US$2.5m Junkunc Jade Dragon Head Fails to Sell at Christie’s New York Despite the Presale Hype

A jade dragon head, Tang dynasty, was expected to fetch US$2.5m-3.5m at auction, the highest estimate placed on any item across various sales this Asia Week. Despite all the hype before the sale, the jade dragon head failed to find a new owner and ended up being bought in at Christie’s New York.

Before the sale, the Value team took some exclusive photos for you all to take a closer look at the piece. Based on the information provided by Christie’s, it is the only Tang-dynasty jade dragon head in private hands. It is perhaps that rarity of the jade dragon head that made the auction house believe that it would be extremely attractive to collectors of early Chinese jade, as well as to cross-category collectors who are interested in acquiring a masterpiece. Yet, it seemed that the estimate US$2.5m-3.5m was far from attractive to collectors.

The auctioneer started the bidding at US$1.6m but saw a tepid reception from both room bidders and telephone bidders. The auctioneer tried to get a bid higher than US$2.2m but in vain. The lot was bought in as it failed to meet the undisclosed reserve price.

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.

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.

In addition to its rarity, the impeccable provenance was another reason why the auction house had so much confidence in it. This pale greyish-green jade dragon came from the famed Asian art collection of Stephen Junkunc, III. It was published in 1963 but has not been seen in public since. It came to light after nearly six decades.

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

Coincidentally, this Asia Week, Sotheby’s held a dedicated sale to an array of ancient Chinese art from the Junkunc collection. Several top lots of the sale were successfully sold and a number of items offered were even sold for prices exceeding their rather conservative estimates. Perhaps the jade dragon head would be something fresh and exciting to collectors if the pricing strategy was not too aggressive, especially during the time when the market for Chinese art seems to be less frenetic than it was.

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