Splashes of green: Chinese antiques to glow at Christie's Asian Art Week (Part II)

As Christie's New York celebrates the Asian Art Week this month, an Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Sale will be held from 22 to 23 September, featuring works from important private collections and institutions. 

Taking the lead in the sale are a 14th-century biscuit-reserved Longquan celadon octagonal vase, a mid-17th-century massive famille-verte rouleau vase, and three Yongzheng mark-and-period porcelains: a large gilt-decorated celadon-glazed vase, a ge-type vase, and a rare eel skin-glazed 'narcissus bowl’ – all of which have one thing in common: the green colour palette.

This article is divided into two parts – the first one discusses the three Yongzheng ceramics and can be accessed here; while this second one is about the other highlight lots. 

Lot 927 | A molded and biscuit-reserved Longquan celadon octagonal vase, meiping
Yuan dynasty, 14th century
Height: 25.4 cm

  • Chingwah Lee (1901-1980) Collection, San Francisco
  • Sotheby’s Los Angeles, 8 June 1981, lot 306
  • Mr. and Mrs. Jack Chia Collection, Singapore
  • An Important Private Collection of Chinese Celadons and Other Ceramics: Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 5 November 1996, lot 611
  • Eskenazi, London
  • The Property of a Gentleman; Christie’s New York, 22 March 1999, lot 271

Estimate: US$600,000 - 800,000

The rare biscuit-reserved celadon octagonal vase was previously in the collection of Chingwah Lee, a Chinese actor born in San Francisco. Renowned for starring in The Good Earth (1937), Flower Drum Song (1961) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), little known to many is that he was also an Asian art authority in his birthplace during the 1940s and 1950s.

Instilled with an appreciation for Chinese art and history since young, he had form a grand collection of Chinese art honing in ceramics in particular. When Lee passed away in 1980, his antique collection was offered for sale at Sotheby’s Los Angeles the following year. The sale eventually garnered more than a million dollars – a significant amount at the time.

It was where Jack Chia, a wealthy Singaporean businessman, acquired the present lot. In the 1990s, the vase appeared at auctions twice, and was once owned by Eskenazi, one of the world’s most esteemed dealers of Chinese Art, known as the ‘Godfather of Chinese Antiques’.

Chingwah Lee was a Chinese antique collector

Chingwah Lee (right) starred in The Good Earth (1937)

Longquan kilns, located in the town of Longquan in Zhejiang province, first started operation in early Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). Flourished during Southern Song to Yuan dynasties (1127-1368), Longquan wares not only served as tributes to the royal court, but also the pillar of overseas trade, where they were exported to Japan, Philippines, Malaysia and farther away to Europe. Since mid-Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the kiln began its decline.

An adorning technique, in which parts of the decoration were left unglazed to provide a contrast with the jade-like green glaze, came to prominence on high-quality wares made at the Longquan kilns in the Yuan dynasty. Due to very small amounts of iron oxide in the body material, when the wares were fired and oxygen was allowed back into the kiln, the surface of the unglazed areas turned a reddish brown – as on the current lot.

The figures amongst clouds in the central panels of this octagonal vase represent the Eight Daoist Immortals – which are relatively rare on Yuan dynasty ceramics. Across international museums, several similar examples could be found, with two in the British Museum being the closest. On these two octagonal Longquan celadon vases, one is decorated with the eight Daoist figures – as seen on the present lot, the other is carved with Daoist immortals and four floral patterns.   

One similar example in the British Museum, carved with Eight Daoist Immortals

Another similar example in the British Museum, carved with Daoist Immortals and four floral patterns

Lot 928 | A massive famille verte 'Romance of Three Kingdom' rouleau vase
Kangxi period (1662 - 1722)
Height: 76 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Sotheby’s London, 27 February 1973, lot 80
  • Sotheby’s London, 7 November 2007, lot 329, sold: £108,500

Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000

The massive famille-verte rouleau vase was created during the mid-17th century, when the collapse of the Ming dynasty freed the potters of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Provence – China’s ‘porcelain city’ – from imperial influence. The restrictions imposed on kilns by the government became looser, allowing artisans more freedom to experiment with new and creative decorations using different colour palettes, including blue and white, and famille-verte – known as ‘five colours’ in Chinese.

As production of ceramics shifted to appeal to the literati class, particularly popular then was decoration with famous episodes from the lives of noteworthy scholars and heroes from China’s history or popular novels. Painted on the present rouleau vase is a scene where generals and soldiers were chasing after a deer – a symbol of state power in Chinese culture. According to Christie's, this hunting expedition is from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is acclaimed as one the Four Great Classical Novels.

Although many of the best famille-verte ceramics from Kangxi period were made in folk kilns, their prices are not necessarily lower than those produced in imperial kilns. In 2018, a Kangxi famille-verte rouleau vase depicting the story of ‘Investiture of the Gods’ fetched US$1.57 million at Sotheby’s New York and surprised many collectors and connoisseurs.

Lot 764 | A pair of finely carved green jade gu-form vases
Qianlong four-character incised nian zhi marks and of the period (1736-1795)
Height: 30.2 cm

  • The Arthur Curtiss James (1867-1941) Collection, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 13-15 November 1941, lot 154
  • Christie's New York, 24 March 2004, lot 56

Estimate: US$180,000 - 250,000

This pair of green jade Qianlong vases was once owned by Arthur Curtiss James, a railroad industrialist who owned one-seventh of all the railroad track in America and was one of the ten richest American men in the 1920s and 30s.

Following his death in 1941, his rich array of art collection including the present lot was put up for sale at Parke-Bernet Galleries – then America's largest auction house and a favourite destination for Manhattan’s high society and collectors – which was purchased by Sotheby's in 1964. 

Based on gu – a wine vessel of a bronze prototype during the Shang and Zhou dynasties (c. 16th century B.C. - 221 B.C.) , the forms of these jade vases reflect Emperor Qianlong's keen interest in antiques. 

On the globular central section of each vase is carved with two sinuous five-clawed dargon pursuing flaming pearls. Across many dynasties in imperial China, dragon – usually with five claws – had been a symbol for the Emperor; while flaming pearl is the representation of a celestial luminary, either the sun or the moon – together they were an auspicious motif commonly seen in various Chinese art.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 787 | A pair of Huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs
17th - 18th century
97.6 x 64.7 x 60.4 cm

  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 9 April 1998

Estimate: US$200,000 - 250,000

Lot 789 | A very rare twelve-panel coromandel lacquer screen
Dated to the Renshen year of Kangxi, corresponding to 1692, and of the period
Each panel: 300 x 58 x 2 cm

  • The C. Ruxton and Audrey B. Love Collection: Important European Furniture and Asian Works of Art; Christie's New York, 19 October 2004, lot 448.

Estimate: US$150,000 - 200,000

Lot 997 | A teadust-glazed vase, fanghu
Qianlong incised six-character seal mark and of the period (1736-1795)
Height: 30.2 cm

  • The Property of a Lady

Estimate: US$120,000 - 180,000

Lot 1006 | A flambé-glazed vase, fanghu
Qianlong incised six-character seal mark and of the period (1736-1795)
Height: 30.5 cm

  • A Japanese private collection, acquired in the first half of the 20th century
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 29 May 2013, lot 2279

Estimate: US$80,000 - 100,000

Auction Details: 

Auction House: Christie's New York 
Sale: Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Date: 22 - 23 September 2022
Number of Lots: 344