US$13.8m unique moonflask made for Qianlong Emperor tops Christie's Hong Kong Spring Sales

For Christie's Spring auction week in Hong Kong this month, all eyes were on an exceptionally rare Qianlong doucai moonflask – it appears to be a unique piece, and carries an important message of the Imperial succession plan from Emperor Qianlong to his son.

A sign of a recovering antiques market, the imperial vase fetched a staggering HK$108 million (US$13.8 million) in a packed saleroom full of collectors and antiques dealers on 30 May.

It is the most expensive work sold during Hong Kong's May auctions. 

Marco Almeida | Head of Chinese Works of Art Department, Christie's Hong Kong

Lot 2903 | A doucai 'dragon' moonflask
Qianlong six-character seal mark and of the period (1736-1795)
Height: 51 cm
Provenance (Edited 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

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 120,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$91,000,000
Sold: HK$108,025,000 (US$13.86 million)

Auction House: Christie's Hong Kong
Sale: The Imperial Palette - Three Qianlong Treasures
Date: 30 May 2023

Auctioneer Liang-Lin Chen started bidding for the lot at HK$75 million. After a gentleman in the saleroom make the first move with a bid of HK$80 million, it became a tug-of-war between two collectors on the phone with Christie's specialsts. 

With them placing eight alternating bids, the vase reached a hammer price of HK$91 million, selling to Nico Ma's (Executive Client Liaison, Department of 20th/21st Century Art) client with paddle number 8036 for a final price with fees of HK$108 million (US$13.86 million).

The moonflask was hammered at HK$91 million 

Nico Ma (her hand raised) won the moonflask for her client with paddle number 8036

Remarkable for its scarcity, the present moonflask is very likely a unique one, 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, renowned Hong Kong antiques dealer, through private deal.

All three moonflasks share similar height, 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 surface. 


A comparable example kept in Beijing's Palace Museum | Qianlong period, height: 49.5 cm

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 flourish of 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.

The present moonflask

A scroll depicting tne of Qianlong Emperor's wives and the young Jiaqing Emperor | Beijing's Palace Museum

Named after its resemblance to the full moon, moonflask represents one of the archetypal wares created at the imperial kilns in China, a design that appears to have been equally popular with the Chinese rulers as with foreign royalty.

It was originated during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when various Persian and Central Asian metalworks were imported into China along the Silk Road. These works were then reproduced in porcelain and adapted to Chinese tastes.

Representing the zenith of craftsmanship, moonflasks would have overcome several challenges in its creation. The delicate balance of the wide body standing on a small flared foot and the flattened body shape made its firing process inherently unstable – many of them collapsed in on themselves in the kiln, or fell over because they were so top-heavy.

The present moonflask

Adding another level of difficulty, the moonflask is decorated in a doucai-style palette – a porcelain enamelling technique combining underglaze cobalt blue and overglaze polychrome decoration.

The ceramics would be fired twice for its decoration: first time with an outlined design in cobalt at a higher temperature; second with coloured enamels which filled the left-in space at a lower temperature – meaning its semi-product was a blue-and-white porcelain.