Nicolas Chow on Yongle and Xuande Blue and White Porcelain from Tianminlou Collection

Tianminlou, best known for its collection of blue and white porcelain, boasts the largest repository of Yuan blue and white porcelain in private hands. Last month, The Value had an exclusive interview with See-for Kot (S.F. Kot), the owner of the Tianminlou Collection, and learnt that part of the collection will be up for auction at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong this spring.

The sale features 18 items of Ming and Qing porcelain from the Tianminlou Collection and the group will be led by fine blue and white examples from the Yongle (1403-1425) and Xuande (1426-1435) periods of the Ming dynasty. We have invited Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, to introduce some highlights, as well as to shed light on the difference between blue and white porcelain from Yongle and Xuande periods.

*More details about highlights from the upcoming sale in our previous article Sotheby’s Hong Kong Unveils Highlights from Tianminlou Blue and White Porcelain Collection

Nicolas Chow|Chairman, Sotheby’s Asia

Nicolas: The pieces that we’re offering come from the celebrated ‘Tianminlou Collection’ that was formed by Mr. S.C. Kot. This is a collector who had a great passion for porcelain and tried to charter the development of Chinese porcelain since the kilns in Jingdezhen were set up in the 14th century, focusing from the 14th to the 18th centuries, mostly on blue and white porcelain.

S.C. Kot (left) and his son S.F. Kot(right), owners of the Tianminlou Collection

Nicolas: The purpose of forming this Tianminlou collection is to further the knowledge of Chinese porcelain. That’s also something that he did to the publication of the beautiful two-volume catalog in 1987 to go with his exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. It’s still today one of the great bibles on the subject of Chinese porcelain.

Blue and White 'Lotus' Basin. Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period. Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000

Middle-Eastern basin

What’s so special about the porcelain offered at this sale?
Nicolas: One of the main stars of the auction is this basin. This type of basin finds its source in Middle-Eastern metal work such as those were produced in the 12th and 13th century in Egypt and Syria. You will find these brass examples that were being used together with an ewer to wash your hands before and after a meal.

Nicolas: It’s not a ceramic shape, not a shape that was born on the potter’s wheel. You can see the strong angle and in terms of design, if you look at the interior, that geometric, kind of star on the inside. The design finds its source, its origin in Middle-Eastern metal work. But it’s not actually found exactly like this.

Nicolas: That’s a unique example that comes with a border of pinks at the rim. What you see usually is a border of waves on most other examples. It’s a very beautiful border. You also have this beautiful little half florets circling the base here, again a unique design.

Blue and White 'Lotus' Fruit Bowl Mark and Period of Xuande. Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000

Nicolas: The bowl that we have here is a very typical production of the Xuande period. You find these “dice bowls” with a variety of designs from peony flowers, mixed flowers. You find them with Three Friends of Winter and another example that comes with lotus flower and the Eight Buddhist Emblems.

Nicolas: That’s a design that comes from Buddhism originally and you will have seen in stone carvings. By the time you find it on porcelain in Ming dynasty. The design bares very little resemblance to the flower. You call them “dice bowls”. It’s really a connoisseur’s term. They may have been used either for dice, for cricket fights, or for multi-functional use. It’s quite hard to know exactly how they were used.

Nicolas: The blue here has got that punchy quality. The painter began to use heaped and piled effect. It comes with ‘sumali qing' (Samarra Blue) cobalt that appeared during the period. It gives this very contrastive effect on the flowers that collectors from the late Ming dynasty onwards found it extremely interesting and pleasing. That’s a very classic Xuande mark on the rim here. The use of an Imperial mark was standardised from that period onwards throughout the rest of China Imperial history.

What’s the difference between Yongle and Xuande porcelain?

Nicolas: The difference between Yongle and Xuande periods is quite subtle. Had I not seen the mark on this bowl, I would have thought it’s from late Yongle. You can see that border of little florets. The blue is not quite as powerful as you necessarily expected from that period. You got that soft hue, a little bit paler. It’s got that heaping and piling comes in black little spots that heighten the design.

Nicolas: The classic scroll here is very fluid. It’s something that you usually know for the Yongle period. When you have a change of regime or reign, from the Yongle to Xuande period, it is the same painters, using the same materials, who worked from one period to the next. That explains why the two periods can be very similar.

Blue and White 'Floral' Bowl. Mark and Period of Xuande. Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000

Blue and White 'Dragon' Dish. Mark and Period of Xuande. Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 5,000,000

Why are Yongle and Xuande porcelain so important?
Nicolas: The Yongle and Xuande periods in the early Ming dynasty are very important and critical in the history of Chinese Porcelain development. It’s a period of great standardisation and great quality control. It’s a period of great creativity when a lot of the designs and shapes that would form the development of porcelain throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties first made their appearances. If you look at blue and white porcelain of the Qing dynasty, or even famille rose porcelain, most of their shapes and the designs have their source in Yongle and Xuande porcelain.

Sotheby's Hong Kong Spring Sales

Sale: Selected Imperial Ceramics from the Tianminlou Collection
Viewing: 29 March - 2 April 2019
Auction: 3 April 2019
Venue: Hall 5, Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre