18th century Chinese Imperial vase from distinguished American Arts Institute attains US$4.3m

On 30 May, the Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Sale at Christie’s Hong Kong produced favourable results.

Amongst 134 lots offered, 91 were sold and fetched HK$162 million (around US$20.6 million) dollars. Four lots garnered more than HK$10 million dollars – most notably was an 18th century Imperial vase part of the prestigious Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in New York State, which was the sale's most expensive lot. In the end, it realised HK$34 million (around US$4.3 million) dollars.

Lot 2863 | Large Doucai Vase

Six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 52.7 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Mrs. Helen Elizabeth Munson Williams bought the vase from the American Art Galleries in 1883
  • Collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute of Utica in New York State
  • Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York, Object number: PC. 611

Estimate: HK$30,000,000 – 50,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$28,000,000
Sold: HK$34,050,000 (around US$4.3 million)

Auctioneer, Chen Liang Lin during the sale

The auctioneer started the bidding at HK$20 million dollars, and the hammer was dropped at HK$28 million dollars. The winning bid was by Chi Fan Tsang, Deputy Chairman of Asia Pacific; for her client with paddle number 8068.

Literally meaning contrasted colours, doucai was a porcelain enamelling technique started during the 15th century. These pieces are rare and highly prized by collectors.

The contrasting colours of doucai came during the firing process. A blue under glaze design was first sketched on to the porcelain, and then the porcelain was fired in the kiln at a high temperature. The previously outlined areas were then filled with a variety of coloured enamels – typically red, yellow, green and aubergine. The porcelain was then fired again – at a lower temperature. The result was a majestic design, where the subtle underglaze blue and the decorative overglaze enamels appeared to compete for the observer’s attention.

During the 18th century, the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735-1796) admired porcelains from earlier dynasties and their production flourished. Doucai porcelainwares at that time imitated productions from the 15th century – smaller objects such as chicken cups, plates, bowls and jars. Large-sized pieces with doucai decoration such as this present vase are rare.

Two chilongs (dragons) form the vase's handles

Different symbols such as lotus blossoms, leafy scrolls and wan emblems are depicted on the vase's body

This present vase was acquired by Helen Elizabeth Munson Williams (1824-94) in 1883 from the American Art Galleries. The original receipt is preserved to this day, and later became an important Collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute.

Born in Utica, New York State, Helen’s father made his fortune by investing in textiles, coalmines, canal development, railroads and steamboat transportation in northeastern United States. She inherited her father's business acumen and accumulated more wealth. She and her husband, James Williams, later became prominent collectors and philanthropists.

The Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, founded by Helen's daughters and son-in-law, is a combination of family surnames. Munson was Helen's surname, while Williams belonged to her husband and Proctor, her son-in-law.

Helen and her husband, James, were prominent American collectors and philanthropists during the 19th century

The large doucai vase was displayed at Mrs Williams' parlour

In 1936, the Institute opened to the public. The Collection consists of many different objects – such as ancient Egyptian relics, Chinese ceramics and porcelainwares from the 14th to 19th centuries, and 18th and 19th century European paintings. In addition to being a museum, the Institute also hosts arts and culture-related classes and events.

Proceeds from the sale of the lot will benefit The Helen Munson Williams Acquisition Fund, solely for the purchase of artwork for the permanent Collection.

Lot 2891 | Pair of Gilt Bronze Seated Luohan Figures

Created during Yuan to early Ming dynasty (13th-15th century)
Height: 85 and 87.6 cm

  • Offered at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29 September 1992, Lot 896
  • A & J Speelman Ltd. Oriental Art, London, 1 April 1998
  • An American private collection

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 – 18,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$20,000,000
Sold: HK$24,450,000 (around US$3.1 million)

Audrey Lee (front row, middle) with the winning bid 

The bidding commenced at HK$8 million dollars. After nearly 15 bids, the hammer was dropped at HK$20 million dollars. The winning bid was by Audrey Lee, Specialist of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department; for her client with paddle number 8077. In the end, it fetched HK$24.4 million (around US$3.1 million) dollars with buyer’s premium.

This present pair of large gilt bronzes is masterfully cast and depict two youthful monks. One is wearing an Indian-style robe exposing the right shoulder, while the other has a Chinese-style robe with a right-hand opening – both sitting with legs pendant in a relaxed pose. They are inscribed with the characters zuo si (left four) and you si (right four) – probably indicating their positions when displayed in a temple. But no manufacture dates are inscribed, and some exploration is required to ascertain their age.

In 2016, Christie’s Hong Kong auctioned a gilt bronze seated luohan of similar size, which was estimated at HK$5 million dollars. In the end, it garnered HK$34.1 million (around US$4.3 million) dollars and was acquired by the Tsz Shan Monastery Buddhist Art Museum in Hong Kong. As the Museum dates the sculpture to the early 15th century, and with its similar style to the one sold during this season, both bronze works' production times should be from around the same period. 

Although the origin of luohan can be traced to the arhats in Indian scriptures, arhats were not objects of devotion in ancient India. Its cult and artistic representation are therefore indigenous to China. Ancient Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar, Xuanzang's translation of a scripture was dedicated to Sixteen Luohans, which provided foundation for the cult of luohan and basis for later artistic representations.

Left: One of two luohan figures in this season's auction | Right: Luohan figure acquired by Tsz Shan Monastery in 2016

Lot 2877 | Large Blue and White Sanduo Hexagonal Vase

Six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 66 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 30 April 1991, Lot 73
  • A Hong Kong private collection
  • A London private collection       
  • Sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 5 October 2011, Lot 1920 (Sold: HK$17,460,000)
  • An American private collection

Estimate: US$7,000,000 – 9,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$9,500,000
Sold: HK$11,850,000 (around US$1.5 million)

This present hexagonal vase was last auctioned in 2011. After 11 years, it was sold in Hong Kong again. During this season, it fetched HK$11.8 million (around US$1.5 million) dollars with buyer’s premium.

Created during the 18th century, this vase combines monumental size with delicately rendered decoration in vibrant underglaze cobalt blue. Its decoration employs a style in which flowering and fruiting sprays – reminiscent of blue and white porcelains of the 15th century. Inspired by Western Asian designs, they are accompanied by lingzhi (a fungus said to impart longevity) and scrolling motifs. The fusion of these two decorative traditions is represented on this present vase.

Its shape – extending both at the vase's mouth and the foot rims – provided a challenge for the potter. Any faceted form risked splitting along the vertical junctions during firing, and with a vase of this large size that risk increased. To avoid splitting, the potters had to ensure that all sides had even thickness and outline. This was a mark of the potters' skill at the Imperial kilns, where faceted forms became more numerous in the 18th century – amongst both blue and white and monochrome porcelains.

Lot 2885 | Gilt Bronze Figure of Vajradhara

Six-character seal mark and of the Yongle period (1403-1425)
Height: 21.5 cm

  • Acquired by the current owner from the collection of Berti Aschmann, Zurich in the 1990s (by repute)

Estimate: US$5,000,000 – 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$8,200,000
Sold: HK$10,290,000 (around US$1.3 million)

Created in the Imperial workshops during the early 15th century, this exquisite gilt-bronze sculpture represents Vajradhara Buddha, the Primordial Buddha. The protagonist’s holds onto a vajra (thunderbolt sceptre) and a ghanta (prayer-bell). Together, the vajra and ghanta symbolise the Buddhist ideals of emptiness and wisdom. Its gesture – with wrists crossed at the chest and palms facing inward – symbolises preaching.

Although widely worshipped in Nepal and Tibet, Vajradhara was rarely venerated in China and is therefore seldom represented in Chinese Buddhist art. Despite first appearing in Chinese art during the 13th and 14th centuries, Tibetan Buddhist imagery later became more prominent when the Imperial court favoured Buddhism and made religious alliances with Tibet. These influences are represented in the art – as seen in this present figure's majestic depiction.

During the early 15th century, Tibetan-influenced works of art flourished. But Tibetan Buddhism was little practiced outside of the Imperial court, so most such images were likely produced for the court – as indicated by the Imperial inscriptions.

Other highlight lots:

Lot 2821 | Copper Red Decorated Dragon Roundel Double Gourd Form Vase

Six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 27 cm

  • Sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 29 November 1976, Lot 499
  • Offered at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8 April 2013, Lot 3006

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 – 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$6,800,000
Sold: HK$8,568,000 (around US$1 million)

Lot 2900 | Imperial Zitan and Hardwood Gilt Lacquered Throne

Created during 18th-19th century, Qing dynasty
96 x 127 x 100.3 cm

  • Acquired in Berkeley, California in 1977
  • Former collection of Philip Wood, San Francisco
  • Sold at Christie’s New York, 26 March 2010, Lot 1229

Estimate: HK$5,000,000 – 7,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,700,000
Sold: HK$5,922,000 (around US$750,000)

Lot 2849 | Carved Longquan Celadon Jar

Created during Yuan dynasty (1279-1368)
Height: 29.8 cm

  • The Hisamatsu Family Collection, an important Daimyo family in Ehime prefecture that ruled during the Edo period (1603-1867)
  • A Japanese private collection, gifted by the Hisamatsu family in 1955
  • Sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 30 May 2018, Lot 3028

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 – 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$3,500,000
Sold: HK$4,410,000 (around US$560,000)

Lot 2899 | Pair of Large Imperial Carved Polychrome Lacquer Peach Form Boxes and Covers

Created during Qianlong period (1735-1796)
Width: 45.9 cm
Estimate: HK$3,800,000 – 4,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$3,300,000
Sold: HK$4,158,000 (around US$520,000)

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie’s Hong Kong
Sale: Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Date: 30 May 2022
Number of lots: 134
Sold: 91
Unsold: 43
Sale Rate: 67.9%
Sale Total: HK$162,407,700 (around US$20.6 million)