Led by Qing dynasty imperial vase, desirable Chinese antiques to shine at Nagel's Asian Art auction in June

From 12 to 14 June, leading German auction house Nagel will present its highly anticipated Asian Art Sale. As with its previous editions, the sale offers an extensive array of Chinese works of art that highlight the rich artistic traditions and historical significance of Asian culture. 

Featuring a wide variety of artworks spanning different periods, styles, and mediums, leading lots include Qianlong Emperor's blue-and-white porcelain, two classical paintings by pioneers of Chinese art, Xu Beihong and Liu Kuo-sung, an 18/19th century imperial yellow hanging, a turquoise-inlaid bronze plaque dated Early Bronze Age, and a copy of Sutra Nyayanusarini from Ming dynasty or earlier. 

Lot 328 | An imperial hu-shaped porcelain vase
Seal mark and period of Qianlong (1735 - 1796)
Height: 48.5 cm

  • Collection Dr. Rainer Kreissl (1924 - 2005), according to tradition a personal gift from Mao Tse Tung to the Czech President Antonín Zapotocký (1884 - 1954) 
  • Important southern German private collection, collected before 1990

Estimate: €200,000 - 300,000

Arguably no other type of Chinese ceramics is more iconic than the blue-and-white porcelains, and those produced during early-Ming dynasty have always been considered the finest. Renowned for its ‘heaped and piled’ effect created by the distinctive cobalt blue, its beauty has won the hearts of many – including the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796) of Qing dynasty, a passionate collector of antiques and a great connoisseur of the arts.

When it comes to ceramics, the revered Emperor was extremely hard to please: he enjoyed objects that were simulations of other materials, favoured antiquity-inspired designs, yet sought innovation for his amusement.

Fortunately, Qianlong found himself a perfect right-hand man for porcelain production: Tang Ying, the most inventive and capable supervisor the imperial kilns ever had. Hoping to please the Emperor, Tang and his potters drawn extensively on archaic styles and forms, creating pieces that are both steeped in tradition and fashionable, such as the present lot.

A copper-inlaid bronze wine vessel, Hu, Warring States period

The handles are delicately designed in the form of a taotie-mask 

Details of the present vase

Similar decorative patterns on a vase produced under the supervision of Tang Ying

The shape of the present vase, finely moulded and harmoniously proportioned, is based on an archaic bronze hu form – a vital vessel used for rituals during Shang and Zhou dynasties. Adding to the vase’s exquisiteness, it is set with two taotie-mask handles suspending mock rings, brightly painted in deep shades of cobalt.

A Chinese mythological beast, taotie is a common motif on Shang and Zhou bronzes. Legend has it that taotie is a voracious eater who never gets satisfied – therefore it is cast with a pair of raised eyes but sometimes no jaw area, serving as a reminder for the nobility not to spend extravagantly. 

Imitating the world-famous blue-and-white decorative style from Ming dynasty, the vase is delicately adorned with various auspicious motifs, including the Eight Auspicious symbols of Buddhism – one of the favourite motifs of Qianlong, who was an avid follower of Tibetan Buddhism.

Each symbol – the wheel of the law, the conch, the victory standard, the parasol, the lotus, the vase, the twin fish and the endless knot – was carefully depicted over a lotus flower with shou (longevity) characters in the centre, resulting in a highly auspicious and visually appealing vessel.

Dr. Rainer Kreissl (1924 - 2005)

A letter stating Mao Tse Tung gifted the vase to the Czech President Antonín Zapotocký (1884 - 1954)

Before residing in an important southern German private collection earlier than 1990, the present vase belonged to Dr. Rainer Kreissl (1924-2005).

Born to a German-Czech family, Dr. Kreissl first worked as a porcelain painter in the Czech Republic, and became an antiques dealer in the late 1950s. In 1963, he emigrated to Germany, where he started as an employee of an auction house, later the director of its Munich branch.

After 1989, he returned to his homeland, devoted to his collections of African art and Chinese porcelains.

According to the house, the vase was a personal gift from Mao Tse Tung, founder of the People's Republic of China, to the Czech President Antonín Zapotocký (1884 - 1954). 

Lot 106 | Xu Beihong (1895-1953) | Cat on a Blossoming Tree, Ink and colors on paper, framed under glass
Created in 1936
112 x 39 cm
Signature by the artist: On a spring day in the year twenty five (1936), Beihong.
An artist's seal: Beihong

  • From the estate of General Alexander von Falkenhausen (1878-1966) 
  • Private collection Rhineland-Palatinate, through inheritance to the present owners

Estimate: €120,000 - 180,000

Hailed as the Father of Modern Chinese Painting, Xu Beihung was a pioneer of 20th century Chinese art, best known for his highly expressive ink-and-wash paintings of animals. Besides being a talented artist, Xu Beihong was also an influential art educator, who advocated for reviving traditional Chinese painting through studying Western methods.

Born in Eastern China in 1895 to an artistic family, Xu was among the first wave of Chinese painters to study art in Paris at the end of the First World War. Where his peers embraced the latest trends in European art, Xu, though, was an ardent follower of academic realism.

Upon his return to China in 1927, he brought home not only the realist techniques that he hoped would save Chinese art, but also the Western way of learning painting, which was to draw inspiration from real-life observation.  

Staying true to his artistic philosophy, he once spent every day for three months closely studying and sketching lions in the Berlin Zoological Garden – and all this practice would serve the artist well in his rendering of many animals, notably cats.

Xu Beihong is widely recognized as the Father of Modern Chinese Painting

Another Cat painting, measuring 113 x 54 cm, kept in Beihong China Arts

Details of the present lot

Word has it that Xu once told his friend, "I draw cats better than horses." While Xu made a name for himself early on as a master painter of horses, his favourite animal cat – of which he had several throughout his life – remained a key motif in his oeuvre. 

Painted in 1936, the present work Cat on a Blossoming Tree sees Xu's masterfully encapsulate the living creature's momentary expression on traditional rice paper. Under his brush, the animal demonstrates its unique temperament, agile and watchful. 

Using swift and fluid brushstrokes, Xu portrays the cat’s graceful form in precise anatomical proportions, seen with a slightly arched back and head turn inquisitively to the side. Its large, almond-shaped eyes, heighted with hints of amber and green, are strikingly alert and intelligent, conveying a sense of the cat’s acute awareness of its surroundings.

Though wielding a saturated brush most of the time and painting quickly, he did pay special attention to details, with delicate lines to delineate the cat's legs and back; drier brush to add volume to its fur and tail. 

General alexander von falkenhausen

This painting was previously owned by German General Alexander von Falkenhausen, who served as military advisor to Chiang Kai-shek – the leader of Republic of China from 1928 to his death in 1975 – as part of the Sino-German cooperation to reform the Chinese army. 

During the formation, he was responsible for most of the military training, playing a vital role in the modernization of the Chinese military of all branches. 

Lot 107 | Liu Guosong / Liu Kuo-sung (b. 1932) | Monolithic Solitude, Ink and color on paper, mounted as hanging scroll
Created in 1970
138 x 74 cm
Signature by the artist: Liu Guosong 1970
An artist's seal: Liu Guosong

  • From a South German private collection, presumably acquired directly from the artist

Estimate: €60,000 - 100,000

While Xu Beihong revolutionized traditional Chinese art with Western realism, some decades later, a Taiwan-based painter named Liu Kuo-sung pushed the boundary of the genre even further by integrating Surrealism and Abstraction into ink-and-wash paintings.

One of the most recognized artists in contemporary ink today, Liu is arguably the living Chinese artist whose works have been collected by the largest number of museums in the world.

In 2007, Beijing’s Palace Museum broke tradition for the artist, making an exception by hosting The Universe in the mind: Liu Kuo-sung Paintings 60 Years Retrospective Exhibition in a space that had been solely reserved for showcasing classical masterpieces, thus sanctioning the artist’s significance in Chinese art history. 

His works have also been highly sought-after at auctions, with a record standing at US$2.17 million, set in Hong Kong in 2014.

Liu Kuo-sung is one of the most recognized artists in contemporary ink today

In December 1968, when the iconic Earthrise photograph was captured during the Apollo 8 space mission, mankind took a giant leap forward; meanwhile for Liu, this moment was a catalyst for his artistic leap of faith.

Inspired by the startling view of the Earth from the far side of the moon, Liu embarked on his defining hallmark Space series, transforming moonscapes into his own painterly universe.

Details of the present lot

The iconic Earthrise photograph

In these paintings, Liu employs a universal perspective in depicting a new crescent moon rising above the clouds and the vast landmasses and oceans of the earth, illustrating an innovative connection between Chinese ink painting and space exploration, while conveying a sense of void in the wilderness. 

Despite the Western influence, Liu never steps away from his roots. Over centuries, Chinese landscape painters have been seeking the co-existence of man and nature in their creations, striving for the philosophical idea of transcendence and achieving unity with a greater universal spirit.

And moon, a symbol of female or Yin principle in nature, has been a beloved subject of Chinese literati. By featuring the moon as the protagonists of his paintings, Liu extends a poetic, literary tradition thousands of years old, allowing viewers to recall the sentiments associated with it.

Lot 459 | An imperial yellow hanging with five dragons
18th/19th century
469 x 475 cm

  • Old European private collection, assembled before 1980

Estimate: €30,000 - 50,000

Boldly embroidered with a frontal five-clawed dragon coiling around a flaming pearl amidst scrolling clouds, the present large yellow hanging majestically symbolizes the Emperor's supreme power.

Across many dynasties in imperial China, dragon – usually with five claws – had been a symbol for the Emperor; while flaming pearl is the representation of a celestial luminary – either the sun or the moon. Together, they were an auspicious motif commonly seen in various Chinese art.

Aside from the five-clawed dragons, another clue that suggests its imperial use is the colour yellow. Believed to represent the Earth – the centre of Five Elements – it was considered a symbol of the emperor’s divine right to rule, reserved exclusively for the use of the emperor and his family.

By Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the use of yellow became stricter than ever, completely forbidden amongst officials and common people. And it was extensively employed in the decoration of the royal palaces and the throne rooms throughout the Forbidden City.

The hanging is boldly embroidered with a frontal five-clawed dragon

Auspicious symbols

Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism 

A comparative example sold for HK$375,000 at a Hong Kong auction

A large hanging as such might have functioned as a curtain or a palace furnishing, used to separate areas or cover walls in the imperial palace. Embellished with the Shou (longevity) characters and other auspicious symbols – including red bats, a homophone for the word 'happiness', and the Buddhist treasures, it could also have been used a backdrop for a throne at a birthday celebration.

Another hanging smaller in size, decorated with different patterns on the rims, sold at a Hong Kong auction for HK$375,000 (around US$48,000) in 2008. Compared to that piece, the present lot notably displays a higher level of craftsmanship, 

Lot 5b | A bronze plaque
Late Xia/early Shang period, 16th-15th century B.C.
15.7 x 11.1 cm

  • From an important private collection, according to the owner in his family since about 1920, sold at Nagel, 17.5.2006, lot 803
  • From the estate of the buyer

Estimate: €15,000 - 25,000

Remarkable for its sumptuous and intricate inlays of turquoise, the present small bronze plaque with animal-mask design stands as a witness to an exceptional level of craftsmanship attained by an early Bronze Age civilisation that flourished in the Yellow River valley.

Between 1981-1986, three comparable examples were found during excavations in Erlitou, Henan Province of China. As two of the three plaques were discovered at chest level of the buried person, plaques of this type are generally referred by scholars as chest ornaments. Another example – dated circa 19th - 16th century B.C. from Erlitou culture – previously owned by esteemed art dealer Eskenazi, sold far beyond its estimates for HK$8.4 million (around US$1.1 million) at Christie's Hong Kong in 2015.

An example found during excavations in Erlitou, Henan Province of China | Erlitou Site Museum of the Xia Capital, China

Another example, dated circa 19th-16th century B.C. from Erlitou culture, sold for HK$8.4 million in 2015

Its exact purposes, however, has remained an unsolved puzzle: some scholars believe it was used to exorcise evil spirits for its zoomorphic design; others suggest it an important ritual objects in inviting the spirits during wine and food offerings; and still others argue it was a part of the costumes worn when performing rituals and used to enhance "supernatural vision" with the two eyes.

While its historical past is veiled with mystery, one thing is certain: this turquoise-inlaid bronze plaque of astonishing sophistication belonged to a high-status individual of an advanced civilization of its time, with bronze and turquoise being highly valued materials limited to elite burials.

Lot 199 | Sutra Nyayanusarini, vol. 71
Ming dynasty (1368-1644) or earlier
14 leaves, each leaf folded into five pages, each page 29.1 x 11.2 cm

  • Old and important European private collection 

Estimate: €15,000 - 25,000

In the seventh century, a Buddhist monk named Xuanzang alighted on an epic journey to India in search of Buddhist scriptures which were not yet available in China, and Chinese Buddhism has forever been changed.

Xuanzang's pilgrim from China to India was a perilous one, spanning thousands of miles and taking nearly two decades to complete. Despite facing numerous obstacles along the way, he remained steadfast in his quest, driven by his deep devotion to Buddhism and his desire to spread its teachings in China.

He eventually returned to China with over 657 Buddhist scriptures, which he painstaking translated from Sanskrit into Chinese and circulated in China. The present lot, Sutra Nyayanusarini, vol. 71, is a copy of one of those translations.

The painting on the Sutra depicts a scene where the Shakyamuni Buddha is preaching. The listeners who came to learn his teachings include not only Bodhisattvas and Arhats, but also some with non-human faces, who could possibly be the Eight Legions – a group of Buddhist deities common among the audience addressed by the Buddha and served as protectors of dharma.

One of the leaves is printed with Chinese words meaning “Long live the Emperor for ten thousand years and forever”. During the Ming dynasty, Buddhism thrived in the royal court, with copious financial resources being devoted to Buddhism. As a result, Buddhist art experienced a glorious moment at the time, and many of the exquisite sculptures would have been gifted to the court with inscriptions as such.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 102 | A large near white jade teapot and cover
China, Qianlong period (1735 - 1796)
Length: 21.5 cm

  • According to the owners, from a private collection in southern Germany, acquired in the 1980s

Estimate: €30,000 - 50,000

Lot 217 | Signed Jiao Bingzhen
18th century
176.8 x 100.8 cm

  • From an old Swiss private collection, acquired on 29.5.1990, lot 259 at Lempertz in Cologne

Estimate: €15,000 - 25,000

Lot 71 | An inlaid-huanghuali cabinet
China, Kangxi period (1661-1722)
34.8 x 35 x 25.5 cm

  • From the collection of merchant Alfred Julius Forkel (1873-1934), assembled in China prior to 1910,
  • described in the collector's diary, written between 1901 and 1910, on page 91 left, last paragraph, no. 1

Estimate: €12,000 - 18,000

Lot 20 | A bronze sculpture of an earth spirit or Chimera
China, Sui dynasty (581-618) or earlier
Length: 31 cm

  • From the Zeileis collection, assembled in the 1980s and 90s

Estimate: €8,000 - 12,000

Lot 74 | A large celadon jade recumbent horse
China, 17th/18th century
Length: 17.5 cm

  • From an old private collection in southern Germany, by descent in the 1950s and acquisitions in the 1960s to the 1980s supplemented

Estimate: €6,000 - 10,000

Lot 124 | Imperial order of the double dragon with original embroidered silk collar
Late Qing dynasty, late 19th century
Diameter: 7.5 cm; Band length: 98 cm

  • Nobel property South Germany, inheritance of Wolf Albrecht Friedrich von Eichhorn (1883-1969), Lieutenant Commander of the Imperial German Naval Officer Corps 1914/18

Estimate: €6,000 - 8,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: NAGEL Auktionen Stuttgart 
Sale: Fine Asian Art(814)
Auction Date: 12 - 14 June 2023
Preview Date and Time: 8 -11 June 2023 | 11am - 5pm (German Local Time)
Address: Neckarstrasse 189-191, 70190 Stuttgart, Germany

Online bidding:

Website: www.auction.de
E-mail: china@auction.de
Enquiries: +852 69191741