A once record-setting 18th century imperial bowl sells for US$25.4m in Hong Kong

In 2006, an 18th-century imperial falangcai porcelain bowl that blended painting, poetry, and calligraphy in perfect harmony caused waves the art scene as it sold for a whopping HK$151 million (US$19.3 million) at Christie's Hong Kong – 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 decided to offer this gem of imperial porcelain at Sotheby's Hong Kong.

A highlight piece of the house's 50th anniversary spring sale series, the bowl sold for HK$198 million (around US$25.4 million) at a single-lot auction this morning (8 April).

Dr. Alice Cheng purchased the present bowl in 2006

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 (HK$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 (HK$151,320,000)
  • Thereafter with the present owner

Expected to fetch in excess of HK$200 million
Hammer Price: HK$170,000,000
Sold: HK$198,220,000 (around US$25.4 million)

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: A Timeless Ode to Spring: The Dr Alice Cheng Falangcai Bowl

Date: 8 April 2023
Number of Lot: 1

Auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd opened bidding for the lot at HK$160 million. After a few stray bids, Carrie Li (Senior Specialist of Chinese Works of Art) placed a bid of HK$170 million for her client on the phone with paddle number L0001. Following a few minutes of patient waiting, the auctioneer saw no further interest from anyone else and dropped his hammer.

With buyer's premium, the imperial falangcai bowl sold for HK$198 million (around US$25.4 million), becoming the second most expensive lot sold at Sotheby's 50th anniversary spring sales in Hong Kong so far – just behind Zhang Daqian's HK$251-million Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen.

The lot was hammered at HK$170 million

Carrie Li (Senior Specialist of Chinese Works of Art) won the lot for her client with paddle number L0001

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.


Nicholas Chow | Chairman of Sotheby's Asia

The production of falangcai wares began during the prosperous Kangxi period (1661-1722) of Qing dynasty. 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, a 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 dated Qianlong period (1736-1795), when ceramic production peaked. 

Seen in a panoramic view, the elegant decoration on the present bowl is composed as 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, 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 an impeccable provenance, the bowl can be traced back to 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 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 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, who acquired the bowl 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

Her love for Chinese art runs in the blood – her grandfather was a well-known carver who 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 an impeccable taste and 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.