Rare Legacy of the Tang Dynasty: US$2.5m-3.5m Junkunc Jade Dragon Head to Lead Christie’s Asia Week New York

In the upcoming Asia Week in New York, a jade dragon head, Tang dynasty, from the distinguished collection of Stephen Junkunc III, is going to lead Christie’s auction week. It is expected to fetch US$2.5m-3.5m, the highest estimate in the Asia Week auctions.

How rare is this dragon jade head that measures 16.5cm long? Before we delve into its history, The Value team has some exclusive photos for you all to take a closer look at the piece.

Jade Dragon Head, Tang dynasty

According to the auction house’s specialist, jade artefacts from the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) are among the rarest from China’s millennia-long tradition of jade carving. Most pieces that come to auctions are usually small, two-dimensional personal ornaments such as belt plaques, pendants and hair ornaments.

During the Tang dynasty in China, the supply of jade was strictly regulated and reserved for only the most influential and powerful individuals of society. The present dragon head is carved with a snarled grin baring sharp teeth, a pointed, upturned muzzle that pushes back against large round nostrils, thickly furrowed brows over the eyes, and a backswept mane that ends in tight curls. The carving is bold, vigorous and expressive — characteristics which are associated with Tang dynasty imperial power.

So what was it used for? The drilled perforations visible on the Junkunc dragon head and the carved trough underneath it suggest that it originally served as a decorative ornament. It is likely to have been mounted onto the wooden pole of an imperial chariot or sedan.

The Old Tang History (compiled between AD 941-945) records that imperial carriages decorated with jades were reserved for the most important state ceremonies, such as ritual worship and the coronation of the empress. It is possible that this jade dragon head was made for the Emperor Xuanzong — who reigned from AD 712 to 756 — at the height of his power.

This pale greyish-green jade dragon head comes to auction at Christie’s in New York from the famed Asian art collection of Stephen Junkunc, III. It was published in 1963, but has not been seen in public since. After nearly six decades, this extraordinary carving is now coming to light for a fresh generation of scholars and collectors.

Ling’ao Tong, an associate specialist in the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department at Christie’s in New York

Ling’ao Tong, an associate specialist in the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department at Christie’s in New York, said: “The only other known example of a Tang-dynasty jade dragon head was found in 1980 at Qujiang, the site of the imperial pleasure park in the ancient Tang capital Chang’an (modern day Xi’an). The Qujiang dragon head is now in the Xi’an Museum in Shaanxi Province.”

Another piece of Tang-dynasty jade dragon is now in the Xi’an Museum in Shaanxi Province

“That it is the only Tang-dynasty jade dragon head in private hands will make it extremely attractive to collectors of early Chinese jade, as well as to cross-category collectors who are interested in acquiring a masterpiece,” added Tong.

The dragon head is recorded in Alfred Salmony’s Chinese Jade Through the Wei Dynasty, 1963

Junkunc III was well-known for his discerning eyes

Stephen Junkunc, III (d.1978), was born in Budapest, Hungary. He then emigrated to Chicago as a young child. His father founded General Machinery & Manufacturing Company there in 1918. The company specialised in the manufacture of knife-edge fuel nozzle head. With the outbreak of World War II, General Machinery converted its shop to begin manufacturing various aircraft parts. Stephen Junkunc III, the manager and part owner of the company, spent his free time forming an extraordinary collection of Chinese art.

Stephen Junkunc III then became an important collector in Chinese art. He purchased many great porcelain examples from leading London dealers like Bluett & Sons, W. Dickinson & Sons, John Sparks. From the letters that he wrote, we find that he was particularly fond of Ru ware, Guan ware, Ge ware, as well as clair de lune of the Kangxi period. His reputation was well established for his impeccable taste for ceramics.

The Junkunc Jade Dragon Head

A pale greyish-green jade carving of a dragon head

Tang dynasty (618-907)
Lot no.: 830
Length: 16.5cm
Stephen Junkunc, III (1904-1978) Collection, acquired prior to 1958.
Estimate: US$2,500,000 - 3,500,000

Other selected highlights

A Huanghuali folding horseshoe-back armchair, Jiaoyi
17th century

Lot no.: 876
Size: 101 x 68.6 x 67.3cm

  • Grace Wu Bruce, London.
  • Dr. S. Y. Yip Collection, Hong Kong, 1993.
  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 2000.

Estimate: US$1,000,000 - 1,500,000

A set of four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, quanyi
17th century

Lot no.: 878
Size: 95.3 x 58.5 x 45.1cm
Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1997.
Estimate: US$800,000 - 1,200,000

A massive demountable huanghuali trestle-leg table, qiaotou’an
17th century

Lot no.: 875
Size: 88.9 x 237.5 x 44.5cm
Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1996.
Estimate: US$600,000 - 800,000

An enamelled famille rose mille fleurs lantern vase
Jiaqing iron-red six-character seal mark and of the period (1796-1820)

Lot no.: 1134
Height: 33.6cm
In the current family’s collection before 1980, and thence by descent.
Estimate: US$300,000 - 500,000

A gilt-bronze figure of Avalokiteshvara
17th-18th century

Lot no.: 857
Height: 19cm (buddhist), 6cm (base)
Private collection, France, acquired in the first half of the 20th century, and thence by descent.
Estimate: US$100,000 - 150,000

Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Sale date: 13 September 2019
Lots offered: 289