2023 Auction Wrapped | The top 5 most expensive Chinese ceramics auctioned in the year, topped by a US$25.4m bowl

Following a stellar auction year where numerous records were set, 2023 saw the cooling of a lava-hot art market under a more challenging macro-environment. Still, it was a year that yielded a number of impressive results. Here, let's look back on the highlight sales of Chinese porcelain in 2023. 

Last year, the top five Chinese ceramics at auction totalled HK$567 million (US$72.7 million), with the majority coming from the collection of renowned Chinese antique dealers. 

Leading the list was Dr. Alice Cheng's once record-setting 18th-century imperial bowl, which sold for HK$198 million (US$25.25 million) during Sotheby's 50th-anniversary spring sale series in Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong shipping tycoon T.Y. Chao's unique 15th-century imperial blue-and-white ewer came close third, while two other blue-and-white pieces from the celebrated Tianminlou Collection found their places after it. 

1st | An imperial falangcai 'swallow' bowl 
Blue enamel mark and period of Qianlong (1735 - 1796)
*The porcelain possibly Yongzheng period (1722 - 1735), the enamel painted circa 1736
Diamter: 11.3 cm

  • Collection of Captain Charles Oswald Liddell (1854-1941), of Shanghai and Shirenewton Hall, Wales, assembled in the late 19th century when he resided in China (one of a pair)
  • Bluett & Sons, London, 1929 (one of a pair, £150 each)
  • Collection of Charles Ernest Russell (1866-1960) of King’s Ford, near Colchester, acquired from the above in May 1929
  • Collection of Barbara Hutton (1912-1979), at the time Baroness von Cramm, United States, acquired no later than 1956, sold in 1971, at the sale below
  • Sotheby’s London, 6th July 1971, lot 262 (£7,000)
  • Collection of J.T. Tai (1911-1992), New York, purchased at the sale above and consigned to the sale below
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 21st May 1985, lot 27 (HK$1,000,000)
  • Collection of S.C. Ko (1911-1992), the Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong, acquired through Robert Chang from the sale above
  • Collection of Robert Chang, Hong Kong, acquired no later than 1993 and consigned to the sale below
  • Christie’s Hong Kong, An Exquisite Falangcai Bowl, 28th November 2006, lot 1309 (HK$151,320,000)
  • Thereafter with the present owner

Sold: HK$198,220,000 (US$25.25 million)
Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Auction Date: 8 April 2023

In 2006, an 18th-century imperial falangcai porcelain bowl that blended painting, poetry, and calligraphy in perfect harmony caused waves in the art scene as it sold for a whopping HK$151 million (US$19.3 million) at Christie's Hong Kong – a then-record price for any work of art sold in Asia and a world record for a Qing dynasty ceramic.

17 years later, its distinguished owner Dr. Alice Cheng decided to offer this gem of imperial porcelain at Sotheby's Hong Kong, and it eventually sold for HK$198 million (US$25.25 million), taking the crown as 2023's most expensive Chinese ceramic sold at auction. 

Falangcai, which can be translated as 'foreign colours', are among the rarest and most celebrated imperial ceramic ware s of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Unlike most other wares of that period, the production of falangcai was small in scale, subject to close scrutiny by the Emperor, and made exclusively for the imperial court and royal family.

Up to the present, most of these wares are held by top-tier museums including the Palace Museum, Beijing, the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and the British Museum – leaving only a handful in private collections.

Boasting an impeccable provenance, the bowl had passed through the hands of numerous esteemed collectors before going into the collection of Dr. Alice Cheng. In the late Qing dynasty, it belonged to Captain Charles Oswald Liddell (1854 - 1941) as one of a pair. A wealthy shipping merchant in Far Eastern trade, he moved from the UK to China for family business in 1877. During his time there, he acquired important ceramics from the last Regent of the Qing Dynasty and the private secretary of a high official, forming an exceptional private collection of porcelains.

The pair of bowls was split in a sale at Bluett and Sons, London in 1929, where the present piece was purchased by Charles Ernest Russell (1866 – 1960) of King’s Ford, near Colchester, while its counterpart entered Sir Percival David’s collection and is now kept by the British Museum.  

Between 1929 and 1956, the bowl was in the possession of Barbara Hutton, the American socialite who was heiress of the Woolworth empire. Her impressive collection of Qing porcelains was offered at Sotheby's London in 1971. At that sale, the present bowl was purchased by J.T. Tai, a name that is inextricably associated with Chinese artworks of guaranteed quality.

A late owner, who particularly cherished the bowl, was Robert Chang, who acquired the bowl between 1987 and 1993. Born in Shanghai in the 1920s, he arrived in Hong Kong in 1948 and kick-started a stellar career in antique dealing. As his appreciation of Chinese art increased, he began to build a collection of his own, with a focus on ceramics. 

When he sold the present bowl in 2006 for HK$151.3 million, it became a crown jewel of his younger sister, Dr. Alice Cheng's collection. Also a native of Shanghai, she settled in Hong Kong in her forties, building up a series of successful business ventures in the city and mainland China in the fields of petroleum, real estate, IT technology and transportation.

2nd | A doucai 'dragon' moonflask
Qianlong six-character seal mark and of the period (1736-1795)
Height: 51 cm
Provenance (Consolidated by The Value):

  • Sold at Phillips, London, 12 June 1991, lot 116 (front cover)
  • Joseph Chan, Hong Kong
  • Sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1 May 1995, lot 699 (Sold: HK$8,160,000)
  • Gammon Art, Hong Kong, 1995
  • A Hong Kong private collection, 1998
  • Daijindo, Tokyo

Sold: HK$108,025,000 (US$13.86 million)
Auction House: Christie's Hong Kong
Auction Date: 30 May 2023

Achieving 2023's second-highest price of HK$108 million (US$13.86 million), this moonflask is remarkable for its scarcity, being very likely a unique piece, with no other known examples of the exact same design in doucai painted enamel on a large moonflask from Qianlong period (r.1736-1795). 

There are two closely comparable examples, though – one housed in the Palace Museum, Beijing, another sold by Chak's, a renowned Hong Kong antique dealer, through private deal.

All three moonflasks share similar heights, but differ slightly in their compositions: the small green dragon on the present vase swirls above the waves, while the other two examples feature it floating on the water's surface. 

A comparable example handled by Chak's | Qianlong period (Photo: Ronald Chak of Chak's)

Splendidly and vividly decorated, the image on the present vase portrays a scene known as 'The Emperor instructing the Crown Prince', where a large and powerful imperial five-clawed dragon, with an iron red body, is accompanied by a smaller one beneath its left foreleg. The larger one represents the Qianlong Emperor as a father, while the smaller one is the Crown Prince as a son.

In 1773, the Emperor discreetly decided to pass his throne to his 15th son, Yongyan – who later became the Jiaqing Emperor in 1796. Throughout the years, the Qianlong Emperor had been teaching and preparing him for the throne.

One of Qianlong Emperor's favourite motifs, it embodies his high hopes for the never-ending flourishing of the Qing dynasty – which much depended on his discerning eyes for a promising heir. It also encompasses his effort in guiding Jiaqing through the hardships of being an Emperor, and the weight that comes with his crown.

3rd | An imperial blue and white 'Dragon' ewer
Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period (1402-1424)
Height: 22.5 cm

  • Hugh Moss Ltd, London
  • Sotheby's London, 8th July 1974, lot 199
  • Sotheby's London, 5th July 1977, lot 205
  • Collection of T.Y. Chao (1912-1999), Hong Kong
  • T.Y. Chao Family Trust property, no. 13
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 19th May 1987, lot 228 and dust jacket

Sold: HK$107,499,900 (around US$13.7 million)
Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Auction Date: 8 April 2023

Arguably no other type of Chinese ceramics is more iconic than the blue-and-white porcelains – and those produced during the Yongle period (1403-1424) and Xuande period (1425-1435) of the Ming dynasty have always been considered the finest.

This unique imperial Yongle ewer went up for auction at Sotheby's Hong Kong back in 1987, when it came from the celebrated collection of T.Y. Chao, a legendary shipping tycoon in Hong Kong. It was then featured as the cover lot on the catalogue and realised a whopping HK$5.72 million. 

Since then, it had been treasured in a private collection for 36 years before crossing the auction block at Sotheby's again in April 2023. Offered in a dedicated single-lot sale, the ewer eventually fetched HK$107 million (around US$13.7 million), becoming the third-most expensive piece of Chinese ceramic sold in the year. The result also marked an 18-times increase in value over 36 years' time.

The distinctive colour of blue-and-white porcelains from the Ming dynasty comes from the Smalt or Samarra cobalt imported from Persia, which were scarce ingredients at the time and used in only limited quantities. Rich in iron oxide, these cobalt pigments would yield a glaze with darker blue spots in certain areas of the surface, an effect known as ‘heaped and piled’.

Due to this characteristic, blue-and-white porcelains from these periods were seldom decorated with human figures, but more often with flower and animal motifs – where the different shades of blue would create an effect much like ink painting.  

While this ewer may look like a classic example of early Ming imperial porcelain, it is a one-and-only piece that was not only made only by the imperial kilns, but especially for the imperial palace – as suggested by its motif of five-clawed dragons: Across many dynasties in imperial China, dragon had been an exclusive symbol for the Emperor. 

Here, five-clawed dragons were rendered in an agitated swerving pose, as if rushing up after having just plunged down. The two dragons were skilfully portrayed in direct mirror images, all above a frieze of stylised cloud scrolls encircling the lower body above the key-fret bordered foot rim.

4th | A blue and white 'floral' moon flask
Ming Dynasty, Yongle period (1402 - 1424)
Height: 28.6 cm

  • Discovered in West Yorkshire in March 1986
  • Sotheby's London, 9th December 1986, lot 198

Sold: HK$85,618,000 (US$10.9 million)
Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Auction Date: 9 October 2023

Leading Sotheby's 2023 Autumn Sales was another Yongle blue-and-white porcelain, which was a highly Islamic-style moonflask hailed from the renowned Tianminlou Collection. 

In 1987, the Tianminlou Collection first established a name for itself as it was exhibited for the first time at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. That exhibition was a blockbuster event, opening to widespread acclaim and attracting interest from collectors and scholars around the world, and the present moonflask was one of the highlights of the show.

Over the past three decades, it has been showcased in mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and other places, making appearances in numerous exhibitions at Tianminlou, Min Chiu Society, and the Oriental Ceramic Society. 

Such a widely exhibited piece eventually changed hands for HK$85.6 million (US$10.9 million), the fourth highest price achieved for a Chinese ceramic at auction. 

(Left) Terracotta vase, Mediterranean Region / Middle East / North Africa, 11th century B.C.; (Right) Terracotta vase, Eygpt region, 15th century B.C. | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The shape of the moon flask is modelled after a Middle Eastern metal prototype, elegantly potted with a flattened moon-shaped body rising from a circular splayed foot to a garlic neck flanked by a pair of handles ending with ruyi-shaped terminals on the shoulders.

Pottery pilgrim flasks of basically similar form, mostly without a foot, suitable for carrying on long travels, can be traced in the Middle East to the second millennium BC, but the Yongle potters probably took their immediate inspiration from nearly contemporary Middle Eastern metal vessels.

Although both the shape and decoration of this flask are clearly foreign-inspired, it is difficult to find convincingly close prototypes for either, since China’s craftsmen never copied but absorbed and revamped foreign styles.

This present Yongle moon flask measures 28.6 cm in height, making it suitable for both handling and display in a collection. Its size is traditionally favoured and sought after by collectors.

5th | A blue and white ‘peony scroll’ meiping and cover
Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)
Height: 44.7cm
Provenance (Consolidated by The Value):

  • Sold at Sotheby’s London, 10 December 1985, lot 191 (Sold: £286,000)
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Sold: HK$67,775,000 (US$8.68 million)
Auction House: Christie's Hong Kong
Auction Date: 30 November

For lovers of Chinese ceramics, the Tianminlou Collection is a household name, highly regarded for its museum-quality assembly of Chinese porcelains. Its collection of blue-and-white porcelains from the Yuan dynasty, in particular, is the world’s largest one in private hands, housing more than 20 pieces of Yuan blue-and-white porcelains. Even if compared to museums all over the world, Tianminlou comes in third, only behind Topkapi Palace Museum in Turkey and the National Museum of Iran. 

While owning such pieces from this prestigious collection would be a collector's dream come true, its Yuan blue-and-white porcelains have been dearly treasured by its owners over the years, never having been released to the market. 

During 2023's Autumn Sales, Christie's Hong Kong dropped a piece of exciting news for antique collectors: the fresh-to-market Yuan blue-and-white porcelains from Tianminlou Collection would be offered at auction for the first time. 

Fiercely pursued by interested buyers, a Yuan blue-and-white meiping with cover soared past its estimate by nearly three times, selling for HK$67.7 million (US$8.68 million) and becoming last year's fifth most expensive Chinese ceramic sold at auction.

When in preparation for the above-mentioned 1987 exhibition, Tianminlou's first owner, S.C. Ko, learned about an important Yuan blue and white meiping with the original cover on offer at an auction in London.

Thinking the piece would be a major highlight for the exhibition, he decided he must win it at auction regardless of price, and he was indeed the successful bidder. This meiping, which is the current lot, became the cover piece for the 1987 exhibition, featuring prominently in posters and banners lining the show. 

Among the blue-and-white porcelain of the Yuan Dynasty, vases of this elegant meiping form are considered one of the most representative vessel types, having gained a reputation as early as the Ming Dynasty. Today, they are still highly treasured and sought-after by collectors due to their rarity. 

Measuring 44.7cm in height, the present vase represents a typical meiping form from the Yuan dynasty. This exceptional lot stands out further due to the retention of its original cover, a feature that is often lost in other examples. 

Originally served as a wine container, meiping is characterized by a mellow profile, which curved in a fluid line from the narrow-waisted neck over the well-rounded shoulder, tapering down in a gentle curve before flaring again slightly towards a small base. 

In traditional Chinese culture, this sophisticated silhouette was regarded as a reflection of a man’s physique and a symbol of a gentleman – a small mouth means minding one’s language; a broad shoulder represents taking responsibility.