Hong Kong tycoon Joseph Lau's US$9.3m imperial porcelain collection to be auctioned

Last spring, Sotheby's Hong Kong presented an auction dedicated to Joseph Lau's collection of Chinese imperial porcelains, offering eight pieces of antiques from Ming and Qing dynasties. The sale turned out to be a massive success, where all lots were sold and gathered a sale total of HK$113 million (around US$14.5 million). 

This autumn, the second part of the auction will be staged on 9 October, with a total of 11 pieces going under the hammer. The top lot is a 15th-century blue-and-white vase, which carried an estimate between HK$25 and 35 million (around US$3.2 to 4.4 million). 

Joseph Lau and his wife

Lot 3507 | A blue and white 'lotus scroll' vase, meiping
Created in Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1402 - 1424)
Height: 31.4 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 15th/16th November 1988, lot 122
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$25,000,000 - 35,000,000

Arguably no other type of Chinese ceramics is more iconic than the blue-and-white porcelains – and those produced during Yongle period (1403-1424) and Xuande period (1425-1435) of Ming dynasty have always been considered the finest.

The distinctive colour on blue-and-white porcelains comes from the Smalt or Samarra cobalt imported from Persia, which were scarce ingredients at the time and used in only 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 ink painting.  

Vase of this shape is known as meiping, plum vessel, characterized by a mellow profile, which curved in a fluid line from the narrow waisted neck over the well-rounded shoulder, tapering down in a gentle curve before flaring again slightly towards a small base. 

In traditional Chinese culture, this elegant silhouette was regarded as a reflection of a man’s physique and a symbol of gentleman – small mouth means minding one’s language; broad shoulder represents taking responsibility.

While the shapes and designs of Yongle and Xuande blue-and-white porcelains share striking resemblances, there is an easy way to distinguish them: to look at the seal mark. It was only until Xuande period that the use of reign marks on artworks had been formalized. Those without seal marks, as with the present lot, are usually from Yongle period.

Blue and white ‘fruit’ meiping, Yongle Period, 28 cm | Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 2014, HK$48.2 million

Blue and white meiping and a cover, Yongle Period (The cover late Ming dynasty), 37.8 cm | Christie’s Hong Kong, 2016, HK$50.5 million

Highly-prized, blue-and-white meiping from Yongle period with decoration of flowers or fruits often pulls off remarkable result at auctions, usually being able to hit the US$2 million benchmark and achieve even more.

For instance, one with fruit pattern was sold in 2014 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for HK$48.2 million (around US$6.1 million). Another with a cover that was made in late Ming dynasty fetched HK$50.5 million (around US$6.4 million) at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2016.

Now that the present lot is once owned by Joseph Lau, a big name among both anitque circles and Hongkongers, let's see how brilliantly it would perform on the auction block. 

Lot 3505 | Doucai and famille-rose 'sanduo' moonflask
Seal mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795)
Height: 31.3 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8th November 1982, lot 204
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 8th October 1990, lot 525
  • The Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000

A marriage of doucai and famille rose palettes, the present moonflask celebreates the creative breadth of porcelain production under Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736 – 1795) with its brilliant colour schemes.

Translated as contrasted colours, doucai is a porcelain enamelling technique combining underglaze cobalt blue and overglaze polychrome decoration. The ceramics would be fired twice: first time with an outlined design in cobalt at a higher temperature; second with coloured enamels which filled the left-in space at a lower temperature – meaning its semi-product was a blue-and-white porcelain.

The zenith of doucai production came during the reign of Chenghua (1465-1487), making its name with the world-renowned ‘chicken cup’. Further developed in the Yongzheng period (1723-1735), the technique perfected under the rule of Qianlong Emperor, who ceaselessly pushed the potters to their limits – though doucai porcelains at the time were usually limited to small toy-like objects such as bowls, dishes and jars. Standing pieces like the present moonflask were rare.

Famille rose palette, on the other hand, was a new colour scheme emerged under the European influence in the 17th century, introduced by Jesuits who visited the imperial court. By mixing iron powder and glass white, the colours became soft and opaque, which enabled painters to blend tints to create a multitude of shades and hues – chiefly in pink, white, green and yellow.

The first trials in combining the two decorative styles began in the Yongzheng period, but were generally restricted to small touches of famille rose enamels included among typical doucai designs, as on the present lot.

The decoration on this moonflask is known as ‘three abundances’, originally a Daoist idea suggesting that 'long life, riches, and many sons are what men wish for’. At least from the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644), these three blessings have been symbolically rendered by groups of the three fruits peach, Buddha’s Hand citron and pomegranate.

Thanks to the soft colours of the famille rose palette, these fruits can be delicately and naturally shaded in layered tones of pink, purple, yellow and lime-green on the flask. The skin of the peaches and the seeds of the pomegranates are particularly impressive, painted masterfully in a range of gradations as if reflecting light – effects not available with the doucai palette.

Flask of this flatten circular shape with handles was called moonflask – named after its resemblance to the full moon. It was originated during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when various Persian and Central Asian metalworks were imported into China along the Silk Road. These works were then reproduced in porcelain and adapted to Chinese tastes.

Two vessels of this design appears to be recorded. One was formerly in the collection of the British Rail Pension Fund, sold for HK$3.96 million (around US$504,000) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 1989. As suggested by the auction house, it could be the pair to the present flask. The other was from the renowned Hong Kong Beixuan Shuzhai Collection, sold for RMB 10.1 million (around US$1.4 million) at Poly Auction Beijing in 2018.

Another pair of bowls decorated with the same motif also in doucai and famille rose palettes happened to be offered at the sale. Made during Yongzheng period, it offers us a good opportunity to compare the aesthetics between the two Emperors.

Lot 3508 | A pair of doucai and famille-rose 'sanduo' bowls
Marks and period of Yongzheng (1722-1735)
16 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 15th May 1990, lot 286
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 8,000,000

Lot 3509 | A blue and white moonflask
Created in Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1402 - 1424)
Height: 29.3 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 15th May 1990, lot 22
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$14,000,000 - 18,000,000

As mentioned above, moonflask was derived from Persian and Central Asian metal prototypes. Compared to the doucai and famille-rose example, the present blue-and-white vase is closer to the shape of the original West Asian metalwork.

Unlike Chinese moonflasks which served as decorative objects or flower-holders, the Persian prototypes are practical vessels used for carrying liquids – the small bulb-shaped mouth was designed to prevent spills; and the loops to be strung by a rope to hang on the hip while travelling on foot, horse or camel-back.

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

The decoration on this moonflask is a fusion of Chinese and Central Eastern aesthetics. The enclosing chevron, geometric border, star-shaped rosettes adorning either side of the flask are all Central Eastern pattern; while the traditional Chinese design repertoire is represented through the flower-scroll band at the neck and the small floral sprigs at the handles.

Blue-and-white moonflasks of the same patterns could be found across various museums and private collections, including the National Palace Museum, Taipei; the Palace Museum, Beijing; the Shanghai Museum and the famed Meiyintang Collection.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 3504 | A blue and white globular vessel
Mark and period of Xuande (1425-1435)
Height: 7.5 cm

  • Acquired in Hong Kong, 11th September 1991
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 4,000,000

Lot 3511 | A large doucai 'floral' jardinière
Mark and period of Jiaqing (1796-1820)
33.8 cm

  • Acquired in Hong Kong, 30th April 1992
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 4,000,000

Lot 3501 | A blue and white 'lianzi' bowl
Mark and period of Xuande (1425-1435)
Diameter: 20.5 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 15th May 1990, lot 23
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$2,500,000 - 3,500,000

Lot 3510 | A copper-red and underglaze-blue 'sanduo' vase, meiping
Created in Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 37.7 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 21st May 1985, lot 143
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$1,500,000 - 2,000,000

Lot 3506 | A lapis lazuli figure of Amitabha Buddha on a white jade lotus stand
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 20.8 cm

  • Christie's Hong Kong, 26th April 2004, lot 995
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$1,500,000 - 2,000,000

Lot 3502 | A pair of yellow-ground slip-decorated green-enamelled bowls
Marks and period of Kangxi (1661-1722)
Height: 13.2 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 14th November 1989, lot 287
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$1,200,000 - 1,800,000

Lot 3503 | An imperial gilt bronze-decorated white jade candlestick
Mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795); Recorded to have been commissioned in 1739 and completed in 1740
Height: 23 cm

  • Sotheby's New York, 22nd March 1995, lot 22
  • Collection of Joseph Lau

Estimate: HK$1,000,000 - 1,500,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: Gems of Imperial Porcelain from the Private Collection of Joseph Lau Part II
Date and Time: 9 October 2022 | 10:15pm (Hong Kong Time)
Venue: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, No. 1 Harbour Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Number of Lots: 11