Sotheby's has recently announced highlights from its upcoming fall auction in Hong Kong. The leading lot of the season is going to be a Qianlong pouch-shaped glass vase from the distinguished collection of Le Cong Tang owned by Taiwanese tycoon Robert Tsao. For those who are not familar with the name Le Cong Tang, it is the same collection that offered the Ru brush washer from the Northern Song dynasty which fetched HK$294m (US$37.7m) in 2017, and it still currently holds the record of the world's most expensive ceramic.
This season, the Qianlong pouch-shaped glass vase is expected to fetch in excess of HK$200m (US$25.5m). So how rare is the vase? We have invited Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, to talk about it. For more details about highlights from the upcoming season, please read Sotheby’s Hong Kong Unveils Highlights from Autumn Sales 2019.
Nicolas Chow｜Chairman, Sotheby’s Asia
How rare is it?
Nicolas: In terms of imperial enamelled glass, it’s the finest surviving piece. Even though the Palace Museum in Taipei holds 45 pieces of imperial glass. Most of them are snuff bottles, 38 of them. All the others are rather small in size, small brushpots, little spittoons. There is nothing of this size and complexity that has survived either in the Taipei Palace Museum or the Beijing Palace Museum.
Nicolas: In fact, these glass body, falangcai were painted alongside copper body falangcai and porcelain body falangcai. But these are probably the most challenging because the enamel is fired at around the same temperature or just slightly below the temperature where the glass would melt. Technically, they are incredibly difficult.
Any other similar examples?
Nicolas: What you’ll see is, in other mediums, the baofuping (pouch-shaped) vase that you will find in porcelain. Possibly the most famous piece in the Guimet Museum is a falangcai vase with a sash tied around the shoulder. You’ll see also on copper, there is a piece in the Palace Museum of Taipei which is a jar with a cover.
Vase bouteille à décor de ruban noué. Collection of Guimet Museum
Falangcai Trompe L’oeil Jar with Cover. Qianlong period, Qing dynasty. Collection of Taipei Palace Museum
Where is the pouch-shape vase originated?
Nicolas: In terms of its conception, you can see trompe l’oeil effect of glass of a silk pouch, ribbon tie. That’s reminiscent of lacquer that entered the imperial collection. During the Yongzheng period, it’s the result of the diplomatic gift between Japan and China. And you’ll see in the old imperial collection, Japanese lacquer imitating that tied pouch after the Japanese furoshiki, sash tied box. That’s very possibly where the idea comes of this trompe l’oeil, sash tied vase.
Sash tied box, Yongzheng period, Qing dynasty. Collection of Taipei Palace Museum
What about the design of phoenix and peonies?
Nicolas: You can see here the mark is incorporated in the design in the bud here. And the idea of incorporating the mark in the design is something you find on Yongzheng period enamel, particular enamels on copper or occasionally on snuff bottles or little vessels. You’ll find the mark incorporated in the foot. The design of the phoenix might refer to the empress. It might have been a gift for Emperor Qianlong's consort, the Qianlong Empress or the Emperor Dowager or maybe for his mother. That’s also possible.
What’s the provenance of this vase?
Nicolas: This particular piece comes from the Le Cong Tang collection which is the same collection as the Ru ware that we sold a few years ago. The collection was put together with a lot of passion by Taiwanese tycoon Robert Tsao.
Taiwanese tycoon Robert Tsao, the owner of Le Cong Tang
Nicolas: The companion of this piece is now in the Hong Kong Museum of Art which is a pouch in similar shape produced in the same time in the imperial workshop of Beijing with twelve dragons. Those two pieces came together from the collection of Prince Gong.
Glass vase in silk-pouch shape with chi-dragon and floral scroll design. Qianlong period, Qing dynasty. Collection of Hong Kong Museum of Art
Nicolas: From his collection, it was passed onto a man of German descent A.W. Bahr, who was raised in China and lived there until 1910. He was someone very passionate about Chinese works of art. The piece was then passed down and acquired by Paul and Helen Bernat. They are one of the astute collectors in Qing porcelain and have put together an extraordinary collection that came for sale in 1988 at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.
Nicolas: That piece was acquired by Hong Kong tycoon Joseph Lau in 1988 at the Paul and Helen Bernat collection, and sold again in 2000 where it was acquired by Robert Tsao. This is one of the first two acquisitions he has ever made at auction. It was purchased at the same sale where the fish jar was acquired.
A Jiajing Wucai ‘Fish’ Jar and Cover from Robert Tsao collection fetched HK$213.85m (US$27m) in 2017
The 'Chicken Cup' from the Chenghua reign was sold for HK$29.17m in 1999 and was then sold for HK$281m in 2014
What’s the estimate?
Nicolas: We expect the piece to fetch in excess of HK$200m. If you look at the price that it has fetched historically in the past, when it was sold in 2000, it was absolutely the top two, three highest prices in the 1999-2000 period, almost the same price as the chicken cup that we sold a year before.
A highly important Beijing-enamelled pouch-shaped glass vase
Blue enamel mark and period of Qianlong
Provenance (based on the information available):
- Prince Gong
- A.W. Bahr (1877 - 1959)
- Paul and Helen Bernat
- Joseph Lau, An Important Hong Kong Private Collector
- Le Cong Tang (owned by Robert Tsao)
Estimate: Expected to fetch in excess of HK$200m
Sotheby’s Hong Kong Autumn Sales 2019
Asia travelling exhibitions:
4 - 22 September | Shanghai, Beijing, Jakarta, Beijing, Bangkok, Singapore, Seoul, Taipei
Preview & auction:
3 - 8 August｜Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre