A unique 15th century blue-and-white ewer nets US$13.7m at Sotheby's Hong Kong

On 8 April, a one and only 15th century imperial blue-and-white ewer went under the hammer at Sotheby's 50th anniversary auction in Hong Kong. 

The work was last seen at auction 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 catalogue and sold for a whopping HK$5.72 million back then.

Resurfaced on the market after 36 years, the unique piece of art achieved a final price, with fees, of HK$107 million (around US$13.7 million). The result marked an 18-times increase in value over 36 years' time.

Nicholas Chow | Chairman of Sotheby's Asia

Lot 101 | 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
Hammer Price: HK$91,000,000
Sold: HK$107,499,900 (around US$13.7 million)

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: Treasured by the Yongle Emperor: The T.Y. Chao Blue and White Ewer
Date: 8 April 2023
Number of Lot: 1

Auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd opened the bidding at HK$60 million, and a volley of offers from in-room and telephone bidders quickly propelled the price up to HK$80 million.

Just as the hammer was about to come down at HK$84 million to the telephone bidder represented by Wendy Lin (Chairman of Asia), an online bidder suddenly stepped in to vie for the work at HK$86 million, causing a little drama to the room as it was rare to have an online bidder enter such a high-stakes bidding war. 

After Lin's client and the online bidder going head-to-head for the work, the lot was eventually hammered at HK$91 million, going to Lin's telephone bidder with paddle number L0030 for HK$107 million (around US$13.7 million) with fees. 

Auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd

Wendy Lin won the lot for her client on the phone with paddle number L0030

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

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.

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

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.

Records available show that this is the only extant blue-and-white example of this design in both private and public collections. 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