Estimated at HK$150,000, A Ming-Style Blue and White ‘Figure’ Bowl Surprisingly Sold for HK$18.72m

In this autumn auction season, a series of Chinese Work of Art sales have ended up with disappointing results with many top-notch pieces being unsold. But one particular sale shone amidst all the gloom.

Important Chinese Art from the Collection of Sir Quo-Wei Lee was able to pull off a notable 91% sold by lot, selling 44 pieces of all 48 lots. Though items on offer carried relatively low estimates, the sale realised a remarkable total of HK$172m, against the sum of its presale low estimate of HK$71.4m. Many Ming and Qing porcelain were hammered down for prices way above estimate, including a Ming-style blue and white bowl from the Kangxi period that was hammered down for 100 times its estimate.

Sir Quo-Wei Lee

The winner of the sale was a pair of blue and white ‘ram’ bowls, marks and period of Jiajing, estimated at HK$5m-7m. It is extremely rare to see bowls decorated with the ‘Three Rams’ design.

The 'Three Rams' (san yang) design represents a change of fortune with the arrival of Spring and the New Year. The three rams are often shown together with the rising sun (taiyang) to form the rebus for 'three yang bring prosperity'. Yijing (also known as 'Book of Changes') first mentions the phrase 'san yang' referring to the three male lines, called tai, that symbolise heaven. The tai is positioned under three female lines called kun that represent earth. Hence the design of the Three Rams has an auspicious meaing of the New Year bringing renewal and a change of fortune.

The bidding of the pair of bowl started at HK$4m and the price climbed after several bidders showing interest. The bowls were hammered down at HK$18m and sold for HK$21.72m (US$2.77m) to a room bidder.

Auctions are always full of surprises and there is no exception for this sale. A Ming-style blue and white ‘figure’ bowl from the Kangxi period, estimated at HK$150,000-200,000, took everyone by surprise when it was sold for HK$18.72m (US$2.39m), more than 100 times its estimate.

People in the room took out their phones to record the intense bidding elicited by the Kangxi bowl

When the auctioneer started the bidding at HK$120,000, the atmosphere in the saleroom was suddenly heated up as bidders quickly offered higher bids, one after another. The pace got so fast that even the auctioneer found it hard to follow. As the price was going up, one of the bidders shouted out the amount “HK$3m” instead of the price with the next incremental jump. Still, the madness didn’t stop there. The bidding battle continued and further pushed the price up to HK$9m.

When the price reached HK$9m, only room bidders stayed in the bidding battle. The bowl was finally hammered down at HK$15.5m, 100 times its estimate of HK$150,000. It was sold for HK$18.72m (US$2.39m), the second highest price at the sale.

We often see moon flasks being offered at auctions and some are even featured on the cover of the catalogues. This sale offered two mon flasks, respectively from Ming dynasty, Yongle period and Qing dynasty, Qianlong period. The Yongle blue and white moon flask was estimated at HK$7m-9m.

The Yongle blue and white moon flask, bianhu, has a domed circular front and back with a formal rosette centred by a yin-yang medallion within a ring of petal lappets, surrounded by a radiating eight-pointed starburst of alternating foliate and floral motifs, which is probably adapted from Middle Eastern motifs. Other fine examples of blue and white moon flasks could fetch up to HK$30m-40m in the market nowadays.

Sam Shum (with his hand raised), Senior Specialist of Chinese Works of Art

The bidding opened at HK$5m and the price went steadily up to HK$9m after 13 bid increments. The moon flask was hammered down at HK$10.5m and sold for HK$12.72m (US$1.62m) to the Sam Shum, Senior Specialist of Chinese Works of Art, who won the piece on behalf of his client.

The fourth place fell to another moon flask, a copper-red moon flask from the Qianlong period, estimated at HK$2.5m-3.5m. It’s a close copy of an equally rare underglaze-blue moon flask from the Yongle period. It required exceptional skill to create a moon flask painted with such a rich colour of red, probably after a process of repeated trials and errors. The present one is a rare example of a copper-red vessel in good quality.

This Qianlong moon flask was previously in the collection of Eskenazi, an esteemed dealer of Chinese Art. It was later acquired by Sir Q.W. Lee. It was definitely a bargain to have this moon flask offered at only HK$2.5m-3.5m. The moon flask was hammered down at HK$9.5m and sold for HK$11.52m (US$1.47m), four times its estimate.

Top five lots

A Large and Rare Pair of Blue and White 'Ram' Bowls
Marks and Period of Jiajing

Lot no.: 115
Diameter: 16.2cm
Estimate: HK$5,000,000 - 7,000,000
Hammer price: HK$18,000,000
Price realised: HK$21,720,000

A Fine and Rare Ming-style Blue and White ‘Figures' Bowl
Qing Dynasty, Kangxi Period

Lot no.: 148
Diameter: 19.5cm
Estimate: HK$150,000 - 200,000
Hammer price: HK$15,500,000
Price realised: HK$18,720,000

An Outstanding and Rare Blue and White 'rosette' Moonflask, Bianhu
Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period

Lot no.: 122
Height: 31.5cm
Provenance: Sotheby's London, 12th December 1978, lot 380.
Estimate: HK$7,000,000 - 9,000,000
Hammer price: HK$10,500,000
Price realised: HK$12,720,000

An Outstanding, Fine and Rare Copper-Red Moonflask
Seal Mark and Period of Qianlong

Lot no.: 113
Height: 17.5cm

  • Sotheby's London, 9th July 1974, lot 278.
  • Bluett & Sons, London.
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London.

Estimate: HK$2,500,000 - 3,500,000
Hammer price: HK$9,500,000
Price realised: HK$11,520,000

A Massive, Rare and Impressive Blue and White 'Floral' Vase
Seal Mark and Period of Yongzheng

Lot no.: 103
Height: 70cm
Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 5,000,000
Hammer price: HK$8,800,000
Price realised: HK$10,680,000

Auction summary

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Important Chinese Art from the Collection of Sir Quo-Wei Lee
Date: 3 October 2018
Lots offered: 48
Sold: 44
Unsold: 4
Sold by lot: 91.6%
Sale total: HK$172,507,500