Qianlong vase from reputable American Collection estimated at US$3.8 million

During this Spring season, an 18th century Chinese doucai vase will head the Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Sale in Christie’s Hong Kong.

Measuring 52.7 centimetres in height, its provenance traces back to the 19th century – part of the Collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in New York State. Estimated between HK$30 and 50 million (around US$3.8 to 6.3 million) dollars, the auction will take place on 30 May and proceeds will be used to further expand the Institute’s Collection.

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

Auction House: Christie’s Hong Kong

Sale: Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art

Sale Date: 30 May 2022

Location: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre

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

Exquisitely enamelled, this vase is depicted with four lotus blossoms interspersed with smaller lotus blossoms above four gilt or wan emblems on its body – popular Buddhist symbols of good luck – all amidst a lush pattern of leafy scrolls. On the shoulder, a band of stylised bats are depicted above clouds and a group of petal lappets above the foot. 

Its tall waisted neck is decorated on either side with a lotus blossom, centred by a gilt shou medallion above a cluster of lingzhi fungus (a popular motif for Imperial birthdays), all set against leafy scrolls and bordered above and below by ruyi-head bands. On both sides of the neck, there is a pair of handles formed as chilongs (dragons) with tails finely shaded in iron-red and with gilt detail. These symbols represent different themes – such as happiness, auspiciousness and prosperity. 

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

There are few surviving doucai vases of such large size from the Qianlong period. A related Qianlong vase in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, has a different shape but has similar handles, decoration and size. Measuring 49.1 centimetres tall, it is adorned with different symbols – such as auspicious clouds, bats, fishes and the Eight Auspicous Symbols of Buddhism.

In recent years, Qianlong-period doucai wares auctioned in Hong Kong:

  1. Doucai and Famille Rose Anbaxian Vase, TianqiupingChristie’s, 2018HK$130.6 million (around US$16.6 million)
  2. Imperial Doucai and Famille Rose Anbaxian Octagonal VasePoly, 2021HK$55.2 million (around US$7 million)

Flask with the Eight Auspicious Symbols (baijixiang)|Qianlong period (1735-1796)|Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Doucai and Famille Rose Anbaxian Vase, Tianqiuping │ Qianlong period (1735-1796) │ Christie's, 2018 │ Around US$16.6 million 

Imperial Doucai and Famille Rose Anbaxian Octagonal Vase|Qianlong period (1735-1796)|Poly, 2021|Around US$7 million

This present vase dates to the 19th century and 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.

Prior to the auction on 30 May, a touring exhibition in four stops is held – including Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei. Among them, the Taipei exhibition will be held from 7 to 8 May at the Marriott Hotel. Meanwhile, the schedules for Beijing and Shanghai are to be confirmed – depending on the development of the pandemic in mainland China.

Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute