A 15th-century sacrificial-red bowl once owned by HK tycoon T.Y. Chao sells for US$1.9m in New York

James J. Lally has undoubtedly taken center stage for this season's Asia Week New York, with both Bonhams and Christie's dedicating a single-owner collection sale to the important Chinese art dealer and collector.

As for another auction powerhouse Sotheby's, the spotlight was on The Cadle Family Collection of Chinese Monochromes. Amassed mostly in the 1980s and advised closely by James J. Lally, the collection comprises a remarkable spectrum of monochromatic imperial porcelains.

A testament to the collector’s discerning eye and exacting attention paid to provenance, only one of the 23 lots on offer did not sell, resulting in a sale total of US$7.07 million and a solid 95.6% sell-through rate. The top lot went to sacrificial-red-glazed bowl from the Xuande (1426-1435) period of Ming dynasty, which sold for US$1.88 million against an estimate of US$400,000. The bowl was once owned by T.Y. Chao, a renowned shipping tycoon in Hong Kong. 

As the auctioneer said "thank you" in Mandarin after the hammer fell, the buyer was most likely a Chinese collector. 

Lot 9 | A sacrificial-red-glazed bowl
Mark and period of Xuande (1426 - 1435)
Diameter: 10.1 cm

  • Collection of T.Y. Chao (1912-1999)
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 19th May 1987, lot 250
  • J.J. Lally & Co., New York

Estimate: US$400,000 - 600,000
Hammer Price: US$1,500,000
Sold: US$1,875,000

The copper-red monochromatic glaze stands as one of greatest technical and aesthetic accomplishments of the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Porcelains with such lush rich red, whose intensity and brilliance have been likened to rubies, has always been exceedingly rare. 

Unlike iron, which is also used as a glaze pigment but occurs naturally in ceramic materials, copper has to be deliberately added to the glaze to achieve the desired colour. Although only a small amount of copper is required, the fugitive component has a tendency to vaporize during the firing, making it extremely difficult to produce a strong, even colour.

Hence, even though experiments of copper-red monochrome glaze had taken place in kilns as early as the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), it wasn't until the Yongle (1403-1424) and Xuande (1426-1435) periods of Ming dynasty that potters were able to perfect this red glaze colour. 

Due to the high failure rate, the cost of sending successful examples to the palace must have been excessive and the technique was practically abandoned after the Xuande reign, not being able to revive until two and a half centuries later, in the late 17th century.

This intense blood red colour is referred to as 'sacrificial red', which denotes its possible use in a ritual context, as Ming dynasty's ceremonial vessels were mostly monochrome-glazed porcelains, and red was traditionally used for sacrifices to the Altar of the Sun in China.

Yet, throughout the Xuande period, there was no clear distinction drawn at court between vessels used for sacrifices and those used in daily life for eating and drinking. Therefore, at the Xuande court, the present bowl may equally have been employed at the altar or at the table.

While ceramics with copper-red monochrome glaze from Ming dynasty are rare, all handed-down pieces, including the present lot, are of exceptional quality, which reflects the rigorous quality control at the time. 

A close example from the National Palace Museum, Taipei; this bowl was later matched by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-95) with a Neolithic jade disc as saucer

The bowl was once owned by T.Y. Chao, a renowned shipping tycoon in Hong Kong

The current bowl once belonged to the collection of T.Y. Chao, a renowned shipping tycoon in Hong Kong and a world-famous collector of Chinese antiquities. It was exhibited in the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1978 as part of the Ming and Ch'ing Porcelain from the Collection of the T.Y. Chao Family Foundation. 

Many treasures from that exhibition have later delivered remarkable results at auctions. A blue-and-white 'winged dragon' jarlet dated between the Yongle and Xuande periods, for instance, attracted heavy interests and changed hands at an impressive HK$26.6 million against a low estimate of HK$8 million.

Lot 13 | A robin's egg-glazed censer 
Seal mark and period of Yongzheng (1722 - 1735)
Width: 20.8 cm

  • Collection of Edward T. Chow (1910-1980)
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 19th May 1981, lot 502
  • Robert Chang, Hong Kong
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 20th May 1987, lot 516
  • J.J. Lally & Co., New York

Estimate: US$400,000 - 600,000
Hammer Price: US$900,000
Sold: US$1,143,000

The bidding war of the present censer with 'robin's egg' glaze was mainly between two telephone bidders and an online bidder. After a round of heavy biddings, the lot sold for US$1.14 million with fees to the online bidder with paddle number 114.

Developed at imperial kiln under the pioneering direction of Yongzheng Emperor (r.1722 - 1735) and the legendary official Tang Ying, who is known to have studied in detail the finest imperial porcelains of the Song dynasty (960 - 1279), the 'robin's egg' glaze was created as a reinterpretation of the revered Jun glazes of the Song. 

Hailed as one of the five famous wares of the Song dynasty, Jun ware derives its beauty from the striking and thick opaque glaze of varied bright blue coloration, an understated splendour that had won the heart of Yongzheng Emperor.

A lover of the arts from a young age, the Yongzheng Emperor took a keen interest in the work of the various imperial manufactories across his empire. From fine-tuning shapes to ideal proportions to taking the best works of the past as standards to aspire to, he achieved, together with Tang Ying, a porcelain production of a distinctive style and material refinement unmatched in any other period. 

The present censer is a testament to the fine potting, exquisite glaze and elegant form that Yongzheng imperial ceramics are known for, all contributing to a refined subtlety that reflects the temperament of the Emperor himself.

The thick glaze is evenly applied to the well-proportioned censer and its variegated, mottled design achieves a sense of timeless elegance. Almost like the colourful tail of a peacock, the turquoise is further heightened by violet-red splashes that cascade down in fluid streaks of varying lengths. Such flowing effect could said to be achieved by chance, with the kiln's atmosphere heavily affecting the final result.

According to court archives, robin's egg-glazed wares with violet-red streaks in the glaze were deemed to be of the best quality, whereas ones with blue streaks were of a lesser standard. The present one, with its distinctive violet-red hues, unquestionably represents the best of their type.

Other Highlight Lots: 

Lot 3 | A flambé-glazed Jun-type jar
Seal mark and period of Yongzheng
Height: 19.8 cm

  • Collection of Joe Yuey (1906-2005)
  • J.J. Lally & Co., New York, 1987

Estimate: US$300,000 - 500,000
Hammer Price: US$610,000
Sold: US$774,700

Lot 11 | A large sacrificial-blue-glazed garlic-mouth vase
Seal mark and period of Yongzheng
Height: 43.2 cm

  • Collection of Ralph Thrall King (1855-1926)
  • Collection of Brigadier General Woods King (1900-1947)
  • J.J. Lally & Co., New York

Estimate: US$400,000 - 600,000
Hammer Price: US$420,000
Sold: US$533,400

Lot 5 | A clair-de-lune-glazed apple-shaped jar
Mark and period of Kangxi
Diameter: 10.5 cm

  • Christie's London, 8th June 1987, lot 280
  • J.J. Lally & Co., New York, 1987

Estimate: US$250,000 - 350,000
Hammer Price: US$350,000
Sold: US$444,500

Lot 10 | A pair of lavender-glazed bowls
Marks and period of Yongzheng
Diameter: 11.9 cm

  • C.T. Loo, Paris, 1960s (by repute)
  • Collection of Dorothy Hart Hirshon (1908-1998)
  • J.J. Lally & Co., New York, 1987

Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000
Hammer Price: US$340,000
Sold: US$431,800

Lot 7 | A yellow-glazed bowl
Mark and period of Zhengde
Diameter: 16.2 cm

  • Bluett & Sons Ltd., London, 1950s
  • Collection of Henry M. Knight (d. 1971)
  • Christie's London, 6th June 1988, lot 134
  • J.J. Lally & Co., New York, 1988

Estimate: US$100,000 - 150,000
Hammer Price: US$260,000
Sold: US$330,200

Lot 14 | A peachbloom-glazed brush washer
Mark and period of Kangxi
Diameter: 11.7 cm

  • Marchant, London
  • J.J. Lally & Co., New York, 1987

Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000
Hammer Price: US$220,000
Sold: US$279,400

The Cadles visited China in the 1980s

The Cadle Family Collection was put together by Dr. Don D. Cadle and his wife, Ingeborg (Inge) Pielenz Cadle. A graduate of military school and Yale University, Don earned his Ph.D. at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar at the mere age of 24. After serving his time in the United States Army, he was assigned to the Military Intelligence Corps and sent to Germany, where he met Inge.

The couple married in June 1956 and moved to the Washington, D.C. area. Don began his career in the Civil Service in the Bureau of the Budget before moving to NASA, where he was instrumental in securing funding from Congress for the Apollo moon landing program.

He then served as a top official in both the Office of Foreign Direct Investment and the Agency for International Development, followed by the post of Treasurer of the Corporation by the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City. When Don retired from corporate life to start his own small investment firm in 1978, he and Inge began to travel widely with intensity and purpose.

In 1982, as mainland China began to open up to Western travelers, Inge and Don realized a long-held dream, setting out on four extensive trips to the far East, where they were captivated by the beauty and grace of imperial porcelain.

In the mid-1980s, Don developed a relationship with James J. Lally, former president of Sotheby’s North America and East Asian art connoisseur, whose expert eye and erudite advice allowed the Cadles to acquire their porcelains in relatively brief order. After Don and Inge passed away in 1996 and 2021, respectively, the collection passed into the custody of their daughter and her husband. 

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: Celestial Colors. The Cadle Family Collection of Chinese Monochromes
Date: 21 March 2023
Number of Lots: 23
Sold: 22
Unsold: 1
Sale Rate: 95.6%
Sale Total: US$7,078,190