Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art

Following
the tremendous spring Asia Week in March 2005, in which Sotheby’s
sold 23 lots over $100,000 and achieved the three highest auction
prices for Asian art that week, including a previously undiscovered
14th Century copper-red bottle which brought $2 million, the
September sales of Chinese and Asian art will feature a number
of treasures, including a monumental pair of late Ming dynasty
lacquer cabinets with reignmarks of the Wanli emperor (1573-1619)
(pictured left). Acquired in Beijing in 1918 by a scion of the
Goodrich Tyre fortune of Akron, Ohio, the cabinets were purchased
upon their removal from a temple within the Imperial palace
grounds. At almost 11 feet high, these oversized cabinets with
their matching hat-chests could only have graced the cavernous
halls of Imperial palaces. The quality and consistency of the
lacquer is astounding, and after 400 years they remain in superb
condition, exhibiting a very even craquelure. Their long vertical
exteriors are treated as hanging scroll landscapes, with ‘Shangri-La’
scenes of faraway pavilions and misty mountains amid rivers
drawing the viewer’s eye up their massive doors and sides. The
cabinets are estimated to bring $1/1.5 million.

Highlighting the sale are three Ming blue-and-white porcelain
vases, each a consummate masterpiece of its type and made within
100 years of each other. These works provide insight into the
changing political and artistic developments during a key period
of Chinese history, the 15th century. One of these fabled vases,
a ‘prunus blossom vase’ or meiping, was used as a lamp by philanthropist
Laurance S. Rockefeller in his upstate New York residence, Kent
House, up until last year. At 14 inches, it is one of the larger
sizes of this form and its refinement in construction and decoration
are breathtaking. Painted with a central field set with six
detached sprays of luscious fruit, it reveals all the key characteristics
of Ming porcelain. The design is executed from nature with almost
documentary precision so that each different fruit is identifiable
– peach, pomegranate, crab-apple, loquat, lychee and longan.
The creamy white porcelain is treated like an unfolding handscroll,
moving clearly away from the over-crowded banded designs of
the 14th Century which occupied every inch of ceramic space.
Instead, the vases from the Yongle period display their decoration
in a restrained and lyrical manner, with the boldness of the
cobalt-blue reaching a purity that would be unsurpassed for
hundreds of years. While several meiping are in major institutional
collections, a smaller meiping was recently sold by Sotheby’s
Hong Kong in May 2005 for $1.18 million. This vase is expected
to bring $300/400,000.

A wider blue and white jar, in guan form, painted with a ferocious
five-clawed dragon striding among clouds, was executed around
the 1440s. Made just at the beginning of this tumultuous period,
termed ‘the Interregnum’, the dragon guan jar is actually a
political statement, declaring the authority of the Son of Heaven.
Seen as a benevolent yet powerful dragon, the strong claws and
writhing scaly body pull clouds and elemental forces to bring
rain, fecundity and prosperity to the people of China. It is
estimated to sell for $100/150,000.

The third major discovery is a circa 1460s meiping from a famous
collection formed in the 1930s by Shanghai collector J.M. Hu.
It is one of the finest pieces executed in the so-called ‘windswept’
style. A horseman is flanked by sword-bearer and servant with
baskets of food and wine, while the mood is conveyed by breezes
rustling the leaves of arching willows and pines. This is possibly
a depiction of the historical episode, ‘Xiao He pursuing Han
Xin by Moonlight,’ whose theme of honor and duty to the empire
found resonance as the Ming dynastic line regained the Mandate
of Heaven upon the Zhengtong’s release (est. $150/200,000).

Three
other unique masterpieces reveal the development of the Imperial
concept during the succeeding Qing dynasty. The first is an
unparalleled rarity, a grand-scale court painting of a Prince
of the Royal Blood, Prince Guo (1733-1765) (pictured right),
sixth son of the emperor Yongzheng and half-brother of the emperor
Qianlong. Commemorative court paintings with sitters depicted
in rigid symmetry and frontality were strictly propagandist
depictions of the authority of the state, but this unruly character
is hinted at in the portrait. It is recorded that at age seven,
he was caught watching fireworks instead of attending class,
and having run from the presence of the emperor, an even worse
affront, his chief eunuch was given sixty lashes This attempt
at individualization and expression was revolutionary, and an
innovation only introduced by Western Jesuit painters to the
Qing court in the early 18th Century. In the discovery of the
original ink under-drawing beneath the colors on silk, evident
is the sure and expressive hand of the famed artist Giuseppe
Castiglione and his studio, who was the favorite of the Court.
Three other depictions of Prince Guo are known, including two
in the Arthur M Sackler Gallery in Washington DC, but no other
grand-scale court painting of this quality has appeared at auction
in recent years (est. $300/500,000). In addition, there will
be a selection of Modern Chinese paintings from the collection
of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth featuring a Lin Fengmian, Mountain
Landscape, 1970s (est. $150/200,000), an extraordinary rare
Pan Tianshou Calligraphy from 1961 (est. $50/70,000), an early
Qi Baishi landscape from 1922 (est. $150/200,000) and several
lovely works by Zhang Daqian.

The Bai Ma Xuan Collection

Within the various-owners sale is The Bai Ma Xuan Collection,
which was passionately formed over ten years and charts the
range of ceramic production from the first millennium. It focuses
on the finest wares produced during the Tang and Song dynasties.
The Bai Ma Xuan Collection, meaning "The White Horse Pavilion,"
a name reflecting the collector’s equal passion for horses,
is exemplary in having outstanding pieces from a range of kilns.
The Collection is estimated to bring in excess of $1.5 million.

From the Yue kilns in the south, a 10th Century ovoid vase
and cover is a widely acknowledged star of the collection. With
molded medallions of flowers at the shoulder above incised clouds
and vapor-trails, and a finely carved flower forming the cover,
it exhibits the finest celadon glaze that was prized by contemporary
writers who likened it to the resonance of jade and purity of
silver. It is estimated to sell for $250/350,000.

Other highlights include an 11th Century bowl from the Ding
kilns in the north near present-day Beijing (pictured left).
Of rare hemispherical form, it is incised with wriggling dragons
both on the interior and exterior. Although striding dragons
on the exterior of bowls became popular three to four hundred
years later, in Ming blue and white, no Song dy nasty ceramic
has previously been recorded with this design. It is estimated
to sell for $200/300,000.

A large qingbai vase with an icy blue glaze is also on offer.
The superb vase is carved overall with two registers of scrolling
flowers, transforming from lily to lotus and then from peony
to camellia on the same stem. Although few similar examples
are in Japanese and Western museums, no other qingbai vase of
this type has previously appeared at auction (est. $150/200,000).

All these rare masterpieces are supplemented by an outstanding
group of Tang dynasty vessels in ‘three-color’ or sancai glazes,
several with blue splashes, including a ‘goose’ medallion’ tray
(est. $30/40,000) and a phoenix-head ewer (est. $35/55,000).

Arts of the Buddha

This annual sale presents the aesthetic achievements of all
the major Far Eastern cultures through their differing experiences
in receiving, interpreting and transmitting the Buddhist religion.
Despite changing contexts and cultural mores, the eye of the
anonymous artist in attempting to create a physical representation
of the Divine has unerringly led to the pinnacle of artistic
traditions in countries as essentially diverse as India, China
and Cambodia.

In the earliest devotional representations of the Buddha, the
Enlightened One is so divine as to be un-representable and invisible.
The challenge of depicting the un-depictable led to the adoption
of foreign representational sources and to the great Indian
sculptural traditions of Gandhara and Gupta. The first style
is exemplified by massive grey schist figures of youthful men
with sensuous eyes and flowing locks, draped in distinctly Hellenistic
robes. An outstanding example in superb condition is on offer
at auction, with the rare embellishment of kneeling adoring
figures in the Buddha’s halo ( est. $600/900,000). The sale
is supplemented by six other Gandharan figures, which range
from bodhisattva figures dressed as Indian princelings who have
achieved enlightenment to slender ethereal Buddhas with iconic
gestures.

By the 6th Century, the power of these Indian figures transformed
the sculptural tradition of China, leading to a renaissance
in pictorial and physical form, three-dimensionality, movement
and sensuality. A rare early gilt-bronze shows the very beginnings
of this process, and although cast in China, it bears a clear
debt to Gandharan and Guptan models in the volumes of its head
and drapery (est. $100/150,000). By the late 6th century, this
reaches full flower in an outstanding limestone figure of the
future Buddha, Maitreya, in ‘pensive’ pose. Seated upon an hourglass
stool, the Buddha leans forward, resting a missing right arm
upon the knee yet turning the hand up towards his face as he
ponders his impending duty to save the world in the next cycle
of existence. Within his calm symmetrical features and the harmonious
echoing of the hourglass body and stool, the anonymous artist
has achieved the near-impossible – a physical representation
expressing the very action of thought, responsibility and the
imminent nature of both time and salvation (pictured on page
5, est. $300/500,000).

Other tremendous rarities include two Khmer figures of Avalokitesvara
(est. $150/200,000 each) and a monumental fragment of a 13th
/ 14th Century wall fresco, formerly in the collection of the
famous Kyoto museum, the Fujii Yurinkan. Probably removed in
the 1900s from lost massive temples in Shanxi or Henan, similar
frescoes form centerpieces in major museums such as the Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York, the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City
and the Guimet in Paris. The present fragment depicts a dragon-king,
or lokapala, one of four standing guard over the cardinal directions,
symbolizing the universal authority of the Buddhist law, or
dharma, which radiates in every direction. At almost 10 feet
high, this ancillary section would have formed part of an enormous
fresco cycle that would dwarf Western equivalents such as the
Sistine Chapel (est. $500/700,000).

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