Editors' picks: covetable Chinese works of art at Sotheby's Hong Kong 50th anniversary sales

For collectors of Chinese works of art, it's essential to see and touch the antique pieces in person to make a thorough evaluation. Yet it became a challenge with social distancing measures and travel bans imposed during covid-19, which made the antique market less active than before.

While we are thrilled that travel restrictions are lifted as we enter the post-pandemic period, global art markets are also back in business. 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Sotheby's Hong Kong. In celebration of a new milestone, the auction house presents an extraordinary line-up of masterpieces endowed with illustrious provenances.

Items offered include a Yongle blue and white ewer, a set of twelve Kangxi famille-verte 'month' cups, a Yongzheng falangcai vase, and a set of Qianlong jade imperial acher's rings. The four picks alone are expected to fetch in excess of HK$250 million (US$32 million).

Let's take a look at these four highlights from the line-up.

Treasured by the Yongle Emperor: The T.Y. Chao Blue and White Ewer (Stand-alone single lot sale)

An imperial blue and white 'Dragon' ewer
Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period (1402-1424)
Height: 22.5 cm

  • Hugh Moss Ltd, London
  • Sotheby's London, 8th July 1974, lot 199
  • Sotheby's London, 5th July 1977, lot 205
  • Collection of T.Y. Chao (1912-1999), Hong Kong
  • T.Y. Chao Family Trust property, no. 13
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 19th May 1987, lot 228 and dust jacket

Expected to fetch in excess of HK$ 80 million (US$10.2 million)

Records available show that this is the only extant blue-and-white example of this design in both private and public collections. This one-and-only ewer went up for auction at Sotheby's back in 1987, coming from the celebrated collection of T.Y. Chao, a legendary shipping tycoon in HK. It was featured as the cover lot on the catelogue and sold for a whopping HK$5.72 million back then. It has been kept in a private collection for 36 years before it goes under the hammer this spring at Sotheby's Hong Kong.

Blue and white pieces from the Yongle and Xuande period of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) are highly coveted. One reason is its distinctive colour blue, using the Smalt or Samarra cobalt imported from Persia, 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.

T.Y Chao (left) collected numerous imperial ceramic masterpieces

This ewer was the cover lot when it was auctioned off in 1987

The shape of ewer gained popularity during the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, used as a vessel containing wine and drink. Scholars believe that the shape is indebted to Middle Eastern metal prototypes used among nomads.

Its motif of five-clawed dragons, rendered in this agitated swerving pose, is familiar to us from imperial Ming porcelain. Yet it was hardly ever used prior to the Xuande period (1426-35). Five-clawed dragons were employed as imperial decoration already in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), but only discarded porcelains with this design are preserved from the kiln site. It was only in the Yongle period that the motif seen on this ewer became the blueprint for all later dragon-decorated imperial porcelains.

Closest in shape to this piece is an undecorated pure gold ewer from the opulently furnished mausoleum of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang (1411-1441). The mausoleum was discovered in Zhongxiang City, Hubei, but the ewer bears an inscription stating that it was made by the imperial Jewelry Service (yinzuoju). Another imperial gold ewer of this shape but probably of Xuande date, bejewelled and decorated with incised five-clawed dragons, formerly in the Eumorfopoulos collection, is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

As mentioned above, this ewer is the only extant ewer of this design. There is a piece dated around the same period and of the same form, design and painting style, discard at the manufactory, perhaps failed to meet the court's standard, excavated at Zhushan, Jingdezhen.

Fragmentary pieces of the Yongle ewer | Published in Jingdezhen chutu Mingdai yuyao ciqi [Porcelains from the Ming imperial kilns excavated at Jingdezhen], Beijing, 2009, pl. 040

Left: The pure gold ewer from the mausoleum of Prince Zhuang of Liang
Right: The gold ewer in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art


This Xuande blue and white ten-lobed washer was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong twice, featuring a similar five-clawed dragon motif

In His Majesty's Palm: Exquisite Imperial Porcelain From the Alan Chuang Collection

A set of twelve famille-verte 'month' cups
Marks and Period of Kangxi (1661-1722)
Diameter: 6.6 cm

  • Edward T. Chow (1910-80)
  • Collection of the Hall of Leisurely Pastime, since 1950 or earlier
  • Collection of Paul and Helen Bernat
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 15th November 1988, lot 22
  • Collection of T.T. Tsui, Jingguantang Collection
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 3rd November 1996, lot 585
  • Sotheby's New York, 15th September 1999, lot 88

Estimate: HK$60,000,000 - 80,000,000 (US$7.64 – 10.19 million)

In 2020, a set of twelve wucai 'month' cups from the collection of late antique connoisseur T.T. Tsui was auctioned in Beijing. Starting with an opening bid of RMB 20 million, the bidding war lasted for nearly half an hour. The set of cups was sold for RMB 132 million, making a record for the world's most expensive ceramic that year.

Rarely do we see Kangxi twelve wucai 'month' cups appear in the market in a complete set. Extant pieces of certain months are extremely rare, such as the 'peach blossom' cup and the 'lotus' cup. Many collectors could spend decades in search with very few fortunate ones getting four to five cups for their collections.

The above set from Hong Kong businessman Alan Chuang once belonged to T.T. Tsui, who also owned another complete set of twelve cups in blue and white.

Other renowned collectors who successfully assembled a complete set of twelve cups include Sir Percival David, J.M. Hu (The Master of Zande Lou) and Lo Kwee-seong (The founder of Vitasoy). The three sets now respectively reside in British Museum, Idemitsu Museum in Japan and Hong Kong Museum of Art. Other full sets of 'month' cups are now in public institutions such as Palace Museum in Beijing and Kaifeng Museum. Those we see in the private market are mostly sold in separate pieces.

'January' cup features wintersweet trees

Poem inscribed on the cup

The base of the cup

The late antique connoisseur T.T. Tsui (left)

Twelve Kangxi' month’ cups are delicately potted with a U-shaped body rising from a short foot to a flared rim, each weighing around 20 grams only. One side depicts emblematic flowers representing each month, the reverse of each is inscribed with a seasonal couplet by a Tang poet.

These cups were used in events like flower viewings or banquets in the Imperial court, matching with the corresponding month. They chose different flowers to represent the natural cycle and their gratitude for the gifts of nature.

As climate varies from the north to south territories, flower blossom in each corresponding month is different. There is no standard choice or order for flowers featured on the cups.

A set of twelve Kangxi blue-and-white ‘month’ cups were sold in Hong Kong auction in 2018 for HK$36.1 million (US$4.3 million). But the wucai version is even rarer and believed to fetch a higher price.

The ‘April’ cup (top) features tree peony and the ‘September’ cup (bottom) features chrysanthemums

Classical Chinese Art from the Yin Xue Tang Collection: Part 1

A group of seven jade imperial archer's rings with its imperial inscribed cinnabar lacquer box and cover
Marks and period of Qianlong (1736-1795); The box and cover recorded to have been made in or before 1752
Lacquer box diameter: 12 cm

  • Reputedly removed from the Summer Palace and thence by descent in the collection of a French family since the 19th century
  • Christie’s Hong Kong, 27th April 1997, lot 94
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 8th April 2007, lot 602

Estimate:HK$50,000,000 - 70,000,000 (US$6.4 - 9 million)

This cinnabar lacquer box which holds seven imperial jade archer’s rings was a portable treasure held close to the Qianlong Emperor’s heart for over three decades. Six of the rings – together with its imperial cinnabar lacquer box and cover and inner linings in which they are preserved – bear imperial inscriptions written by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-96), all pertaining to archery and offering an intimate insight into the Emperor's mind.

In ancient times, rings of this type were worn on the right thumb to protect it from the bow string when the archer discharged the arrow. The Manchu came into power by means of horse riding and archery. Therefore, rulers of the Qing dynasty deemed it extremely important to continue practicing the art of archery. 

Later the function of archer's rings changed from being a purely practical object. It also became a decorative showpiece. They became sought-after for their decorative value among the Manchu aristocracy of the Qing dynasty.

The round lacquer box that holds the rings is delicately carved with three fish amongst flower scroll, which is still well-preserved after more than 200 years. The subject matter is quite rare as most imperial lacquer wares feature designs like flowers, dragon patterns, natural landscapes or characters.

We can see from the painting made in Qing Imperial Court that Emperor Qianlong is often depicted wearing a jade archer’s ring.

The Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armor on Horseback by Giuseppe Castiglione | Collection of The Palace Museum in Beijing

Important Chinese Art

An imperial puce-enamel falangcai 'dragon' vase
Blue enamel mark and period of Yongzheng, Recorded to have been completed in 1732
Provenance (Edited by The Value; Official version to be published):

  • Collection of a German businessman
  • Reputedly acquired in Shanghai between 1920s and early 1940s;
  • Thence by descent in the collection of a family in Hamburg

Estimate: HK$50,000,000 - 80,000,000 (US$6.4 - 10.3 million)

Generally speaking, falangcai comes in a smaller size with patterns painted in multiple colours. It is extremely rare to find a monochrome falangcai example surviving.

The current 'dragon' vase is 30cm tall, which is much bigger than other falangcai examples that we see. Besides, the body is painted with two powerful dragons in a deep puce enamel. 'Yongzhen Nan Zhi' seal mark inscribed on the base is a unique trait of imperial falangcai ware. 

There are only three falangcai vases of this similar design. In addition to the current example, one is in the collection of Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art and the other made a public appearance at the 50th-anniversary exhibition by Eskenazi, who is known as the godfather of Chinese antiques.

A close falangcai example to the current vase was showcased at Eskenazi’s special exhibition

Corroborated by the imperial court archives to have been completed in 1732 – a mere two months after the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-35) disapproved of the blurriness on a copper-red vase, the vase testifies to not only the craftsmen’s unrelentless will to innovate and please the Emperor, but also the unparalleled culmination of technical virtuosity during the Yongzheng reign.

It is possible that this vase was made in pair with the one in Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, presented together to the imperial court. The one at the Eskenazi exhibition was made separately as the motifs are slightly different.

Ruby-red enamel was an imported pigment derived from gold. The imperial workshops had apparently not yet mastered it even in the 6th year of Yongzheng when, under the guidance of Prince Yunxiang, brother of the Yongzheng Emperor, eighteen new enamel colours were reported to have been successfully produced there. To manage the ruby-red pigment, it is believed to have been blown through a gauze-covered tube onto the white porcelain before second firing, resulting in a delicately mottled red.

A 20th-century miniature ruby-enameled stemcup at 3.3 cm tall with an apocryphal Yongzheng six-character mark was sold in Sotheby’s New York in 2021. Estimated at only US$1,000, the cup fetched US$378,000, showing how this special glaze colour is very popular among collectors.

A similar ‘dragon’ vase in underglaze copper-red, Qianlong period, can be found in the collection of V&A

Sotheby’s Hong Kong 2023 Spring Sale Series - Chinese Works of Art


  • Treasured by the Yongle Emperor: The T.Y. Chao Blue and White Ewer
  • In His Majesty’s Palm: Exquisite Imperial Porcelain From the Alan Chuang Collection
  • Classical Chinese Art from the Yin Xue Tang Collection: Part 1
  • Important Chinese Art

Preview Date: 1- 7 April 2023
Auctions Date: 7 – 8 April 2023
Venue: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Hall 1