2018 Review: Chinese Porcelains That Reign Supreme at Auctions

There were too many exciting sales that took place in 2018. After revisiting some highlights in categories like whisky, automotive and diamonds, we are moving on to Chinese works of art. Looking back at 2018 auctions, besides a Kangxi Falangcai bowl that sold for HK$238m, most headline-grabbing porcelains sold in 2018 fell to Qianlong porcelain.

Let’s take a look at those porcelains that sold for more than HK$100m in 2018. The following events are arranged in chronological order.

A Pink-Ground Falangcai Bowl Pink Enamel Yuzhi, Mark and Period of Kangxi

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Imperial Alchemy The H.M. Knight Falangcai Bowl
Sale date: 3 April 2018
Price realised: HK$238,807,500

The focal point of Sotheby’s spring sales in Hong Kong was a rare pink-ground Falangcai bowl from the Kangxi period, Qing dynasty. The pink-ground bowl belonged to renowned art dealers Bluett & Sons and Henry M. Knight before it was kept in a collection of the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo.

It was described by the auction house ‘the finest example of its type and the only ever recorded with this design’. There are only two closely related examples known to have survived, one is now in the National Palace Museum and the other one was owned by T.T. Tsui, the great Hong Kong collector.

Carrying a high expectation to fetch in an excess of HK$200m, the bowl was hammered down at HK$210m and sold for HK$238m. Before the sale, we interviewed Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, about the rarity and beauty of this bowl.

Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia

According to Chow, Kangxi Falangcai was in an extremely limited production made in the Imperial workshop in Jingdezhen set up in 1690. Since the kilns were very small and the number of staff working in the enamelling workshop was limited, the production was small. Falangcai only reached maturity towards the end of the Kangxi period so it was a short-lived production.

There are daffodils, hibiscus and other flowers on the bowl. These flower choices and style are not commonly seen in traditional Chinese paintings. He believed there was a high chance that this bowl would have been devised by Jesuits or at the hand of Jesuits.

A Fine Magnificent and Extremely Rare Doucai and Famille Rose ‘Anbaxian’ Vase, Tianqiuping
Qianlong Six-character Seal Mark in Underglaze Blue and of the Period (1736-1795)

Auction house: Christie’s Hong Kong
Sale: Celestial Immortals - The Taber Family Tianqiuping from Philbrook Museum of Art
Sale date: 30 May 2018
Price realised: HK$130,600,000

Robert Chang is a legendary collector of Chinese works of art

On the last day of Christie’s spring sales in Hong Kong, a doucai and famille rose ‘anbaxian’ vase from the Qianlong period (1736-1795) fetched HK$130m with premium included after a prolonged bidding battle. It sold to the legendary collector Robert Chang, who won the bid with his lucky paddle no. 8888.

Tianqiuping (means ‘Celestial Sphere vase’ in Chinese), was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor. The piece is also referred to as the Anbaxian vase, which literally translates as ‘‘eight secret emblems”. The attributes associated with the Daoist immortals.

Regarding the provenance of this vase, it is thought that Taber bought the vase prior to 1925 when it is first recorded in his collection. It remained in his family until his daughter Francis Keally donated it to The Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa in 1960.

The vase was hammered down at HK$114m to Robert Chang. He flashed the red paddle with a number "8888" to confirm the purchase. It seemed like Chang was determined to get this lot no.8888 that he even requested a special paddle number to go with his desired vase, instead of using paddle no.1, the one that he has been using in various auctions.

A Magnificent Imperial ‘Yangcai Crane and Deer Ruyi Vase’
Qianlong Seal Mark and Period

Auction house: Sotheby’s Paris
Sale: A Magnificent Imperial ‘Yangcai Crane and Deer Ruyi Vase’
Sale date: 12 June 2018
Price: €16,182,800

In May, an 18th-century Yangcai crane vase from the Qianlong period surprised everyone when it sold for €16,182,800 (US$19m; HK$149.5m), 32 times its pre-sale estimate of €500,000 - 700,000. It caused a sensation in the antique world after it was discovered by chance in the attic of a French family home and put inside an old green shoebox.

It had been left to the great-grandparents of the owners by an uncle and appeared among the listed contents of his Paris apartment after he passed away in 1947. The vase was wrapped with some wrinkled newspaper inside a shoebox and brought to the auction house for examination. When the specialist opened the box, he was immediately struck by its quality.

Liu Yiqian attended the auction

‘Cranes and deer’ is a traditional Chinese pattern. ‘Deer’ in Chinese sounds like ‘six’ while ‘crane’ sounds like ‘union’. 'Six' represents 'the sky, the land, North, East, South and West', which means the entire world. The flowers and trees depict Spring. Combining the images together, the picture shows the revival and union of creatures and plants in springtime.

There is only one other vase with such paintings – another Qianlong Yangcai vase from the Musée Guimet in Paris. Given its rarity and exquisite craftsmanship, the vase elicited an intense bidding battle that drove the price up to its hammer price at €14.2m, far exceeding its estimate of €500,000. It was finally sold for €16.18m (premium included).

A Highly Important and Exquisitely Enamelled Yangcai Reticulated ‘Fish’ Vase
Blue-enamel Seal Mark and Period of Qianlong

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: The Yamanaka Reticulated Vase
Sale date: 3 October 2018
Price realised: HK$149,091,000

The Value exclusively secured a leaked photo of the reticulated vase

The Value exclusively secured a leaked photo of the reticulated vase

In August, The Value exclusively secured a leaked photo showing a familiar piece of Qing Imperial ceramic in Sotheby’s. It reminded people of a Qianlong Yangcai ‘Jiqingyouyu’ reticulated vase that almost sold for £53.1m. Decorated with a fish motif on four sides, the celadon-glazed vase contains a second, beautifully patterned cylinder within the outer wall. It has a six-character seal showing ‘Made in the Qianlong period, Qing dynasty’.

It resembled the vase that was offered in a small auction house in London in 2010 that almost sold for £53.1m with premium, a record for the most expensive item of Asian art ever sold. Unfortunately, the buyer didn’t settle the payment. The vase was acquired by another buyer two years later for an amount reported to be £25m.

Left is the vase offered at Sotheby’s and the right is the one from the 2010 sale

After the photo leak, Sotheby’s announced that the reticulated vase was a brother vase of that 2010 vase. They dug out the black and white photograph from the Yamanaka catalogue from 1905 and it was an absolute match with the vase they presented. The vase was showcased in a 1905 exhibition in New York. Then the Yamanaka sold it to the family of the present collector back in 1924 and it was passed down in the family since then. Estimated at HK$50m, the vase was hammered down at HK$130m and sold for HK$149m with premium included.

An Extremely Fine and Magnificent Imperial Falangcai 'Poppy' Bowl
Blue-Enamel Mark and Period of Qianlong

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: The Falangcai Poppy Bowl
Sale date: 3 October 2018
Price realised: HK$169,413,000

Following the successful sale of a Qianlong reticulated vase, a Qianlong Falangcai Poppy Bowl also reached the HK$100m benchmark at Sotheby’s autumn sales. It was hammered down at HK$148m (US$18.88m) and sold for HK$169m.

The 11.8cm-wide bowl with a blue-enamel mark and period of Qianlong is exquisitely enamelled on the exterior with an intricate design of poppies issuing from rockwork, with a butterfly depicted fluttering overhead. It has a fourteen-character poem ‘Yu Meiren’ (Lady Yu) on the bowl.

In terms of ceramics from the Qing dynasty, Falangcai ranks the highest. And amongst Falangcai ceramics, those that are inscribed with poems are of the greatest value. Thus, this Falangcai Poppy Bowl is a fine example of ‘Guyuexuan’, a Chinese term that describes the most supreme Qing ceramics.

Julian Thompson, former Chairman of Sotheby's Asia

The bowl had been kept in a French private collection and was rediscovered by Julian Thompson, the then-chairman of Sotheby’s Asia. It was offered at a 2003 auction during Sotheby’s 30th anniversary and was sold for nearly HK$29.2m after premium. The bowl has remained in the same collection over the past 15 years before it reappeared onto the market.

A Magnificent Yangcai “Landscape” Two-Handled Vase

Auction house: Beijing Poly International Auction
Sale: Crossing a Crystal Autumn River—a Magnificent Yangcai “Landscape” Two Handled Vase
Sale date: 8 December 2018
Price realised: RMB 94,875,000

Beijing Poly totalled RMB 590m from its Chinese works of art evening sales this autumn, in which the top three were all Qianlong Imperial ceramics. The centrepiece of the sale was a Yangcai “landscape" two-handled vase which was offered at its single-lot sale. It is very rare to find a vase like the present one that depicts a panoramic landscape of pavilion. It sold for RMB 94,875,000 (HK$107m) with premium included.

It’s uncommon to see Qianlong imperial porcelain with landscape depiction, not to mention one with a panoramic view. It came from the collection of Qing Kuan family, whose collection was a synonym of high-quality Qing imperial treasures. Such rare vase was offered at a single-lot sale and sold for RMB RMB 94,875,000 (HK$107m).