A 16th century Chinese jar once owned by British Hong Kong's big shot William Keswick to be auctioned in New York

When it comes to Chinese ceramics, the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) marked a significant turning point in this revered art form, opening a new chapter that would shape the course of porcelain production for centuries to come. 

As the internecine struggles abated, pottery art took a new lease of life – out were the old tastes of iconic monochrome wares of Song dynasty and in were the new appetite for distinctive blue-and-white and bright polychrome porcelains. 

This Asia Week New York, Christie's brings to us eight carefully selected porcelains made for the Imperial court during the reign of Wanli Emperor (1572 – 1620) of the Ming Dynasty. These treasures come from the prominent collection of Marchant, one of the world’s leading dealers in Chinese art over four generations, and will be offered in a dedicated single-owner sale. 

The star lot is the Keswick 'hundred deer' jar, once owned by William Keswick, a powerful business titan and prominent political figure who paved the way for modern-day Hong Kong during the city's era as a British colony. Boasting an illustrious provenance, the vase is expected to fetch between US$700,000 and 900,000. 

The second and third generations of Marchant – Richard (left) and Stuart (right)

A century-old business, Marchant is a leading London-based antiques dealer specialising in Chinese Ming and Qing pocelains, known for placing emphasis on rarity, quality, and provenance. Established in 1925 by Samuel Marchant (1897-1975), Marchant is currently on the third and fourth generations, run by his grandson Stuart and great-grandchildren Natalie and Samuel. 

When Giuseppe Eskenazi, the Godfather of Chinese Antiques, shared with The Value his journey of becoming a ‘top dealer’ in an interview in 2018, Marchant was praised as the top in London, alongside William Chak in Hong Kong and James Lally in New York.

While its name is no stranger to Chinese antiques collectors – it appeared on many pieces' provenance almost every season – in recent years their collections have often been sold in single-owner sales, such as the Marchant: Nine Decades in Chinese Art at Christie's New York in 2017. Featuring a mix of jades, porcelains, and ancient bronzes, the 51-lot auction achieved an impressive sale total of US$2.3 million.

Lot 888 | The Keswick 'Hundred Deer' Jar
Wanli six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1573-1620)
Height: 35.6 cm

  • William Keswick (1834-1912), Eastwick Park, Great Bookham, Surrey, England
  • Alice Henrietta Keswick Pyke (1874-1966)
  • Messrs. White and Sons, Capel Leyse House Sale, Surrey, 4 May 1967
  • Marchant, London

Estimate: US$700,000 - 900,000

During the British colonial rule, foreign trading houses dominated the business world in Hong Kong. Controlled by the Keswick family, Jardine Matheson was the biggest player among the renowned four major British trading firms, topping of Swire, Wheelock and Company, and Hutchison. 

An international conglomerate, Jardine Matheson's business ventures spanned across various industries such as finance, department stores, transport, construction, and luxury hotels. They were also prominent landowners in Hong Kong, with notable properties under their ownership including Connaught Centre, Prince's Building, and The Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

William Keswick had been a managing partner of this  business dynasty for decades, during which he also held prestigious roles such as director of Hudson’s Bay Company.

His wealth and excetional social status led to his appointment by the British colonial government as a member of Legislative and Executive Councils of Hong Kong, making him an eminent figure in both the political and business realms.

Keswick was a prominent figure in the powerful business dynasty Jardine Matheson

William Keswick displayed the jar at his home in Eastwick Park

Keswick returned to England and settled into Eastwick Park in 1882. And the present jar was prominently displayed on the mantle of the drawing room at his luxurious home.

In 1912, Keswick passed away, leaving behind personal effects of £500,000 (roughly equivalent to £50 million today), including this jar, to his second wife, Alice Henrietta Barrington. The piece changed hands several times thereafter and eventually become part of the Marchant’s collection.

Just as the world-famous blue-and-white porcelain of the Xuande reign and doucai ware of Chenghua period, wucai 'hundred deer' jar represented an artistic high point of the Wanli reign, having been revered by generations of collectors since its introduction.

The famous Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty, who reigned more than a hundred years later than Emperor Wanli, was among these jars' greatest admirer. He commissioned wares based on the 'hundred deer' theme as seen on the present lot, and vases of this motif became particularly popular in his reign. 

Even up to the present, 'hundred deer' vase is still highly sought-after by antiques collectors. A famile rose ‘hundred deer’ vase from the Qianlong period, for instance, sparked a 15-minute bidding battle at Christie's Paris in 2017 and fetched €4.2 million against an estimate of €500,000. 

The present jar from another angle

Details of the present lot

The present 'hundred deer' Jar is decorated with a lively scene where a herd of deer are frolicking among rocks, streams, trees, and fruiting plants, some resting or grazing, others prancing in playful contest. As is often the case, the word 'hundred' is not to be taken literally but in the context of a rebus, representing sumptuous blessings. 

Traditionally the deer is an emblem of immortality in China, believed to live to a very great age. Due to its connotations of longevity, deer worship could often be seen in agricultural rituals, divination, and other ceremonial activities. 

Some of the deer on the jar are clearly intended to be white, since white deer were believed to be especially auspicious – Tale has it that a deer can live one thousand years and turned white after five hundred years. A white deer therefore came to symbolize long life, as well as good fortune and nobility. 

In addition to its auspicious messages, the scene on this jar, which continues around the whole vessel as if on a handscroll, may also be of the imperial gardens or hunting parks where deer and other exotic animals were known to reside. 

Similar examples of the present jar can be found in top-tier museums, including the Palace Museum in Taipei and the Tokyo National Museum.

A similar example from the Palace Museum in Taipei

A similar example from the Tokyo National Museum

Lot 886 | A pair of large wucai 'garlic-mouth' vases
Wanli six-character marks in underglaze blue in a line and of the period (1573-1620)
Height: 47 cm

  • Bonta Family Collection, Belgium
  • Marchant, London

Estimate: US$600,000 - 800,000

Decorated in the same colour palette as the above lot, the present pair of vases depicts a scene of dragons in pursuit of flaming pearls on a dense leafy floral ground. 

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.

Using the enamelling technique known as wucai, translated as five colours, the decoration of the vases are remarkable in its rich and intricate details. Essentially, the technique is a combination of underglaze cobalt blue and overglaze polychrome enamel, with iron-reds, greens and yellows presenting the images with clarity and depth.

While wucai porcelain was not a Wanli invention, it was during his reign it reached heights of refinement and gained immense international acclaim – so much that it has been the target for high-quality fakes for decades.

Its vibrant yet harmonious colour scheme has particularly appealed to the ornate taste of Japanese collectors, with many treasuring wucai pieces as heirlooms – fine examples have even been listed as National Treasure or Important Cultural Properties in Japan.

The interesting form of these vases is known as 'garlic-mouth' vases, due to the bulb-like section at the top of the neck. Scholars trace the shape’s history back to ancient bronzes, but only by the Ming dynasty did they flourished, appearing in this elaborate porcelain form. 

Some nearly identiacal examples of the present vases are in various museums across the globe, such as the Palace Museum in Beijing, the Matsuoka Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. A slightly smaller vase with a different decoration around the garlic-mouth could be found in Taipei's Palace Museum, while another depicting both dragons and pheonixes on the body was sold at Christie's Hong Kong in 2016 for HK$9.66 million, above its high estimate. 

Ancient bronze with a similar form from Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 B.C.) in Taipei's Palace Museum

Similar example from Taipei's Palace Museum

A similar example sold for HK$9.66 million at Christie's Hong Kong in 2016

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 883 | A doucai 'baijixiang' bowl
Wanli six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1573-1620)
Diameter: 16.5 cm

  • Shogado, Tokyo, c. 1990
  • Marchant, London, 1994
  • Private collection, United States
  • Eskenazi, London, no. A-291
  • Marchant, London

Estimate: US$600,000 - 800,000

Lot 881 | A blue and white reverse-docorated stem cup
Wanli six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1573-1620)
Diameter: 8.2 cm

  • Baronial family, Japan
  • Private collection, Japan
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 29 May 2013, lot 2247
  • Marchant, London

Estimate: US$300,000 - 500,000

Lot 884 | A blue and white ingot-shaped 'dragon' box and cover
Wanli six-character mark in underglaze blue in a line and of the period (1573-1620)
Width: 22 cm

  • Mayuyama & Co., Tokyo
  • Private collection, Japan
  • Kitayama Fine Arts, Tokyo
  • Marchant, London

Estimate: US$350,000 - 450,000

Lot 885 | A large wucai beaker vase
Wanli six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1573-1620)
Height: 40.4 cm

  • Private collection, Britain, and thence by descent within the family
  • Marchant, London

Estimate: US$300,000 - 400,000

Lot 882 | A blue and white writing box and cover
Wanli six-character mark in underglaze blue in a line and of the period (1573-1620)
Width: 30.9 cm

  • Tournet, Paris, c. 1960
  • Private collection of a famous French industrialist
  • Marchant, London

Estimate: US$250,000 - 350,000

Lot 887 | A wucai 'dragon' curved brush rest
Wanli six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double rectangle and of the period (1573-1620)
Width: 17.1 cm

  • Blair Charitable Trust, Blair Castle, Blair Atholl, Scotland
  • Christie's London, 10 November 2015, lot 194
  • Marchant, London

Estimate: US$150,000 - 250,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie's New York
Sale: Marchant: Eight Treasures for the Wanli Emperor
Date and Time: 21 September 203 | 11:00 a.m. (New York Local Time)
Number of Lots: 8