A neolithic jade figure soars 40 times above estimate to US$1.5m at Bonhams' J.J. Lally sale

For this season's Asia Week New York, renowned antique dealer and connoisseur James J. Lally has definitely taken the spotlight as Bonhams and Christie's both dedicated a single-owner collection sale to the important Chinese art collector. 

Yesterday (20 March), Bonhams took the lead to present the auction, which turned out to be a sold-out show with all 68 lots selling way beyond their estimates. 

The top lot went to a 13-tier neolithic mottled grey jade cong from circa 3000-2500 B.C.. Attracting heavy interests, it was hammered for US$1.2 million, 40 times above its low estimate. After fees, it achieved US$1.5 million.

Other coveted items included a glazed white stoneware jar and cover from Sui dynasty (581 - 618 A.D.), a jade figure of a recumbent beast from 220 to 589 A.D., and a rare silver meiping from 12th to 13th century.

James J. Lally (left), a reputable Chinese art dealer

Highly-respected as one of the great scholar-dealers of Chinese art, James Lally has been a leader in the field for more than 50 years. When Giuseppe Eskenazi, the Godfather of Chinese Antiques, shared with The Value his journey of becoming a ‘top dealer’ in an interview in 2018, Lally was praised as the top in New York, alongside William Chak in Hong Kong and Marchant in London. 

After graduating from the Harvard College and Columbia University, he served as a director of Chinese works of art at Sotheby’s in New York and Hong Kong from 1970, and was named president of Sotheby’s in North America. Together with Julian Thompson, director of the Chinese department in London at the time, they paved the way for today's thriving antiques market in Asia.

Since his departure from the auction house, he founded J.J. Lally & Co. in 1986, at 41 East 57th Street in New York – just a few blocks away from the MoMA. With a reputation for scholarship and connoisseurship, he was a trusted advisor to not only keen collectors, but also major museums and collections across the globe, including the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Shanghai Museum, among others. 

On 1 March 2021, he announced the closure of his gallery; and part of his collection is consigned to Bonhams, and the other is to be sold by Christie's. 

Lot 21 | A large neolithic mottled grey jade cong
Liangzhu Culture, circa 3000-2500 B.C.
Height: 37.2 cm
Estimate: US$30,000 - 50,000
Hammer Price: US$1,200,000
Sold: US$1,500,375

With concern over the authenticity and the proper dating of jades offered in the market, archaic jades with illustrious provenance became highly sought-after by collectors and connoisseurs, many a time eliciting fierce bidding wars at auctions.

The Liangzhu culture in the Yangtze River Delta, which flourished from the late 4th to the end of the 3rd millennium BC, was one of the most prominent Neolithic Chinese civilisations.

Among the large variety of Liangzhu artefacts, cong stand out as iconic of this culture and were made for the most prestigious ranks in society. Following the decline of Liangzhu Culture, cong's purposes and original meanings were lost – some scholars considered it a ritual vessel, and some a burial tool. 

Its honorable status continues up to the present, where it could said to be of blue-chip status in the archaic jade market. For instance, a double-tier cong was sold for HK$21.7 million in Bonhams' 2018 spring auction in Hong Kong. 

An archaic jade ritual vessel, cong | Sold: HK$21.7 million, Bonhams Hong Kong, 2018

Essentially, cong are tubes with a square cross-section and a circular hole. Most of the cong from the early Liangzhu Culture feature humanoid-deity and animal combined masks – though its symbolic meaning is unknown – and would have one to multiple tiers. 

As for the present headline lot, it has a total of thirteen tiers. Although some of the carvings have worn away by the passage of time, the emblem of humanoid-deity is still clearly visible at the four corners. 

At the same sale, another neolithic cong with three tiers (see photo below) also delivered remarkable result, hammering nine times its low estimate for US$75,000.

Lot 14 | A neolithic mottled gray-green jade cong
Liangzhu Culture, circa 3000-2500 B.C.
Height: 10.7 cm
Estimate: US$8,000 - 12,000
Hammer Price: US$75,000
Sold: US$94,875

Lot 10 | A glazed white stoneware jar and cover
Sui dynasty (581 - 618 A.D.)
Height: 24.7 cm
Estimate: US$30,000 - 50,000
Hammer Price: US$520,000
Sold: US$668,175

Rarely do white-glazed vessels Sui dynasty (581 - 618 A.D.) appear at auctions, especially large jars and covers as such. Wares of this type are testimony to an important achievement in the history of Chinese ceramics. They belong to some of the earliest high-fired stone wares with a white body and transparent glaze, not only in China but in the world.

White wares from the short-lived Sui dynasty can be characterized by the finely crackled glaze. Without any decorations, these minimalistic monochrome wares embody a timeless elegance that allows us to simply appreciate its form and shape on its own.

By the Tang dynasty (618 - 907 A.D.), the production of white ceramics reached its zenith in north China, with the Xing kilns of Hebei province, south of Beijing, being the most renowned. From there onwards, white ceramics ranked as the finest wares of the north, while kilns in the south made their name for producing top-notch celadon wares. 

Lot 31 | A jade figure of a recumbent beast, bixie
Six Dynasties (220 - 589 A.D.)
Length: 7 cm
Estimate: US$30,000 - 50,000
Hammer Price: US$300,000
Sold: US$378,375

Moving away from the stylized depictions of animals in the Bronze Age of China, artisans of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) and Six dynasties (220 - 589 A.D.) developed a more naturalistic approach to representing mythical creatures, and across artistic mediums. It was during this period that jade carvings of miraculous creature bixie, meaning ‘warding off the wicked’, flourished. 

Inspired by prototypes from West Asia and Eurasia, bixie is based on the imagery of a lion, a foreign animal, but has the spirit of a fierce tiger. The ancient Chinese believed that the ferocity of lions and tigers could chase misfortunes away, therefore they were frequently used to guard gateways or spirit ways. 

At auctions, jade figures of bixie often command high prices. Last autumn, one from late Western Han dynasty, circa 1st century BC, from the collection of Taiwanese art dealer Chang Wei-Hwa achieved a surprising HK$26.9 million (around US$3.4 million) against a low estimate of HK$8 million.

Bixie, late Western Han to Eastern Han dynasty | National Palace Museum in Taipei

Lot 41 | A pair of 'ruyi' silver vases, meiping
Southern Song dynasty, 12th-13th century
Height: 20.5 cm, 20.7 cm
Estimate: US$20,000 - 30,000
Hammer Price: US$220,000
Sold: US$277,575

While porcelain meiping vase are commonly seen at auctions, silver versions as such are rare. Meiping, or plum vessel, are 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 elegant silhouette was regarded as a reflection of a man’s physique and a symbol of gentleman – small mouth means minding one’s language; broad shoulder represents taking responsibility.

Originated in the Song dynasty (960 - 1279), plum vessel was initially used to store plum wine. As it gained popularity in the following dynasties, it became a vessel for displaying flowers, often a single branch of plum blossom. 

'Ruyi' silver meiping, Southern Song dynasty (1127 - 1279) | Collection of the Pengzhou Museum, China

The present lot

A jizhou tixi-style painted meiping, 13th-14th century | Sold: HK$2.92 million (US$374,358), Christie's Hong Kong, 2015

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 44 | A white jade openwork 'boy' pendant
Song dynasty (960 - 1279)
Height: 4.1 cm
Estimate: US$18,000 - 25,000
Hammer Price: US$75,000
Sold: US$94,875

Lot 46 | A dragon-carved jade dagger handle
Tang - Five Dynasties (618 - 960 A.D.)
Length: 16 cm
Estimate: US$800 - 1,200
Hammer Price: US$70,000
Sold: US$88,575

Lot 43 | A miniature jade figure of Bodhisattva
Song-Ming dynasty (960 - 1644)
Height: 3.2 cm
Estimate: US$7,000 - 9,000
Hammer Price: US$50,000
Sold: US$63,375

Lot 20 | A neolithic jade bracelet, zhuo
Liangzhu culture, circa 3000-2500 B.C.
Diameter: 7.9 cm
Estimate: US$1,500 - 2,500
Hammer Price: US$45,000
Sold: US$57,075

Lot 24 | A small jade dragon fish human-head pendant
Western Zhou Dynasty (circa 16th - 11th century B.C.)
Length: 5.8 cm
Estimate: US$6,000 - 8,000
Hammer Price: US$40,000
Sold: US$50,775

Lot 29 | A bronze figural panel for a 'money tree'
Eastern Han dynasty (25 - 220 A.D.)
Height: 19 cm
Estimate: US$1,500 - 2,000
Hammer Price: US$35,000
Sold: US$44,475

Lot 17 | A neolithic jade bird-head form finial
Hongshan culture, circa 3500-2500 B.C.
Length: 8.3 cm
Estimate: US$2,000 - 3,000
Hammer Price: US$30,000
Sold: US$38,175

Lot 56 | A cast silver miniature figure of a horse
Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911)
Length: 10.9 cm

  • From the Collection of Dr. Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987), acquired from C.T. Loo / Frank Caro, New York, in the 1970s
  • Christie's New York, 24 March 2011, lot 1221

Estimate: US$2,000 - 3,000
Hammer Price: US$16,000
Sold: US$20,400

Lot 34 | A polished rock crystal pillow
Tang dynasty (618 - 907 A.D.)
7.3 x 14.6 x 15.8 cm
Estimate: US$1,500 - 2,500
Hammer Price: US$12,000
Sold: US$15,300

Lot 3 | A dark-brown glazed stoneware tripod censer
Tang dynasty, 8th/9th century
Height: 17.2 cm
Estimate: US$1,500 - 2,500
Hammer Price: US$8,500
Sold: US$10,837.5

Auction Details:

Auction Hosue: Bonhams New York
Sale: J. J. Lally & Co
Date: 20 March 2023
Number of Lots: 68
Sold: 68
Sale Rate: 100%
Sale Total: US$4,221,285