A Gilt-Bronze Seated Figure of Avalokiteshvara with Hidden Treasures Sold for £1.92m

Kicking off the London Auction week was Christie's Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works, which realised a total of £8.68m. The spotlight of the sale fell to a gilt-bronze figure of Avalokiteshvara from the Xuande period (1426-1435). This beautifully executed sculpture is undoubtedly a treasure itself, but inside the figure, there are hidden treasures as well. The figure was hammered down for £1.6m, ten times its low estimate of £150,000. 

The present sculpture comes from the collection of Soame Jenyns, the former Keeper of Asian Art at the British Museum. It dates to the reign of Emperor Xuande (1426-1435) during the Ming dynasty in China.  Both the Emperor Xuande and his grandfather, Emperor Yongle, were supporters of Buddhist art and sculpture, and Chinese Buddhist art with Tibetan influence evolved considerably during the period covered by their reigns.

This sculpture represents the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Bodhisattvas are benevolent beings who have attained enlightenment but have selflessly postponed entry into nirvana in order to assist other sentient beings in gaining enlightenment.

Radiographic scans of this seated figure reveal the auspicious objects that have been placed within it, which includes a short scroll, possibly from a sutra; various fragments of textiles; and what seem to be four small beads. They are likely to have remained sealed since the 15th century.

The Buddhist figure elicited an intense bidding battle and fetched the highest price at the sale. It was hammered down at £1.6m, 10 times its estimate of £150,000, and sold for £1.92m.

The following top lots also came from the collection of Soame Jenyns and they were all hammered down for prices far exceeding estimates. 

Estimated at £20,000-40,000, a Famille Verte 'Yu Tang Fu Gui' Teapot from Yongzheng period was sold for £488,750. The teapot is decorated with a floral patterns composed of magnolia, peony and crab-apple. Together these suggest the Chinese phrase yutang fugui 玉堂富貴 – ‘May your noble house be blessed with riches and honour’.

A painted enamel 'peony'-form bowl and cover from the 18th century was hammered down for £350,000 and sold for £428,750, 42 times its presale estimate of £10,000-15,000. Painted enamels were known as ‘foreign enamels’. The technique was developed in Europe in Flanders at the borders between Belgium, France and Netherlands. As the maritime trade flourished between East and West, enamels were introduced to China via the trading port Canton (Guangzhou). The Qing court then set up Imperial ateliers to produce enamelled metal wares in the Kangxi period (1662-1722). 

An Arabic-inscribed bronze cylindrical tripod censer from Zhengde period (1506-1521) was hammered down for £170,000 and sold for £212,500, surpassing its estimate of £20,000-30,000. The Zhengde emperor is known to have had a keen interest in the Islamic religion and to have studied Arabic language. It is therefore unsurprising that the introduction of Arabic Islamic script on bronze vessels first occurred around 1500, coinciding with his reign period. The inscription seen on the current censer is Qur’anic (Qur’an, Surah 2:255) and is a commonly-used prayer called Ayat al-Kursi from the Throne verse, popular for its protective properties.

The cover lot of the sale, a rare 54cm-tall blue and white moon flask, was sold for £1.448m after premium. This type of vessel is given the name “moon” flask because of the shape resembling the full moon. Moon flasks of this size are difficult to fire because of the weight. It would have been made in different sections, put together and then fired. Many of them collapsed in on themselves in the kiln, or fell over because they were so top-heavy.

Top five lots

A Rare and Finely-Cast Gilt-Bronze Seated Figure of Avalokiteshvara
Xuande Six-Character Incised Mark and of the Period (1426-1435)

Lot no.: 26
Height: 26cm
Collection of the late Soame Jenyns (1904-1976), then by descent within the family.
Estimate: £150,000 - 250,000
Hammer price: £1,600,000
Price realised: £1,928,750

A Rare Large Ming-style Blue and White Moonflask, Bianhu
Yongzheng Six-character Seal Mark in Underglaze Blue and of the Period (1725-1735)

Lot no.: 171
Height: 54cm
Acquired in Asia by the grandfather of the current owner between 1920-1943.
Estimate: £1,200,000 - 1,500,000
Hammer price: £1,200,000
Price realised: £1,448,750

A Very Rare and Large Famille Verte 'Yu Tang Fu Gui' Teapot
Yongzheng Six-character Mark in Underglaze Blue Within a Double Circle and of the Period (1723-1735)

Lot no.: 37
Width: 26.7cm
Provenance: Collection of the late Soame Jenyns (1904-1976), then by descent within the family.
Estimate: £20,000 - 40,000
Hammer price: £400,000
Price realised: £488,750

A Rare and Finely-decorated Painted Enamel 'peony'-form Bowl and Cover
18th Century

Lot no.: 20
Diameter: 12.6cm

  • Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Alfred Clark (1873-1950 and 1890/1-1976), no. 37.
  • Collection of the late Soame Jenyns (1904-1976), then by descent within the family.

Estimate: £10,000 - 15,000
Hammer price: £350,000
Price realised: £428,750

A Rare Arabic-inscribed Bronze Cylindrical Tripod Censer
Zhengde Cast Six-character Mark and of the Period (1506-1521)

Lot no.: 21
Diameter: 20.3cm
Provenance: Collection of the late Soame Jenyns (1904-1976), then by descent within the family.
Estimate: £20,000 - 30,000
Hammer price: £170,000
Price realised: £212,500

Auction summary

Auction house: Christie's London
Sale: Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Sale date: 2018/11/6
Lots offered: 322
Sold: 180
Unsold: 142
Sold by lot: 56%
Sale total; £8,683,375