A Qianlong Reticulated Vase Will Lead Sotheby’s Hong Kong Spring Sales

In autumn 2018, Sotheby’s Hong Kong caused a huge sensation in the world of antiques with the single-lot sale of a rare Qianlong reticulated vase. It was sold for a whopping HK$149m (US$19.2m). On 31 January, Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby's Asia, revealed on his social media account that The Henry M Knight Reticulated Vase is going to headline Sotheby’s spring sales in Hong Kong.

Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia

Judging from the photos uploaded by Chow, we believe this vase is likely a ruby-ground yangcai reticulated vase of the Qianlong period, flanked by a pair of gilt dragon-shaped handles, with a six-character seal mark of ‘Da Qing Qianlong Nian Zhi’ in zhuanshu script.

The porcelains produced by the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen for the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) are characterised by the phenomenal opulence of their decoration as well as the rich spectrum of their enamels. This present one is an example of Yangcai, which means ‘foreign colours’. A piece of porcelain needs to fulfil the following criteria to be identified as yangcai.

1. The use of Western shading techniques, especially in the rendering of the décor on the porcelains to give the body a three-dimensional quality.

2. The use of white pigment on many of the leaf patterns on the flower illustrations, to represent light and shadow (a painting technique rarely seen on the painted falangcai porcelains).

3. The use of Western-style flowers, such as the chrysanthemum and anemone, and the liberal use of Western floral compositions for a number of decorative patterns.

The foliage and floral patterns on the neck of the vase are shaded with pigment to create the effect of light and shadow whereas the lotus painted on the vase is a Western-style flower. The vase also features delicate Sgraffito work of foliate scrolls on the ruby ground. Sgraffito, the carving through a surface layer to reveal a contrasting layer below, is a technique that has been used for ceramics both east and west.

The sgraffito technique was first applied to the falangcai porcelain produced in the Yongzheng period (r. 1722-1735) and was later used in famille-rose porcelain produced in the Qianlong period.

Reticulated yangcai vases with double walls represent one of the last great innovations developed by Tang Ying (1682-1756), the imperial kilns’ creative supervisor, specially for the Qianlong Emperor. Inside the vase, there is an inner vase in blue and white with a composited floral scroll. It is decorated on the mouth with ruyi pattern on the outside. The vase is flanked by a pair of gilt dragon-shaped handles whereas the bottom has a six-character inscription of ‘Da Qing Qianlong Nian Zhi’ in zhuanshu script.

The rarity of the vase is also demonstrated by its impeccable provenance. According to Chow’s post, the earliest record could trace back to the Sotheby’s London sale on 25 May 1954, where it came into the private collection of Bluett & Sons. It was sold for £80 to J. Stodel in November 1954. It was later acquired by the legendary collector Henry M. Knight (d. 1971) and passed down to his descendants. It will go under the hammer in the coming spring sales at Sotheby’s. 

Chow didn’t specify the size of the vase. Most reticulated vases should be around 30-40cm tall.

Henry M. Knight

There are two comparable examples at auction in recent years. The first one is the aforementioned Qianlong ‘fish’ reticulated vase sold for HK$149m at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2018.

Another one is a yangcai reticulated ‘magpies’ revolving vase from the Qianlong period that offered at Poly auction last December in Beijing. It was sold for RMB 92m (US$13m), making it the most revolving vase ever auctioned.

The ruby-ground yangcai reticulated vase of the Qianlong period is no doubt going to be sough-after among connoisseurs. Still, the market is still full of uncertainty with the political unrest in Hong Kong, further overshadowed by the threats of coronavirus and the impact of Brexit. We expect the estimate of the vase will be conservative to attract potential bidders. The auction will be held on 8 April. Please stay tuned for more updates!