Emperor Qianlong's reticulated vase sells to Taiwanese entrepreneur for US$22.6m

While a huanghuali folding armchair made everyone’s jaw drop last night as it becomes the most expensive Chinese chair sold, in antique circles all eyes were on an extremely rare imperial reticulated vase offered this morning at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

A combination of reticulated, interlocking and revolving features, the coveted lot had stirred up a 30-minute bidding war between at least six buyers – among them was renowned Hong Kong antique dealer William Chak.

After more than 75 bids, the hammer was finally dropped at HK$152 million, going to a telephone bidder with paddle number L0004. Having fetched HK$177 million (around US$22.6 million) after fees, it was without doubt this season’s most expensive Chinese work of art.

According to reliable sources, the buyer is a Taiwanese entrepreneur. 

Emperor Qianlong's reticulated vase hammered for HK$152 million

Lot 3801 | A ruby-ground yangcai 'trigrams' reticulated vase 
Seal mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795)
Height: 31 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value): 

  • Collection of Henry Brougham Loch, 1st Baron Loch of Drylaw (1827-1900), by repute
  • Collection of Alfred Morrison (1821-97), Fonthill House, Tisbury, Wiltshire, no. 328, probably since 1861
  • Collection of the Rt. Hon. The Lord Margadale of Islay, T.D., J.P., D.L. (1906-96)
  • Christie's London, 18th October 1971, lot 56
  • Collection of Dr. Wou Kiuan
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1971-present, coll. no. Q11.49

Estimate: HK$60,000,000 - 120,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$152,000,000
Sold: HK$177,463,000 (around US$22.6 million)

The auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd opened the proceedings of the lot at HK$45 million. The first to make a move was the Chak family sitting in the first row, followed by telephone bidders represented by Patti Wong, International Chairman; Nicolas Chow, Chairman, Sotheby’s Asia; and Xibo Wang, Head of the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department. 

In steady HK$2 million increments, the bid had quickly soared to HK$90 million – it was when Wendy Lin's, Deputy Chairman of Sotheby's Asia, client joined the battlefield. Soon, five more bids propelled the price to cross the HK$100 million mark – though everyone remained silence as they knew there was still a long way to go. 

From there onwards, it came down to the battle between the Chak family, and the two clients represented by Wendy Lin and Nicolas Chow. The three determined buyers continued to make alternating bids and pushed the price to HK$150 million.

Chak family sitting in the first row: (from left to right) Jacqueline Chak, founder of multidisciplinary design studio EDITECTURE; Priscilla Lau, William Chak - founder of Chak's, couple; Ronald Chak, son of William Chak at the helm of Chak's

While the bidding war was going on, there was a rare emotional moment in the saleroom, as Henry Howard-Sneyd said to William Chak and his wife Priscilla Lau, "It's like the old days." 

A veteran auctioneer, he has seen numerous important pieces sold under his hammer. But ever since the pandemic outbreak, Chinese anitiquity market has been plunged and it has been a while since he last witnessed a sky-high bidding in an electrifying Hong Kong saleroom –  this long-awaited intense bidding war must have brought back memories for him. 

When the clock hit 10:35 am, the hammer was finally dropped at HK$152 million, a round of applause followed. Placing the winning bid was Wendy Lin's client with paddle number L0004, who was known to be a Taiwanese entrepreneur.

Wendy Lin won the bid for her client

A new invention of the time, revolving vase is made up of separate pieces: the neck is connected to an inner cylinder, while the outer walls, base and foot form the envelope within which it revolves. A porcelain cone placed in the centre between the bases of the outer and inner sections provides the pivot on which the latter is able to rotate.

Pieces with moveable and interlocking parts were unheard of in ceramics – they only existed in jade, where they also were very complicated to realize. To create such forms in porcelain had been the greatest challenge for the potters at imperial kilns – they would have to make sure that during firing no part of the vases should distort, and all sections should shrunk the same amount so that they could be assembled flawlessly.

And each of these revolving vases were to be fired twice at different temperatures: first for the porcelain itself, then again for the decorations and various colours.

In fact, such technically sophisticated vases were products born out of pressure from Emperor Qianlong.

When it comes to ceramics, the Son of Heaven was extremely hard to please: he favoured antiquity-inspired yet fashionable designs, enjoyed objects that were simulations of other materials, and loved technical innovation for his amusement.

In 1741, the Emperor had reprehended Tang Ying, the most inventive and capable supervisor the imperial kilns ever had, for low quality and breakages in porcelains sent to the court. Such imperial reprimand had raised serious alarms for Tang, who was then determined to turn the page and redeem his mistakes.

In order to recover the imperial kiln’s lost grace, Tang and his potters had come up with something extraordinary and of marvellous technical sophistication – revolving vases with layered openwork or interlocking sections.

Xibo Wang, Head of the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department

Not contended with vases that revolves, the masterful potters who produced the present piece added a further degree of difficulty to their task by dividing the outer walls into two parts, with the rims where they meet fashioned into a cloud-shaped ruyi pattern, an auspicious motif known as jiaotai, meaning a country at peace and her people prosperous.

Hoping to please the Emperor, the reticulated patterns on the present vase are designed as trigrams, where their message in the Book of Changes carried important meaning for Qianlong, who used the first of the Eight Trigrams, qian, consisting of three unbroken strokes and representing heaven, or the male principle, in his reign title.

While most of the revolving vases had either a reticulated or interlocking outer wall, the present piece is an extreme rarity combining both two features – and each thoughtfully stands as an auspicious symbol. According to archives, vases with jiaotai and trigrams are referred to as ‘heaven and earth intertwined’, signifying a harmonious universe.

Technical mastery aside, what adds to the vase is its stylistic coherence, which fuses nostalgic elements with fashionable takes on international trends of the day. On the outside of the vase is a strongly Western-oriented painted decoration, where the bright ruby ground is finely incised in sgraffiato with dense feather arabesques, and distinct shading is introduced to create three-dimensionality.

Peeping through the narrow openings, what hove in sight are underglaze-blue lotus scrolls in early Ming (1368 – 1644) style, painted on the inner tube which represents the actual body of the vase.

A similar vase sold in 1988 at Sotheby’s (left); the present vase (right)

Collection of National Palace Museum, Taipei | An imperial yellow-ground yangcai 'trigrams' reticulated vase, made in the 9th year of the qianlong reign (1744)

There exists only one very similar vase, which was formerly in the collections of Laurent Héliot and Jack Chia and now in a private Hong Kong collection, sold in 1988 at Sotheby’s. Looking through the catalogue, although the two share similar form, design and size, on that vase there is an additional raised rib below the neck, suggesting it is not the exact pair to the present piece.   

According to Sotheby’s, one of these vases might represent the first piece delivered in 1743, the other may have been made as a pair to it, but later, after the Emperor had asked for it.

A pair of smaller vases of similar overall form, construction and decoration but on a yellow ground is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 3806 | A cloisonné enamel 'kui dragon' tripod incense burner
Seal mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795)
Height: 123 cm

  • Collection of Lord Loch of Drylaw (1827-1900), by repute
  • Collection of Alfred Morrison (1821-97), Fonthill House, Tisbury, Wiltshire
  • Collection of the Rt. Hon. The Lord Margadale of Islay, T.D., J.P., D.L. (1906-96)
  • Christie's London, 31st May 1965, lot 133
  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-97)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1968-present, coll. no. Q9.35

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$12,000,000
Sold: HK$
14,895,000 (around US$1.9 million)

Lot 3802 | A yellow-ground green-enamelled 'dragon' vase
Seal mark and period of Yongzheng (1722 - 1735)
Height: 30.5 cm


  • Collection of Lord Loch of Drylaw (1827-1900), by repute
  • Collection of Alfred Morrison (1821-97), Fonthill House, Tisbury, Wiltshire
  • Collection of the Rt. Hon. The Lord Margadale of Islay, T.D., J.P., D.L. (1906-96)
  • Christie's London, 31st May 1965, lot 116
  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-97)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1968-present, coll. no. Q8.2

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 4,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$8,000,000
Sold: HK$10,055,000 (around US$1.28 million)

Lot 3804 | A blue and white handled vase, hu
Seal mark and period of Yongzheng (1722 - 1735)
Height: 33.5 cm

  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-97)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1975-present, coll. no. Q8.33

Estimate: HK$2,500,000 - 3,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,800,000
Sold: HK$2,268,000 (around US$288,000) 

Lot 3805 | A blue and white 'bajixiang' charger
Seal mark and period of Yongzheng (1722 - 1735)
Diameter: 45 cm

  • Christie's London, 31st October 1966, lot 55
  • Collection of Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-97)
  • Wou Lien-Pai Museum, 1968-present, coll. no. Q8.34

Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,700,000
Sold: HK$2,142,000 (around US$272,000)

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: A Journey Through China’s History The Dr Wou Kiuan Collection Part II
Date and Time: 9 October 2022 | 10am (Hong Kong Time)
Number of Lots: 6
Sold: 5
Unsold: 1
Sale Rate: 83%
Sale Total: HK$206,823,000 (around US$26.3 million)