Tianminlou’s rare 15th century blue-and-white moon flask leads Sotheby’s Chinese Works of Art Auction

2023 marks Sotheby’s 50th anniversary in Hong Kong. Its spring auction made a remarkable sale total, in which Chinese works of art alone raked in over HK$1 billion (US$130 million).

Leading this autumn season is a blue and white ‘floral’ moon flask from the Yongle period (1402 - 1424), hailed from the renowned Tianminlou collection. Highly influenced by Islamic art, it is extremely rare with only one known companion piece now held in the collection of The Palace Museum in Beijing. It will be sold in a single-lot auction with its estimate upon request.

Carrie Li | Senior Specialist of Chinese Works of Art

Lot 301 | A blue and white 'floral' moon flask
Ming Dynasty, Yongle period (1402 - 1424)
Height: 28.6 cm

  • Discovered in West Yorkshire in March 1986
  • Sotheby's London, 9th December 1986, lot 198

Estimate upon request

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: A Magnificent Yongle Blue and White Moon Flask
Date and Time: 9 October 2023 | 11:15 a.m. (Hong Kong Local Time)

The Tianminlou collection, assembled by Ko Shih Chao (1911–1992), also known as S.C. Ko, can be considered one of the most remarkable private assemblages of Chinese ceramics, with the best private collection of Yuan blue and white porcelain in the world.

Chairman of the honourable Min Chiu Society of collectors, S.C. Ko was a discerning collector who generously and keenly shared his collection with a large audience. In 1987, Tianminlou's porcelain collection was exhibited publicly for the first time at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, causing a sensation in the art world. The present Yongle blue and white ‘floral’ moon flask was one of the highlights of the show.

Over the past three decades, it has been showcased in mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and other places, making appearances in blockbuster exhibitions at Tianminlou, Min Chiu Society, and the Oriental Ceramic Society etc. Seasoned collectors can easily recognise this moon flask.

The significance of the moon flask is also illustrated by its inclusion in Geng Baochang's Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain (Ming Qing ciqi jianding), a book that is hailed as ‘The Bible’ in collecting Chinese antiques. It is not an overstatement to describe this current moon flask as a museum-grade work of art.

S.C. Ko, the owner of the Tianminlou collection, delivered a speech at the opening ceremony of the "Tianminlou Collection of Porcelain" exhibition

The Value’s interview with See-for Kot, the second-generation owner of the Tianminlou collection

The present moon flask is illustrated in Geng Baochang's Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain

Blue and white pieces from the Yongle period of the Ming dynasty are highly coveted. One reason is its distinctive colour blue, using the Smalt or Samarra cobalt imported from West Asia, which were scarce ingredients at the time and used in limited quantities. Rich in iron oxide, these cobalt pigments would yield a glaze with darker blue spots in certain areas of the surface, an effect known as 'heaped and piled'.

Due to this characteristic, blue-and-white porcelains from these periods were seldom decorated with human figures but more often with flower and animal motifs – where the different shades of blue would create an effect much like an ink painting.

The present flask is decorated with leaf-scroll motifs, often referred to as arabesques, which are a quintessential Middle Eastern decorative feature that appears in endless variations in Islamic art. 

A single flowering stem on each side that bears seven blooms, a large array of leaves, and unusual curving fronds, springs from the bottom and rhythmically scrolls in a full circle around each side, perfectly covering the available space. Although some flower-heads resemble lotus blooms, they are accompanied neither by naturalistic large dish-shaped lotus leaves, nor by the idealized pointed, jagged leaves that identify the lotus as a Buddhist motif. 

Details of the present lot 

Details of the present lot 

(Left) Terracotta vase, Mediterranean Region / Middle East / North Africa, 11th century B.C.; (Right) Terracotta vase, Eygpt region, 15th century B.C. | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Freer Gallery of Art | Canteen with Episodes from the Life of Christ, Syria or Iraq, mid-13th century

A close example in Beijing's Palace Museum

The shape of the moon flask is modelled after a Middle Eastern metal prototype, elegantly potted with a flattened moon-shaped body rising from a circular splayed foot to a garlic neck flanked by a pair of handles ending with ruyi-shaped terminals on the shoulders.

Pottery pilgrim flasks of basically similar form, mostly without a foot, suitable for carrying on long travels, can be traced in the Middle East to the second millennium BC, but the Yongle potters probably took their immediate inspiration from nearly contemporary Middle Eastern metal vessels.

Although both the shape and decoration of this flask are clearly foreign-inspired, it is difficult to find convincingly close prototypes for either, since China’s craftsmen never copied but absorbed and revamped foreign styles.

This present Yongle moon flask measures 28.6 cm in height, making it suitable for both handling and display in a collection. Its size is traditionally favoured and sought after by collectors. A fascinating comparison can be made with a flask from the Yongzheng period (1723-1735), which likely served as inspiration for the present piece.