A record-breaking imperial bowl from 18th century could fetch up to US$25.5m at auction

In traditional Chinese culture, poetry, calligraphy, and painting are known as "the three perfections" – a dream team of arts appreciated as the ultimate achievement of a literati.

In 2006, an imperial falangcai porcelain bowl that blended these three arts in perfect harmony stunned the art scene as it sold for a whopping HK$151 million (US$19.3 million), a then-record price for any work of art sold in Asia and a world record for a Qing dynasty ceramic.

17 years later, its distinguished owner, Dr. Alice Cheng, has decided to sell this masterpiece of its genre at Sotheby's Hong Kong – the house which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Asia this year. A highlight piece of its spring sales series, the bowl will be featured in a stand-alone auction on 8 April, and is expected to fetch in excess of HK$200 million (US$25.5 million).

Lot 1 | An imperial falangcai 'swallow' bowl
Blue enamel mark and period of Qianlong (1735 - 1796)
*The porcelain possibly Yongzheng period (1722 - 1735), the enamel painted circa 1736
Diamter: 11.3 cm

  • Collection of Captain Charles Oswald Liddell (1854-1941), of Shanghai and Shirenewton Hall, Wales, assembled in the late 19th century when he resided in China (one of a pair)
  • Bluett & Sons, London, 1929 (one of a pair, £ 150 each)
  • Collection of Charles Ernest Russell (1866-1960) of King’s Ford, near Colchester, acquired from the above in May 1929
  • Collection of Barbara Hutton (1912-1979), at the time Baroness von Cramm, United States, acquired no later than 1956, sold in 1971, at the sale below
  • Sotheby’s London, 6th July 1971, lot 262 (£ 7,000)
  • Collection of J.T. Tai (1911-1992), New York, purchased at the sale above and consigned to the sale below
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 21st May 1985, lot 27 (HKD 1,000,000)
  • Collection of S.C. Ko (1911-1992), the Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong, acquired through Robert Chang from the sale above
  • Collection of Robert Chang, Hong Kong, acquired no later than 1993 and consigned to the sale below.
  • Christie’s Hong Kong, An Exquisite Falangcai Bowl, 28th November 2006, lot 1309 (HKD 151,320,000)
  • Thereafter with the present owner

Expected to fetch in excess of HK$200 million (US$25.5 million)

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Auction Date: 8 April 2023
Preview Date: 1 - 7 April 2023
Venue: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Hall 1

Falangcai, which can be translated as 'foreign colours', are among the rarest and most celebrated imperial ceramic wares of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Unlike most other wares of that period, the production of falangcai was small in scale, subject to close scrutiny by the Emperor, and made exclusively for the imperial court and royal family.

Up to the present, most of these wares are held by top-tier museums including the Palace Museum, Beijing, the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and the British Museum – leaving only a handful in private collections. Highly sought-after among collectors and connoisseurs, some finest examples could fetch up to HK$100 or 200 million (US$13 or 25 million) at auctions.

The highest price for a falangcai ceramic now stands at HK$238.8 million (US$30.6 million), set by a pink-ground bowl from Kangxi period, which takes the fifth place on the list of the most expensive ceramics ever sold at auctions. 

  1. Imperial yangcai ruby-ground with carved openwork "phoenix scene" revolving vase, Qianlong period (1736-1795)
    Sold: RMB 265,650,000 (US$41,570,853) | Poly Beijing, 2021
  2. Ru Guanyao brush washer, Northern Song dynasty (907-1127)
    Sold: HK$294,287,500 (US$37,757,086) | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2017
  3. Doucai “chicken cup” from the Meiyintang collection, Chenghua period (1465-1487)
    Sold: HK$281,240,000 (US$36,279,960) | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2014
  4. Yellow-ground famille-rose double-gourd vase, Qianlong period (1736-1795)
    Sold: HK$252,660,000 (US$32,392,307) | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2010 
  5. Pink-ground falangcai bowl puce-enamel, Kangxi period (1661-1722)
    Sold: HK$238,807,500 (US$30,616,346) | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2018

If the present bowl sells for over US$30.6 million with fees, it will then regain the throne as the most valuable falangcai ware ever sold.  

Imperial yangcai ruby-ground with carved openwork "phoenix scene" revolving vase, Qianlong period (1736-1795) | Sold: RMB 265,650,000 (US$41,570,853) | Poly Beijing, 2021

Doucai “chicken cup” from the Meiyintang collection, Chenghua period (1465-1487) | Sold: HK$281,240,000 (US$36,279,960) | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2014

Pink-ground falangcai bowl puce-enamel, Kangxi period (1661-1722) | Sold: HK$238,807,500 (US$30,616,346) | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2018

The production of falangcai wares began during the prosperous Kangxi period (1661-1722) of Qing dynasty, when China was a powerful magnet for embassies from the West. With a particular interest in technical development, the Emperor welcomed European Jesuits to the court to supply skills and materials that had been unknown in China, including foreign enamels.

These newly imported pigments, rich in colours of various shades, were first experimented on copper vessels, where they were applied overall to hide the metal strips underneath, the product of which is known as falangcai enamelled cloisonné ware. Late in the Kangxi reign, the foreign enamels began to be used on ceramics – though produced in a much more complicated way.

For each piece of falangcai ceramics, plain porcelain would first be fired in kilns in Jingdezhen, China’s ‘porcelain city’ in the south, then transported to the Imperial workshops within the Forbidden City in Beijing, close to the Emperor's living quarters. Once the Emperor had confirmed the design, the porcelain would be decorated with falangcai enamels by master court painters and fired for the second time in the Palace. 

By the Yongzheng period (1723-1735), as imperial painters were recruited for the enamelling, the experimental stage had passed, and the imperial workshops had seemingly mastered the technique of enamel painting on porcelain using foreign colours, producing ceramic decoration on a par with court painting. 

The falangcai bowl that is going under the hammer this spring dates Qianlong period (1736-1795), when ceramic production peaked. According to Sotheby's, as the bowl's composition, seals, and calligraphy are all characteristics of the Yongzheng reign, it must date from the earliest years of the Qianlong reign, or even enamelled on blank porcelain produced during the Yongzheng period. Since Qianlong Emperor soon abandoned this painterly style, the bowl belongs to an even smaller group of porcelains which today are mostly preserved in the Palace Museum in Taipei.

Seen in a panoramic view, the elegant decoration on the present bowl is composed as if a Chinese horizontal handscroll, depicting two swallows flying among an apricot tree in bloom and a willow sprouting its first leaves – motifs spelling a universal message of spring. As swallows often fly or perch in pairs to build their nests and raise their young together, they also symbolize a loving couple. 

Apart from a sign of spring, the apricot is a symbol of the second month of the lunar calendar, the month of the imperial examinations, and has thus become the 'successful candidate's flower'. Painted together with swallow – the homophone to banquet in Chinese – they express the wish for a scholar to be successful in the imperial examinations and attend the banquet given by the Emperor.

On the other side of the bowl is a calligraphic colophon taken from a poem said to have been commissioned by the Wanli Emperor (r. 1573-1620) of the Ming dynasty, which reads:

Scissors of jade cut through the flowers,
Like rainbow garments brought back from the moon.

Here, ‘Scissors of jade’ refer to the swallows with their forked tail, whereas 'rainbow garments' pay reference to a song reputedly composed by the Tang Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712-756) from memory, after he had followed a Daoist alchemist to the moon, where he had heard the tune and seen fairies in such garb dancing to it. 

The Liddell Family

Endowed with impeccable provenance, the bowl can be traced back to the late Qing dynasty when it belonged as one of a pair to Captain Charles Oswald Liddell (1854 - 1941). A wealthy shipping merchant in Far Eastern trade, he moved from the UK to China for family business in 1877. During his time there, he acquired important ceramics from the last Regent of the Qing Dynasty and the private secretary of a high official, forming an exceptional private collection of Chinese porcelains.

The pair of bowls was split in a sale at Bluett and Sons, London in 1929, where the present piece was purchased by Charles Ernest Russell (1866 – 1960) of King’s Ford, near Colchester. Initially a prolific collector of Western art, Charles Ernest Russell turned to Chinese porcelain in the 1920s and became one of the early members of the Oriental Ceramic Society. Its counterpart entered Sir Percival David’s collection and is now kept by the British Museum.  

Between 1929 and 1956, the bowl went into the hands of Barbara Hutton, the American socialite who was heiress of the Woolworth empire. Her impressive collection of Qing porcelains was offered at Sotheby's London in 1971. At that sale, the present bowl was purchased by Tai Jun Tsei, known as J.T. Tai, a name that is inextricably associated with Chinese artworks of guaranteed quality.

The bowl's counterpart is now held in the British Museum

In 1985, it was offered again at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, where legendary collector Robert Chang most probably bought it on behalf of S.C. Ko of the Tianminlou – a prized collection that was hailed by many Chinese ceramics lovers. 

A late owner, who particularly cherished the bowl, was Robert Chang himself, who acquired the bowl again between 1987 and 1993. Born in Shanghai in the 1920s, he arrived in Hong Kong in 1948 and kick-started a stellar career in antique dealing. As his appreciation of Chinese art increased, he began to build a collection of his own, with a focus on ceramics.

When he sold the present bowl in 2006 for HK$151.3 million, it became a crown jewel of the collection of his younger sister, Dr. Alice Cheng. Also a native of Shanghai, she settled in Hong Kong in her forties, building up a series of successful business ventures in the city and mainland China in the fields of petroleum, real estate, IT technology and transportation. While deeply involved in political and commercial activities, she is also a philanthropist at heart, generously supporting causes such as commerce, education, health, and culture.

A fencai peach-decorated vase, Yongzheng period | Sold for HK$41,500,000 to Dr. Alice Cheng in 2002 at Sotheby's Hong Kong (Then auction record for Qing porcelains); Now in the collection of the Shanghai Museum

Dr. Alice Cheng's love for Chinese art runs in the blood – her grandfather was a well-known carver whom Empress Dowager Cixi from the late Qing Dynasty once even commissioned to work; her father a celebrated antique dealer, in whose footsteps her brother Robert would follow.

With impeccable taste and a discerning eye, Dr. Alice Cheng has assembled since the late 1990s a formidable collection of imperial Chinese porcelains that includes various record-shattering pieces which she acquired at auctions. One example would be a unique peach-decorated vase of the Yongzheng period, which she bought for a then-world record price of HK$41.5 million in 2002 and donated in the following year to the Shanghai Museum. 

Whether the present lot would break yet another auction record remains to be seen on 8 April in Hong Kong.