A 13cm-high Chinese jade carving of a ‘pig-dragon’, with an estimate of US$5,000 only, may seem like an ordinary jade stone of a pale yellowish green and russet tone to many people. Except a few with a discerning eye, no one would have imagined that it could fetch up to US$2.295m, nearly 460 times its estimate. Why could this tiny jade command such a whopping price when no one had any high expectation on it before the sale? What’s the story of this ‘pig-dragon’?
A Chinese jade carving of a ‘pig-dragon’, estimated at US$5,000, was sold for US$2.295m
The jade carving was offered as one of the 259 pieces at the Lacquer, Jade, Bronze, Ink: The Irving Collection Day Sale at Christie’s New York. The sale presented the collection from Florence and the late Herbert Irving, the co-founder of the food services giant Sysco Corporation. Long-time New York City philanthropists and avid collectors of Asian Art, The Irving family donated over US$100m and more than 1,300 objects to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Regarding the jade carving, the auction house only put a short description stating that it was from China and it was ‘carved in the Hongshan-style as a coiled stylized mythical animal, pierced with two circular apertures on one side, the stone of a pale yellowish green and russet tone’. It didn’t date which period this jade was made in.
Tina Zonars, Co-Chairman, Asian Art
The jade ‘pig-dragon’ opened at US$4,500 and the price soared up to US$100,000 after five bid increments. The stiff competition pushed the price up to US$1m but it didn’t stop there. The jade carving was hammered down at US$1.9m and sold for US$2.295m to the telephone client represented by Tina Zonars, Co-Chairman, Asian Art.
Many of the best-known examples of ‘pig-dragon’ jade carvings were from the Hongshan Culture (4,700-2,900BC), a Neolithic culture. Hongshan sites have been found in an area around the regions of northeastern China, today’s Mongolia and Liaoning Province.
Jade pig-dragon, late Hongshan Culture, 3500-3000BC. National Palace Museum
Hongshan Culture was named after Hongshan (meaning ‘red mountain’), the site where the artefacts from the culture were first discovered. Of all evacuated Jade dragons of Hongshan Culture, they mainly fall into two types — C-shaped jade dragon and jade pig dragon. Some scholars believe that the ‘pig-dragon’ jade was a creation combing the mythical and religious beliefs from the period. The synthesis of pig and dragon reflects the wish for fertility since the Hongshan Culture was a society largely dependent on agriculture. Dragons, which were believed to be the deity that brings rain to the earth, perfectly complement the production of livestock, represented by pigs.
There is a heated debate concerning the proper name for ‘pig-dragon’ carvings. Some argue that they should be called ‘bear-dragon’ instead of ‘pig-dragon’ because bears were worshipped by ancient inhabitants of northeastern China.
‘Pig-dragon’ jade, Hongshan Culture｜Tianjin Museum
Designed with bat ears, a wrinkled nose, and an arched mouth, the pig dragon resembles an animal embryo. Prehistoric people may have believed that an embryo represented the purest primal life force, and created this formal design as a symbol of vitality.
Dating ancient jades is a challenging task due to the long history spanning over five thousand years. It might explain why the auction house didn’t put a specific period or time for the ‘pig-dragon’ jade. With limited records and documents available, many arachic jade collectors take provenance as one of their primary considerations when they make purchases. Therefore, the auction market for archaic jades with reliable provenance has been red hot over the past few years. This ‘pig-dragon’ jade came from the Irving collection and the owners' reputation alone was already a strong boost to bidders’ confidence.
Florence and the late Herbert Irving
Is a jade that estimated at US$5,000 really worth US$2.295m? Well, if it is an authentic jade from Hongshan Culture, it is definitely a bargain to buy such a historically significant artefact with US$2.295m only.
A Large Archaistic Pale Green and Russet Jade Carving of a ''Pig-Dragon''
Lot no.: 1180
- Peng Seng Antique Ltd., Bangkok, 1990.
- The Irving Collection, no. 95.
Estimate: US$5,000 - 7,000
Hammer price: US$1,900,000
Price realised: US$2,295,000
Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Lacquer, Jade, Bronze, Ink: The Irving Collection Day Sale
Auction date: 21 March 2019
Lots offered: 259
Sold by lot: 97%
Sale totall: US$13,374,625