It was around four o'clock in the afternoon on the very last day of Christie's Autumn Auctions - finally time for Kangxi's Falangcai Bowl to make its much-awaited appearance. This imperial ruby red-ground Falangcai bowl which had its very own "A Dream Realised: Kangxi's Ultimate Falangcai Bowl" sale was in the end hammered down for HK$75m (US$9.58m) and sold for HK$87.2m (US$11.14m) after premium - surprisingly falling short of auction house's estimate of HK$100m. The seller managed to break even after owning this exquisite imperial Kangxi bowl for six years.
Kangxi's Imperial Falangcai ‘double lotus’ bowl
The auctioneer's hammer falls to conclude the sale
The production of Falangcai began in the 35th year of Kangxi's reign, corresponding to 1696. Made exclusively for the imperial court and royal family, falangcai was limited in production due to its high cost. Falangcai porcelains are among the rarest and most dazzling ceramic wares of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). They are still highly coveted among collectors and connoisseurs in today's market. Some finest examples could fetch up to HK$100m or HK$200m (about US$13m or 25m) at auctions. It is indeed a pity that Kangxi's Ultimate Falangcai Bowl did not manage to join the "100 Million Dollar Club" this time.
In terms of physical appearance, the bowl is superbly potted with thin rounded sides rising from a straight foot to a slightly flared rim, exquisitely painted on the exterior with enamels of rich, vibrant tones depicting a continuous lotus pond, featuring large lotus blooms in yellow, pink, blue and greenish white, including three double-headed blossoms, all supported on slender studded stalks bearing broad lotus leaves brilliantly enamelled in green, some of which decorated with pink and yellow on the furled edges, others with signs of wilting characterised by brown areas surrounding insect-eaten holes. The blooms are interspersed with smaller buds and water reeds in blue, all reserved against a dazzling ruby-red ground. The interior and base are left plain. The base is enamelled in blue with a Kangxi yuzhi mark.
There are two things worth mentioning about this beautiful ruby-ground bowl. First of all it has great provenance. Secondly, its exterior is decorated with the now extinct ‘thousand-petal lotus’, a type of flower originating from Mongolia and beloved by the Kangxi Emperor.
Alfred Trapnell (1838-1917)
Legendary collector Robert Chang acquired the bowl in 1983
The record of its earliest ownership dated back to Alfred Trapnell (1838-1917), a Bristol-born collector and formerly a sea captain who traded with the East. After being kept in several private collections, the bowl was then acquired by legendary collector Robert Chang at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 1983. The final price was reported to be HK$500,000 at the time. In 1999, the bowl went up for auction at Christie’s Hong Kong and was bought by Dr Alice Cheng, Robert Chang’s younger sister, for HK$12.1m.
The bowl reappeared in the market in 2013 and was sold at Sotheby’s for approximately HK$74m (US$9.45m), setting an auction record for Kangxi ceramics at the time. It was Christie's turn to have a go at it this time - the auctioneer started the bidding at HK$55m (US$7m) and elicited bids from room bidders who pushed the price to HK$70m (US$8.94m) after seven rounds of bidding.
There were five or six telephone bidders on the telephone line at this point, however none had made a move so far and were seemingly happy to be just watching from the sidelines. Finally the telephone bidder with a paddle no. 8000 represented by Sherese Tong, Christie's Associate Specialist of Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, could not stand sitting around any longer and offered HK$75m (US$9.58m). The auctioneer gladly struck her gavel at this price point and sold the magnificent Falangcai bowl for HK$87.2m (US$11.14m) to that bidder after premium.
Sherese Tong with the winning bid
Auctioneer Liang-Lin Chen
The seller purchased this extremely rare Qing-dynasty ceramic bowl back in 2013 for HK$74m (US$9.45m) and had now auctioned it off for HK$75m (US$9.58m) excluding premium, more or less breaking even. One would certainly agree that being able to own and spend time with Kangxi's Ultimate Falangcai Bowl must have been such an exclusive and memorable experience.
The decorative motif depicted on this beautiful imperial Kangxi bowl, the ‘thousand-petal lotus’, was imported from an area in Mongolia that was part of the Aohan Banner and thus it was also known as the Aohan lotus. It was appreciated not only for its beauty, but also because it was less susceptible to cold weather.
Lotuses were especially associated with relief from the heat of summer. Since the Kangxi Emperor loved lotuses so much, when he ordered the construction of a summer palace in Jehol, he ensured that he could enjoy lotuses within his palaces. The construction was begun in 1703. When the main palace complex was completed in 1711, the Kangxi Emperor bestowed upon it the name Bishu Shanzhuang (Mountain Villa for Avoiding the Heat). It is recorded that the emperor required lotus ponds to be incorporated into the design of the palace, and lotus are planted in profusion throughout the Bishu Shanzhuang.
The Kangxi Emperor even composed several poems on the subject of lotuses. Of the four surviving poems written by the Kangxi Emperor on the subject of lotuses, three refer to the ‘thousand-petal lotus’. The following poem captures the tranquil pleasure experienced by the Kangxi Emperor as he sat at dusk in the imperial garden, enjoying the beauty and fragrance of the lotuses and watching the palace ladies in their boats viewing the blossoms, while favoured ministers try to capture the likeness of the lotuses in paintings.
‘Early autumn in the Forbidden garden, the Jade Palace is cool;
Green lotuses in rushing stream, deliver clear music.
Thousands bloom above water, layered bright colours;
Countless rounds of wind blow, every stem fragrant.
Palace ladies row their boats, shaking the blue-green leaves;
Trusted ministers move their brushes, praising the red beauties.
Calming my mind, I sit quietly opposite the Western mountain;
Not disturbed by the scenery glowing in the setting sun.’
Lotus of a Thousand Petals (1722) by Jiang Tingxi. Collection of National Palace Museum
Comparison between Lotus of a Thousand Petals and the present falangcai bowl
Comparison between Lotus of a Thousand Petals and the present falangcai bowl
In the 61st year of Kangxi’s reign (1722), which was also the last year of his reign, the Kangxi Emperor commanded the court artist and Grand Secretary to the Imperial Court Jiang Tingxi (1669-1732) to create the painting Lotus of a Thousand Petals. The Kangxi Emperor was so delighted with the painting that he instructed seven of the ministers who were in attendance to compose poems and inscribe them on the painting. According to Christie’s specialists, there seems to be a clear similarity between the lotuses in the painting, which includes a pink double lotus, and those depicted on this bowl. It seems quite plausible that the painting served as an inspiration for the ceramic artist who painted the bowl and therefore it should be dated to 1722.
Depicted in the painting of Lotus of a Thousand Petals is a double lotus – one which has two blooms on a single stem. Double lotuses – bingdilian or bingtoulian - are highly prized, being regarded as particularly auspicious and in the current context also suggesting the reign of a wise and virtuous ruler, and successful future endeavours. Such flowers are also a literary reference to a loving couple who enjoy eternal harmony. Such double lotuses are especially valued because they cannot be induced artificially nor specially bred. Their appearance is rare and entirely natural, and their two flowers will in turn produce two seed pods.
Unfortunately, nowadays, we can only appreciate the beauty of thousand-petal lotus through surviving artworks and literature. At the end of the Qing dynasty and the early Republic of China, Bishu Shanzhuang was badly damaged by wars and unpolitical unrest. When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, thousand-petal lotuses could no longer be found in the dilapidated Imperial palaces, or in Aohan Banner, Mongolia, where it was first imported from.
A Fine and Extraordinary Imperial Ruby Red-Ground Falangcai ‘Double Lotus’ Bowl Kangxi Blue-Enamelled Four-Character Mark Within a Double Square and of the Period, Circa 1722
Lot no.: 2988
Provenance (sorted by The Value)
- Alfred Trapnell (1838-1917)
- Mrs Mary Jane Trapnell
- Sold at Christie’s London, 16 February 1955, lot 88
- Sydney L. Moss, London
- R.F.A. Riesco (1877-1964) Collection, no. 388e
- Bluett & Son, London
- Sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 15 November 1983, lot 277 (reported to be sold for HK$500,000)
- The Robert Chang Collection, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 2 November 1999, lot 509 (sold for about HK$12,100,000)
- The Dr Alice Cheng Collection, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 8 April, 2013, lot 101 (sold for HK$74,040,000)
Hammer price: HK$75,000,000
Price realised: HK$87,200,000
Auction house: Christie's Hong Kong
Venue: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
Sale: A Dream Realised: Kangxi's Ultimate Falangcai Bowl
Sale date: 27 November 2019
Lots offered: 1
Sold by lots: 100%
Sale total: HK$87,200,000