rarest and most elegant, will be on offer in #HongKong on 8 Oct.https://t.co/DauROdiMmA— Sotheby's (@Sothebys) October 7, 2019
1486 The Mid-Autumn Moon
2016 SOLD for $ 2.17M including premium
Under the Ming, scholars often identified as Literati maintain a communication with nature. They occasionally draw, without being art professionals. Mid-Autumn is enjoyed as an opportunity to eat crabs and fish and to have wine to drunkenness with one's best friends.
On September 14 in New York, Sotheby's sells a hand scroll from Ming time that evokes such a happiness. It is signed by Shen Zhou, a literati who founded and animated the Wu school calling for a freedom of poetic expression similar as what was practiced under the Yuan. The scroll 29 cm high is in two parts : a drawing 92 cm long and an autograph calligraphy 10 m long. It is estimated $ 1.8M, lot 530.
The friend brought the paper and invited Shen to record that privileged moment in the bamboo hut of the garden. The drawing in a simple and speedy line is composed from a model by a Yuan master named Wu Zhen.
The poem in calligraphy explaining the circumstances of the artwork and the hedonistic interpretation of the event has been executed by Shen, certainly just after completion of the drawing. The sharp and wide characters essentially in two rows are in the style of a famous Song poet.
We learn that Shen and his friend were both 60 years old. If the poet told the truth about his age, this festival was held in 1486 in our calendar. The Mid-Autumn Moon behaves as a reference for the passing time which they neglected before having white hair. Shen hopes that the Moon brings forty additional autumns to them. This wish was not far from being fulfilled as the poet was to die an octogenarian.
1508 The Sorrow of the Old Poet
2019 SOLD for $ 3M including premium
Far away from the imperial court, he becomes a professional artist and poet. Along with his disciples, he forms the informal School of Wu, a former name of Suzhou. The reputation of this provincial group becomes national.
In 1502 CE, Shen Zhou loses his son. He expresses his sorrow in the following year with a collection of ten poems on the theme of falling flowers. The literary quality of this work provokes a dialogue between the old poet and his disciples through the composition by all parties of additional poems, some of which reusing the rhymes of the original poems.
An autograph handscroll, signed but undated, consisting of the complete set of the original ten poems plus three responses by the same author, is estimated $ 1.2M for sale by Sotheby's in New York on March 22, lot 1168.
This piece applies the style of Huang Tingjian, one of the greatest masters of calligraphy under the Song. It is very comparable in its writing to a scroll kept at the Taipei Museum which includes an autograph painting and a frontispiece as well as a response dated 1508 CE by his best disciple. Shen Zhou dies in the following year at 82 years old.
Please watch the video shared by the auction house.
1516 Poems on planting bamboo by Li Dongyang
2019 SOLD for $ 4.6M including premium by Christie's
1532 The Sixteen Boys of the Jiajing Emperor
2007 SOLD for HK$ 30.6M including premium by Christie's
The Zhengde emperor of the Ming died in 1521 CE in scandalous circumstances, before reaching 30 years old, with no surviving child. His cousin who succeeded him was obviously not ready. His reign name will be Jiajing meaning 'admirable tranquility'. He will never be interested in the exercise of power.
During the 11th year of his reign, 1532 CE, the Jiajing emperor is worried. At 25, he still has no descendants. His first empress had died of his brutality while she was pregnant. He abandons the second because she is pushed by a clan. He organizes a Taoist ritual in the imperial garden to encourage the birth of imperial boys. It is not clear what happened in this ceremony but a first prince was born to a concubine in the following year.
The prince dies at the age of six weeks. The emperor finally finds the solution. Over a period of five years beginning in the 15th year of the reign, nine concubines give him seven sons and four daughters.
As for porcelain, the novelty of this period is the covered jar of large size, offering an increased surface for the illustration.
A blue and white jar of the largest model, 47 cm high including its original cover, was sold for HK $ 30.6M including premium by Christie's in Hong Kong on November 27, 2007. It is back in the same auction house on November 27, 2019, lot 3007. It was part of a pair of identical jars that was separated in 1985.
Its iconographic theme of the hundred boys is traditional. It comes from the legend of an emperor of the Zhou who, unable to have his hundredth son, adopted an orphan.
In a continuity throughout the circumference, sixteen boys play various games in a garden. They are all alike, with shaved heads. One group represents education, with the oldest child playing the schoolmaster while the smallest one does not yet walk but is already trying to catch the book.
All these occupations form several rebuses, according to the traditional game of homophonies. Their meaning is in line with wishes for the imminent birth of one or more boys along with longevity auspices.
A smaller jar showing exactly the same plays passed at Bonhams on November 10, 2011. A 26 cm high jar with another composition of plays was sold for HK $ 11.8M including premium by Christie's on May 27, 2009. These two examples do not have a lid.
Jiajing - The Carps of the Heavenly Pond
2017 SOLD for HK$ 214M including premium
The progress of Jingdezhen porcelain is restarting with the Jiajing emperor, an art lover and an adept of Taoism. Becoming emperor at the age of 14 in 1522, Jiajing reigned for 45 years. Large pieces are made under his rule, using the bright color palette identified as wucai. Wucai literally means five enamels, five having here a meaning of plurality adjusted to the five elements
This emperor liked to state that he was the fisherman of the heavenly pond. The pattern with fish swimming amidst aquatic plants enables a pleasing interweaving of the drawings on the walls of the jars and Jiajing himself promotes this theme by massive commissions. The details of the themes are related to homophonic rebuses bringing to the emperor the auspices that he so much enjoyed.
A 46 cm high jar with its cover is one of the biggest pieces of that type. It is animated by carps of two different sizes. The suspension of the fish in water allows various attitudes. The porcelain was first painted with the classical underglaze blue. The other colors were added over the glaze. Experts believe that three firings have been necessary.
Pieces which are still with their original cover are very rare in private hands. This one was sold for HK $ 44M including premium by Sotheby's on October 29, 2000, a very high price at that time for a Chinese porcelain. It will be sold by Christie's in Hong Kong on November 27, lot 8006. Please watch the video shared by Christie's.
Jiajing - The Sixth Color of the Wucai
2012 SOLD 2 M$ including premium
The multicolored porcelain was developed during the Ming dynasty. It takes the name of wucai, which means "five colors". It is already very decorative, with bright and pure enamel colors.
In the sale of 11 and 12 September in New York, Sotheby's has a covered pot decorated with fish, with the mark of the Jiajing Emperor. These animals swim above the weeds, between plant motifs regularly arranged.
The reign of Jiajing (not to be confused with Jiaqing of the Qing) was very long, from 1521 to 1567 of our calendar.Disgusted by politics, he turned to Taoism. We could consider fish as a Taoist symbol of life in freedom, in contrast to the rituals of the court, but remember that it is also a symbol of abundance.
Despite its etymology, wucai fish pots have a sixth color, the beautiful dark orange of the animals. This is not an anomaly, "five" in this case being a way of expressing a plurality.
Other jars, in the Musée Guimet in Paris or in the Museum of Beijing, show the fish in the same attitudes as in the Sotheby's lot, while the plant environment varies. A pot without its cover was sold RMB 15M including premium byChina Guardian in Beijing during the 2012 spring auctions.
The jar for sale by Sotheby's comes from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which had never exhibited it because they also have another similar piece. It is estimated $ 500K, very reasonably. It is illustrated by Sotheby's on the page announcing the sale.
Here is the link to the catalogue, and the size : 41 cm high.
POST SALE COMMENT
As I told it, the estimate was too reasonable, especially since the provenance was impeccable. Result for the pot: $ 2M including premium.
1562-1567 Two volumes from the Yongle Dadian
2020 SOLD for € 8.1M including premium by Beaussant Lefèvre
narrated post sale in 2020
The job is completed in just five years. The set includes nearly 23,000 scrolls placed in 11,000 volumes, occupying approximately 30 cubic meters. The number of Chinese characters is estimated at 370 million, corresponding to approximately 250 million words in Latin script. Satisfied with his participation to preserve culture, the emperor attributes to this compilation his own reign name : the Great Canon of Yongle, or Yongle Dadian.
The Yongle Dadian is too huge to consider an edition. In 1557, this still unique set barely escapes a fire that destroys three palaces in the Forbidden City. The Jiajing emperor, aware of the risk of losing this invaluable cultural treasure, orders to take a copy, in the form of 50 x 30 cm albums matching the original volumes and chapters. This work is carried out from 1562 to 1567 CE.
No one will ever hear of the original scrolls again. The copy existed until the Opium Wars. It suffered fires and depredations, and only 400 albums survive, which are 3.5% of the original set.
A lot made of two volumes was sold for € 8.1M including premium by Beaussant Lefèvre at Drouot on July 7, 2020. The respective themes are the geography of the lakes of China and a description of funeral rites. Wear, stains and accidents were announced in the catalog.
Wanli - scroll painting by Wu Bin on a journey of 18 monks
2009 SOLD 170 M RMB yuan by Poly
Later Ming - North and South according to Dong Qichang
2015 SOLD for RMB yuan 69M including premium
Dong attributed to the North a realism in the Confucian tradition, more concerned by objectivity than by art. His Southern school promotes free forms close to the later European romanticism. The southern artistic creation invites to emotion and dream in the Taoist tradition.
On November 15 in Beijing, China Guardian sells a mountain landscape by Dong Qichang, hand scroll 26 x 146 cm, lot 1327 estimated RMB 60M.
The clean and sharp ink line defines a mountain landscape where the accumulation of rocks is beautifully exaggerated. The ground is scattered with more realistic trees, which could help the lovers of Northern art of his time to accept the romanticism of the artist. The scenery is not animated, but a discrete group of thatched cottages brings a human dimension.
set of four Ming huanghuali armchairs
2015 SOLD for $ 9.7M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2019 before Christie's sale of another set (see below)
Highly appreciated by the Ming, the huanghuali is a hardwood that enables to create furniture with bold shapes. Its color varies from reddish brown to golden yellow while its grains may display seductive pseudo-figurative patterns.
A set of eight Ming seats in huanghuali would be the holy grail for a collector. I do not know if such a wonder remains in private hands and the submultiples, four and two, are much in demand. The consistency of colors and grains ensures the homogeneity of a group. The virtuosity of the craftsman is also considered.
The almost square back with the top rail in the form of a yoke or of an official's hat is the guanmaoyi. A set of four folding armless chairs was sold for £ 5.3M including premium by Bonhams on November 9, 2017 over a lower estimate of £ 150K. A pair with arms was sold by Sotheby's on March 23, 2011 for $ 2.77M including premium over a lower estimate of $ 200K.
The quanyi, designating a chair with a circular back, is also known as the horseshoe-back armchair. The best craftsmen round the circle by reducing the number of elements of the crest rail, obtaining a rigidity which also makes it possible to optimize the stretchers. Despite an apparent lightness, their seats are strong.
On March 17, 2015, Christie's dispersed the Ellsworth collection. The bidders recognized the best qualities of a quanyi in the group of four that constituted the lot 41. Moreover the other two pairs that would make it possible to constitute a set of eight were identified in the catalog. Lot 41 was sold for $ 9.7M including premium over a lower estimate of $ 800K.
Another homogeneous set of four quanyi in huanghuali from the Ming period passed at Christie's on September 13, 2019, lot 878, from a lower estimate of $ 800K.