The textbook collection of Chinese ceramics: Tianminlou sale at Christie's tallies US$33.3m, nearly doubling estimate

For lovers of Chinese ceramics, the Tianminlou Collection is a household name, highly regarded for its museum-quality assembly of Chinese porcelains. Its collection of blue-and-white porcelains from the Yuan dynasty, in particular, is the world’s largest one in private hands.

While owning such pieces from this prestigious collection would be a collector's dream come true, its Yuan blue-and-white porcelains have been dearly treasured by its owners over the years, never having been released to the market. 

This season, Christie's Hong Kong dropped an exciting news for antique collectors: 15 iconic imperial porcelains from the Tianminlou Collection will be offered in a dedicated single-owner sale, with pieces including the fresh-to-market Yuan blue-and-white porcelains, alongside other top-quality pieces from Ming and Qing dynasties.

On 30 November, in a crowded saleroom full of collectors and dealers, 13 lots from the sale found new homes, yielding a sell-through rate of 86% and a total hammer of HK$212 million against a pre-sale total estimate of HK120 million.

Fiercely pursued by interested buyers, the top lot of sale, a Yuan blue-and-white meiping with cover, soared past its estimate by nearly three times, hammering at HK$56 million and selling for HK$67.7 million (US$8.68 million) with fees to a telephone bidder with paddle number 8011. 

This bidder also snapped up a Yongzheng blue-and-white moonflask at HK32.4 million and a Qianlong celadon-glazed vase at HK$22.1 million, meaning the buyer spent a whopping HK$122 million (US$15.6 million) in this single sale. 

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

The saleroom was crowded with collectors and dealers

The Tianminlou Collection is the fruit of distinguished connoisseurship from two generations of owners, amassed by the father and son for decades since the 1970s. 

Its first owner, S.C. Ko, had a primary business interest developed in domestic electrical appliances. In the 1960s, he began to acquire art, and, having a scholarly nature, he approached his collecting with a determination to understand all relevant aspects of the art. At first, his interests were relatively broad, but soon he concentrated his acquisitions on fine porcelains, especially those from the imperial kilns. 

Stepping into the 1980s, he started collecting Yuan blue-and-white porcelain, a category that very few Chinese collectors paid attention to at the time. Ko, however, recognized the underlying importance of these pieces and went on to actively seek after fine and significant pieces on the market. By that time, the rarity and abundance of the collection were already comparable to that of large-scale museums.

In 1987, the Tianminlou Collection first established a name for itself as it was exhibited for the first time at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. That exhibition was a blockbuster event, opening to widespread acclaim and attracting interest from collectors and scholars around the world. 

S.F. Kot, the present owner of the Tianminlou Collection, having an interview with The Value

Meanwhile, Ko fully involved himself in the art world of Hong Kong, including joining the prestigious Min Chiu Society, of which he served as chairman for several years. 

In the 1990s, Ko passed on his passion for Chinese porcelain to his son Kot See For, or S.F. Kot, who, having been closely involved with the collection for many decades, also takes a scholarly approach to art and added further spectacular pieces to the collection. 

Now, the Tianminlou Collection houses more than 20 pieces of Yuan blue-and-white porcelains, the quantity of which outsizes any private collections 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. 

The top lot on display during the auction preview

Lot 2701 | A blue and white ‘peony scroll’ meiping and cover
Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)
Height: 44.7cm
Provenance (Consolidated by The Value):

  • Sold at Sotheby’s London, 10 December 1985, lot 191 (Sold: £286,000)
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$56,000,000
Sold: HK$67,775,000 (US$8.68 million)

When in preparation for Tianminlou's first large-scale exhibition to be held at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 1987, S.C. Ko learned about an important Yuan blue and white meiping with the original cover on offer at an auction in London.

Thinking the piece would be a major highlight for the exhibition, he decided he must win it at auction regardless of price, and he was indeed the successful bidder. This meiping, which is the current lot, became the cover piece for the 1987 exhibition, featuring prominently in posters and banners lining the show. 

Bidding for such an iconic piece opened at HK$17 million and immediately saw a flurry of raised paddles. By HK$40 million, remaining in the bidding war were three interested buyers: a gentleman in the room, and two telephone bidders respectively represented by Chi-Fan Tsang (International Director of the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department) and Rebecca Yang (Chairman in China).

After a round of fierce bidding, the piece was eventually hammered at HK$56 million, selling for a final price with fees of HK$67.7 million to Tsang's client with paddle number 8011.

S.C. Ko delivering a speech during the opening ceremony of the 1987 exhibition; as seen in the backdrop, this lot was the cover piece for the show

Chi-Fan Tsang (middle) won the lot for her client

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 increasingly popular, unfolding one of the most glorious chapters in Chinese porcelain production heralded by the world-famous Ming blue-and-white porcelain. 

Among the blue-and-white porcelain of the Yuan Dynasty, vases of this elegant meiping form are considered one of the most representative vessel types, having gained a reputation as early as the Ming Dynasty. Today, they are still highly treasured and sought-after by collectors due to their rarity. 

Measuring 44.7cm in height, the present vase represents a typical meiping form from the Yuan dynasty. This exceptional lot stands out further due to the retention of its original cover, a feature that is often lost in other examples. 

Originally served as a wine container, meiping is 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 sophisticated silhouette was regarded as a reflection of a man’s physique and a symbol of a gentleman – a small mouth means minding one’s language; a broad shoulder represents taking responsibility.

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

The intricate designs are brilliantly painted in cobalt of vibrant sapphire-blue tones, using expensive cobalt pigments imported from the Persian regions. Influenced by Islamic culture, it is decorated with the motif of a peony scroll. 

While vases of similar design and shape are known, there are often variations in the decorations, especially within the cloud collar, ranging from ducks in lotus ponds and horses against waves, to phoenix motifs. 

Two pieces that share the same decorative patterns and shapes as the present lot are now preserved in Gao'an City Museum in East China.

Lot 2715 | A 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: 29 cm

  • 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
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Estimate: HK$16,000,000 – 22,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$33,000,000
Sold: HK$40,305,000 (US$5.16 million)

Without any other identical piece that appears to have been published to date, this pair of blue-ground gilt-decorated double gourd-form vases is likely to be unique, and it is even more outstanding that it is preserved as a pair.

On an opening bid of HK$12 million, this pair of vases attracted interest from mainly two bidders, who were on the phones with Victoria Huang (Client Relationship Manager in Singapore) and Angela Hsu (Consultant).

Following a back-and-forth bidding battle of nearly 20 bids, the hammer ultimately fell at HK$33 million, going to Huang's client with paddle number 8021 for a final price after fees of HK$40.3 million (US$5.16 million).

Liang-lin Chen wielded the gavel for the Tianminlou Collection Sale

Victoria Huang won the lot for her client with paddle number 8021

Reflecting the flamboyant taste prevalent during the dynamic reign of the Qianlong Emperor, this glamorous pair of vases is elaborately painted in dazzling gilt enamels with two tones of gold, against a dark blue ground, resulting in a striking visual contrast. The exterior is densely decorated with melons and flowers on undulating vines, symbolic of an abundance of descendants; while the double-gourd shape alludes to immortality.

Before entering the Tianminlou Collection, this pair of vases was in the hands of renowned Chinese antique connoisseur J. M. Hu, who is best known for his ceramics collection from the imperial kilns during the 14th to 20th centuries. 

The current owner of Tianminlou S.F. Kot recalls after acquiring this pair, he and his father noticed an old medical prescription handwritten in traditional Chinese calligraphy hidden inside one of the vases. They tried to enlist Chinese traditional doctors to decipher the prescription, but eventually to no avail.

To this date, he is still wondering whether the prescription came from the Palace, which would suggest the medical use of these vases, or could it simply be a medical slip left behind by the previous owner.

Lot 2711 | 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
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 – 26,000,000
Hammer Price:
Sold: HK$32,440,000 (US$4.15 million)

This moonflask, the above top-selling meiping, and the following celadon-glazed 'kui dragon' vase (Lot 2713) were snapped up by the same collector, who was represented by Chi-Fan Tsang and carried paddle number 8011.

Arguably no other type of Chinese ceramics is more iconic than the blue-and-white porcelains – and those produced during the 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 then and used in 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’.

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 shape and decoration of the current lot are largely based on early 15th-century prototypes, except the latter lacks the handles on the shoulder. A Yongle blue and white moonflask of a very similar shape decorated with a lotus scroll in the National Palace Museum, for instance, is unmistakably a source of inspiration for this flask.

Yongle blue-and-white vase with intertwined floral motifs | The National Palace Museum in Taipei


Moonflasks, known for their shape in reminiscence of a full moon, are particularly challenging to fire due to its 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.

Boasting exceptional provenance, this flask was seen on the market as early as the 1970s and was acquired by Tianminlou from renowned New York antique dealer and connoisseur James J. Lally in 1987. 

Highly respected as one of the great scholar-dealers of Chinese art, James Lally has been a leader in the field for more than 50 years. When Giuseppe Eskenazi, the Godfather of Chinese Antiques, shared with The Value his journey of becoming a ‘top dealer’ in an interview in 2018, Lally was praised as the top in New York, alongside William Chak in Hong Kong and Marchant in London. 

With a reputation for scholarship and connoisseurship, he was a trusted advisor to not only keen collectors, but also major museums and collections across the globe, including the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Shanghai Museum, among others. 

As for other Yongzheng marked examples related to this lot, there is a highly similar one housed in the Palace Museum Collection. At auctions, the closest one was a piece that sold at Christie's London in 1980 and Sotheby's Hong Kong in 1981. In 2013, it re-emerged at Sotheby's Hong Kong, selling for HK$11.4 million (US$1.46 million).

A similar Yongzheng example is housed in the Beijing Palace Museum

A Ming-style blue and white 'floral scroll' moonflask, seal mark and period of Yongzheng | Sold: HK$11.4 million, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2013

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 2703 | A blue and white ‘grapes’ barbed-rim charger
Yongle Period (1403-1425)
Height: 44.5cm

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

Estimate: HK$8,000,000 – 10,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$22,000,000
Sold: HK$26,995,000

Lot 2702 | A 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
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$21,000,000
Sold: HK$25,785,000

Lot 2713 | A 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
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 – 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$18,000,000
Sold: HK$22,156,000

Lot 2704 | A 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
Hammer Price: HK$15,000,000
Sold: HK$18,525,000

Lot 2714 | A blue and white 'flower and fruit spray' meiping
Qianlong six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1736-1795)
Height: 32.3 cm

  • Sold at Sotheby’s New York, 24 May 1974, lot 420 (sold as a pair)
  • Collection of T.Y. Chao (1912-1999)
  • Sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, The T.Y. Chao Private and Family Trust Collections of Important Chinese Ceramics and Jade Carvings: Part II, 19 May 1987, lot 271
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$5,200,000
Sold: HK$6,552,000

Lot 2705 | A blue and white 'dragon' dish
Hongzhi six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1488-1505)
Diameter: 21 cm

  • Collection of Mrs Alfred Clark (c.1890-1976)
  • Sold at Spink & Son Limited, London, Blue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Mrs Alfred Clark, 24 October 1974, lot 33
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Estimate: HK$2,400,000 - 3,200,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,600,000
Sold: HK$5,796,000

Lot 2710 | A large blue and white 'floral scroll' basin
Yongzheng six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1723-1735)
Diameter: 34 cm

  • Sold at Sotheby’s London, 9 December 1986, lot 243
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,500,000
Sold: HK$5,670,000

Lot 2712 | A clair-de-lune glazed conjoined vase
Qianlong four-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1736-1795)
Height: 17 cm

  • Sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 19 November 1986, lot 258
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$3,500,000
Sold: HK$4,410,000

Lot 2706 | A large blue and white 'four scholarly pursuits' jar
Jiajing six-character mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1522-1566)
Height: 35 cm

  • Acquired in Hong Kong prior to 1985
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Estimate: HK$900,000 - 1,200,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,700,000
Sold: HK$2,142,000

Lot 2707 | A doucai 'fruit and flower' bowl
Wanli six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1573-1619)
Diameter: 16.4 cm

  • Collection of Edward T. Chow
  • Sold at Sotheby Parke Bernet (Hong Kong), The Edward T. Chow Collection: Part III, 19 May 1981, lot 430
  • The Tianminlou Collection

Estimate: HK$800,000 - 1,200,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,500,000
Sold: HK$1,890,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie's Hong Kong
Sale: The Tianminlou Collection
Date: 30 November 2023
Number of Lots: 15
Sold: 13
Unsold: 2
Sale Rate: 86%
Sale Total: HK$260,400,000 (US$33.3 million)