Hong Kong Tycoon Joseph Lau's imperial porcelains gather US$8.1m

Earlier this morning, Sotheby's Hong Kong presented the second sale dedicated to Hong Kong estate tycoon Joseph Lau's collection of Chinese imperial porcelains.

One of the top lots, an 18th-century moonflask from Emperor Qianlong, was withdrawn last-minute. Amongst the remaining 10 lots offered, seven were sold, bringing in a sale total of HK$64.1 million (around US$8.1 million). 

The crowning lot was a 15th-century blue-and-white plum vase, having sold for HK$24.5 million (around US$3.1 million) with fees. 

Joseph Lau and his wife Kimbee Chan

Blue-and-white plum vase hammered for HK$20 million

Lot 3507 | A blue and white 'lotus scroll' vase, meiping
Created in Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1402 - 1424)
Height: 31.4 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 15th/16th November 1988, lot 122
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$25,000,000 - 35,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$20,000,000
Sold: HK$24,575,000 (around US$3.1 million)

Arguably no other type of Chinese ceramics is more iconic than the blue-and-white porcelains – and those produced during Yongle period (1403-1424) and Xuande period (1425-1435) of Ming dynasty have always been considered the finest.

The distinctive colour on blue-and-white porcelains comes from the Smalt or Samarra cobalt imported from Persia, which were scarce ingredients at the time and used in only limited quantities. Rich in iron oxide, these cobalt pigments would yield a glaze with darker blue spots in certain areas of the surface, an effect known as ‘heaped and piled’.

Due to this characteristic, blue-and-white porcelains from these periods were seldom decorated with human figures, but more often with flower and animal motifs – where the different shades of blue would create an effect much like ink painting.  

Vase of this shape is known as meipingplum vessel, characterized by a mellow profile, which curved in a fluid line from the narrow waisted neck over the well-rounded shoulder, tapering down in a gentle curve before flaring again slightly towards a small base. 

In traditional Chinese culture, this elegant silhouette was regarded as a reflection of a man’s physique and a symbol of gentleman – small mouth means minding one’s language; broad shoulder represents taking responsibility.

While the shapes and designs of Yongle and Xuande blue-and-white porcelains share striking resemblances, there is an easy way to distinguish them: to look at the seal mark. It was only until Xuande period that the use of reign marks on artworks had been formalized. Those without seal marks, as with the present lot, are usually from Yongle period.

Blue and white ‘fruit’ meiping, Yongle Period, 28 cm | Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 2014, sold: HK$48.2 million

Blue and white meiping and a cover, Yongle Period (The cover late Ming dynasty), 37.8 cm | Christie’s Hong Kong, 2016, sold: HK$50.5 million

Highly-prized, blue-and-white meiping from Yongle period with decoration of flowers or fruits often pulls off remarkable result at auctions, usually being able to hit the US$2 million benchmark and achieve even more.

For instance, one with fruit pattern was sold in 2014 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for HK$48.2 million (around US$6.1 million). Another with a cover that was made in late Ming dynasty fetched HK$50.5 million (around US$6.4 million) at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2016.

Lot 3509 | A blue and white moonflask
Created in Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1402 - 1424)
Height: 29.3 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 15th May 1990, lot 22
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$14,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$10,000,000
Sold: HK$12,475,000 (around US$1.58 million)

Flask of this flatten circular shape with handles was called moonflask – named after its resemblance to the full moon. It was originated during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when various Persian and Central Asian metalworks were imported into China along the Silk Road. These works were then reproduced in porcelain and adapted to Chinese tastes. 

Unlike Chinese moonflasks which served as decorative objects or flower-holders, the Persian prototypes are practical vessels used for carrying liquids – the small bulb-shaped mouth was designed to prevent spills; and the loops to be strung by a rope to hang on the hip while travelling on foot, horse or camel-back.

Freer Gallery of Art | Canteen with Episodes from the Life of Christ, Syria or Iraq, mid-13th century

The decoration on this moonflask is a fusion of Chinese and Central Eastern aesthetics. The enclosing chevron, geometric border, star-shaped rosettes adorning either side of the flask are all Central Eastern pattern; while the traditional Chinese design repertoire is represented through the flower-scroll band at the neck and the small floral sprigs at the handles.

Blue-and-white moonflasks of the same patterns could be found across various museums and private collections, including the National Palace Museum, Taipei; the Palace Museum, Beijing; the Shanghai Museum and the famed Meiyintang Collection.

Lot 3503 | An imperial gilt bronze-decorated white jade candlestick
Mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795); Recorded to have been commissioned in 1739 and completed in 1740
Height: 23 cm

  • Sotheby's New York, 22nd March 1995, lot 22
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$1,000,000 - 1,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$8,000,000
Sold: HK$10,055,000 (around US$1.28 million)

The most surprising lot of sale was this gilt bronze-decorated white jade candlestick, where it elicited active biddings to lead the hammer price to HK$8 million, 8 times its low estimate. 

Comprising individual jade carvings, as well as tailor-made gilt-bronze and painted enamel elements, this candlestick is an imperial collage conceptualised and commissioned by Qianlong Emperor himself – which perhaps explains its impressive performance on the auction block. 

Documented to have been made by imperial order in 1739, it is presumably the first of a kind of candlesticks that formed part of the Qing dynasty imperial New Year calligraphy ritual. At midnight on the first day of a year, the emperor was supposed to light a candle on ‘the jade candlestick of eternal harmony’. 

The present lot is documented to have been made by imperial order

In 1739, the Emperor was presented with a white jade carving of a mythical beast and a white jade prunus-shaped cupstand – the base and the middle part of the present lot. Seeing the two works, he ordered an enamel vase to be installed at the top in order to create a candlestick named ‘the jade candlestick of eternal harmony’. To accompany the candlestick, the Emperor further commissioned a gold vessel and a fitted ivory stand.

However, when the final product came the following year, the Emperor found the candlestick and the vessel less than satisfactory, and further demanded that their details be improved. 

The gold vessel must have been particularly disappointing, as he commissioned two copies to be made based on specific requirements: the dimensions had to match that of the candlestick, special attention to the dragon-shaped handles and inlays should be paid – and no production was allowed until the Emperor approved the design. 

Although the archive documents show no indication on the exact date when the candlestick was resubmitted, the fitted wood boxes and new pair of vessels were approved for use in the 12th month of 1740, suggesting that the enhancement of the candlestick was accepted on an earlier date.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 3508 | A pair of doucai and famille-rose 'sanduo' bowls
Marks and period of Yongzheng (1722-1735)
16 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 15th May 1990, lot 286
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$$6,000,000
Sold: HK$HK$7,560,000

Lot 3504 | A blue and white globular vessel
Mark and period of Xuande (1425-1435)
Height: 7.5 cm

  • Acquired in Hong Kong, 11th September 1991
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 4,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$3,000,000
Sold: HK$3,780,000

Lot 3501 | A blue and white 'lianzi' bowl
Mark and period of Xuande (1425-1435)
Diameter: 20.5 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 15th May 1990, lot 23
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$2,500,000 - 3,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$3,000,000
Sold: HK$3,780,000

Lot 3506 | A lapis lazuli figure of Amitabha Buddha on a white jade lotus stand
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 20.8 cm

  • Christie's Hong Kong, 26th April 2004, lot 995
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$1,500,000 - 2,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,500,000
Sold: HK$1,890,000

Lot 3505 | Doucai and famille-rose 'sanduo' moonflask
Seal mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795)
Height: 31.3 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8th November 1982, lot 204
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 8th October 1990, lot 525
  • The Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: Gems of Imperial Porcelain from the Private Collection of Joseph Lau Part II
Date and Time: 9 October 2022 | 10:15pm (Hong Kong Time)
Number of Lots: 10
Sold: 7 
Unsold: 3
Sale Rate: 70%
Sale Total: HK$64,115,000 (around US$8.1 million)