Museum-quality 13th century blue-and-white porcelains from renowned Tianminlou collection to make auction debut at Christie’s

Revered as one of the world's most esteemed collections of Chinese porcelain, the Tianminlou Collection is considered a textbook collection of Chinese porcelain, especially renowned for its top-quality Yuan (1279-1368) blue-and-white ceramics. 

The late Professor Wang Qingzheng, former deputy director of the Shanghai Museum, once commented that Tianminlou had the finest collection of Yuan dynasty blue-and-white porcelains in private hands in the world. Even if compared to museums all over the world, Tianminlou comes in third, only behind Topkapi Palace Museum in Turkey and the National Museum of Iran. 

Earlier, Christie’s Hong Kong announced the exciting news that many ceramics collectors have long been waiting for: on 30 November, 15 iconic ceramic treasures from Tianminlou will cross its auction block, with highlight pieces including its museum-quality Yuan blue-and-white porcelains, which have never been offered in the market before, and other high-quality pieces from Ming and Qing dynasties. 

They are all well-documented with illustrious provenance, having been showcased at exhibition venues such as the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Shanghai Museum, and Capital Museum. Together, they are estimated to fetch in excess of HK$120 million (US$15.4 million).

Kevin Ching (Chairman, Asia, Christie's) and Sherese Tong (Senior Specialist, Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art)

S.F. Kot, the present owner of the Tianminlou Collection

The Tianminlou Collection was established in the 1970s and became respected as one of the finest private collections of Chinese porcelains in the world. Ko Shih Chao, also known as S.C. Ko, was the first-generation owner of Tianminlou, who started collecting in the 1960s. By the 1980s, the rarity and abundance of the collection were already comparable to that of large-scale museums.

In 1987, Tianminlou's porcelain collection was exhibited publicly for the first time at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, causing a sensation in the art world and winning widespread recognition from the antiques circle. 

Later, he served as chairman of the Min Chiu Society, which is a renowned collecting group in Hong Kong, twice. In the 1990s, the Tianminlou collection was gradually passed down to his son, S.F. Kot, his eldest son, who also joined and led the Min Chiu Society. 

The fruit of distinguished connoisseurship from two generations of owners, Tianminlou now houses over 20 pieces of Yuan blue and white ceramics, surpassing any other private collection in terms of quantity. In China, the museum with the most extensive collection of Yuan blue and white is Gao'an City Museum in Jiangxi Province, which has only nineteen pieces. Most other museums or institutions have only three or four pieces at most. 

Lot 2701 | A Fine Magnificent and Exceptional Blue and White ‘peony Scroll’ Meiping and Cover
Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)
Height: 44.7cm

  • Sold at Sotheby’s London, 10 December 1985, lot 191

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000

Leading the sale is a Yuan blue and white ‘peony scroll’ meiping vase, which carries an estimate of HK$20 - 30 million.

The Yuan dynasty marks the birth of blue and white porcelain. Through high-temperature firing, its body became white and translucent, while the cobalt pigment under the transparent glaze exhibited bright colors, marking the beginning of a new era for porcelain.

The emergence of Yuan blue-and-white porcelains marked an important and influential shift in Chinese aesthetics, as merchants from Central Asia introduced imported cobalt pigments and Islamic designs to China during the Yuan dynasty.

The colour blue is regarded as a symbol of purity and sacredness in Islamic culture. It was not used extensively on Chinese objects until the Yuan dynasty. After that, blue-and-white porcelain with bold designs became more popular.

A similar example of Yuan blue and white meiping in Gao'an City Museum

The present piece was the cover lot of Tianminlou's public exhibition in 1987; S.C. Ko delivering a speech to guests 

Among the blue and white porcelain of the Yuan Dynasty, the meiping vase is considered one of the most representative vessel types. Today, it is highly sought after by collectors due to its extremely rare existence.

This example stands out further due to the retention of its original cover, a feature that is often lost in other examples. Measuring 44.7cm in height, this present vase is a superior meiping example of the Yuan dynasty.

There is a fascinating story behind this vase. The collector recalls when, in preparation for their first large-scale exhibition to be held at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1987, they learned about an important Yuan blue and white meiping with the original cover on offer at an auction in London.

They decided they must secure this major piece for the exhibition, and were determined to win it at auction regardless of price. They were indeed the successful bidder, winning the lot at £286,000, a considerable sum at the time. This meiping became the cover piece for the 1987 Tianminlou exhibition, featuring prominently in posters and banners lining the exhibition.

Lot 2702 | An Important and Extremely Rare Blue and White Moulded ‘Plantain Tree’ Barbed-rim Charger
Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)
Height: 42.5cm

  • Sold at Sotheby’s London, 9 December 1986, lot 188

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000

This ‘plantain tree’ charger belongs to one of the four earliest Yuan blue and white wares acquired by the collector, forming the foundation of the prestigious Tianminlou Collection.

This charger is impressive not only for its size exceeding 42 cm. in diameter, but it also combines multiple decorative techniques, seen on the ‘blue-on-white’ motifs in the centre; reverse ‘white-on-blue’ motifs on the well; and additional moulded decorations in relief. One highly unusual feature is the florettes amidst waves decorated on the rim.

No other example of this pattern is recorded, presumably this dish is unique.

The barbed-rim shape adds further complexity to the design. Chargers of such complicated design would have been very costly and time-consuming to produce, and only small quantities were made for the upper echelon of society.

Moreover, in Mongolia and Central Asia, the custom was to sit around a table and share food, whereas people in China would sit on the floor holding their own plates. So the emergence of large serving plates like this grand charger reflected a change in dining habits in China during the Yuan dynasty.

Lot 2703 | A Fine and Magnificent Blue and White ‘Grapes’ Barbed-rim Charger
Yongle Period (1403-1425)
Height: 44.5cm

  • Sold at Christie’s London, 9 December 1985, lot 151

Estimate: HK$8,000,000 – 10,000,000

Another highlight of the sale is a Yongle blue and white charge, estimated to fetch HK$8 - 10 million.

The Yongle and Xuande periods in the early Ming dynasty are very important and critical in the history of Chinese Porcelain development. It was a period of great creativity when a lot of the designs and shapes that would form the development of porcelain throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties first made their appearances.

Supervisors at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen during the Yongle and Xuande reigns had a rigorous eye, and would screen out and destroy any pieces with the slightest imperfection. Their stringent standards ensured that only objects of the finest quality would be presented to the court, hence the rarity of imperial porcelain from these two periods today.

The blue-and-white ‘grapes’ barbed-rim charger from the Yongle period below retains foreign influences distinctive to Yuan blue-and-white porcelain.

The fruit, imported from Central Asia, was rarely used as a motif on Chinese ceramics until the 15th century, after which grapes became a popular design for blue-and-white porcelain.

Chargers with similar motifs were used and preserved in China and palaces in Iran, India and Turkey, suggesting that these pieces not only existed in the court in the Ming dynasty, but were also presented as diplomatic gifts.

Lot 2711 | A Fine Magnificent and Exceedingly Rare Blue and White ‘flowers of the Four Seasons’ Moonflask
Yongzheng Six-character Seal Mark in Underglaze Blue and of the Period (1723-1735)
Height: 41.5cm

  • Collection of the late Dr. Chang His-hai
  • Sold at Sotheby’s New York, 23-24 May 1974, lot 426
  • Sold at Sotheby’s Parke Bernet (Hong Kong), 16 May 1977, lot 93
  • Acquired from Lally & Co., New York, 19 May 1987

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 – 26,000,000

The Yongle and Xuande blue and white porcelain became an aesthetic paradigm that is frequently imitated by later generations. Even the Emperor Yongzheng, who admired antiquity, was no exception. The form and decoration of this moonflask are derived from the early Ming Yongle blue and white ware.

The National Palace Museum in Taipei houses a "Yongle blue and white vase with intertwined floral motifs," which is clearly the prototype for this moonflask.

Moonflasks, known for their shape in reminiscence of a full moon, are particularly challenging to fire due to their particular shape in which an exceptionally wide body sits on a very narrow foot.

Large-sized moonflasks exceeding 40 cm like the current example are even more difficult to reach perfection. This explains why moonflasks have always been a form highly desired by connoisseurs.

The moonflask was acquired by the owner of Tianminlou from the renowned New York antique dealer James Lally in 1987.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 2704 | An Exceedingly Rare and Outstanding Blue and White ‘Ladies in Garden’ Bowl
Xuande Six-character Mark in Underglaze Blue Within a Double Circle and of the Period (1426-1435)
Height: 19.7cm

  • Acquired from Tai Sing Fine Antiques Ltd., Hong Kong, prior to 1985

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 – 18,000,000

Lot 2715 | An Exceptionally Rare and Exquisite Pair of Blue-ground Gilt-decorated ‘melon and Vine’ Double Gourd-form Vases
Qianlong Six-character Seal Marks in Iron Red and of the Period (1736-1795)
Height: 29cm

  • Collection of J.M. Hu
  • Sold at Sotheby’s New York, Important Chinese Ceramics from the J.M. Hu Family Collection, 4 June 1985, lot 78

Estimate: HK$16,000,000 – 22,000,000

Lot 2713 | A Fine and Exceptionally Rare Celadon-glazed ‘kui Dragon’ Vase
Qianlong Impressed Six-character Seal Mark and of the Period (1736-1795)
Height: 31.6cm

  • Sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 20 May 1986, lot 88

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 – 20,000,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie’s Hong Kong
Sale: The Tianminlou Collection
Date and Time: 30 November 2023 | 10:30 am (Hong Kong Local Time)
Number of Lots: 15