09 June 2015

Porcelain art objects from China; Qianlong exhibition in Melbourne

I would like to refer back to an earlier post that discussed London’s Summer Asia Week Chinese art auction sales. And let us pay attention to a Ming dynasty jar which was sold by Bonhams London in 2009 for £1.12 or $1.7 million. Created in the reign of the Emperor Jiajing, the 30cm high blue and white jar was highlighted with gold carp fish.

Chinese fish jar, 1522-66,
30 cm high,
sold at Bonham's UK in 2009
for £1.1 million

The Jiajing Emperor (1507–1567) was the 11th Ming Dynasty Emperor of China who ruled during the 1521-67 era i.e for 46 years. This was no mean feat. The only ruler who stayed on the Chinese throne for longer was Emperor Qianlong, the sixth ruler of the Qing dynasty: he reigned for 61 years.

Golden carp fish were highly prized during the Ming Dynasty, both for their rarity and for their association with the images of great wealth and success. The Jiajing Emperor, in particular, seemed to enjoy the fish imagery so much that he commissioned porcelain to be decorated at the Imperial kilns with a golden carp design.

Beijing's Temple of Heaven complex had been built in the early C15th, long before the Jiajing Emperor was born. But he was a great palace-builder during his own reign. So he had the original palace complex extended and he also built three other prominent temples in Beijing - the eastern Temple of Sun, the northern Temple of Earth and the western Temple of Moon. All the decorative art objects commissioned by the Jiajing Emperor were promptly displayed in these Beijing palaces.

As Alain Truong explained, Chinese porcelain collectors knew that designs on Imperial Chinese porcelain often carried subtle referen­c­es, and represented decipherable literary messages. In this case the association was explicit: expensive porcelain, potted and painted to the exacting standards of an Emperor, carrying clear images of high status and money. Even today, golden carp are carefully bred to maximise the distinctive markings beloved of Chinese collectors. The colour gold was an unmistakable statement that the Ming owner of this jar was an important man.

Nothing is known of the early travels of this golden carp jar, until it arrived at an auction in England c400 years after being made. It seemed too expensive and too Imperial to be exported as part of the English East India Co’s annual shipping of Chinese goods. This jar fetched a huge price because of its lustre, Imperial connections and outstanding craftsmanship.

The fish jar’s recorded history in Europe only began in 1935, when it appeared at a London auction from a private collection. Reginald Palmer, chairman of Huntley and Palmer Biscuits, was delighted to buy the piece. He must have loved Chinese antiques - the auction house noted that his large country house in Berkshire was filled with gorgeous Chinese porcelain and jade.

There may have been an economic depression at the time of the auct­ion, but the blue-gold jar appealed to many of the worlds great coll­ectors of Chinese porcelain, mostly based in China. I still wonder why such large quantities of Imperial Palace art was sold to the private Chinese art dealers in the first place, and why they were later shipped to London.

Chinese dragon jar, 1522-66, 
36 cm high,
sold at Bonham's USA in 2010
for $7.7 million

Just to show that top quality Chinese antiques from the Jiajing reign are making astronomical amounts of money on both sides of the Atlantic, consider a blue and white dragon jar (above) that sold for USA $7.7 million (£4.75 million) at Bonhams in San Francisco in December 2010. The porcelain jar was 36 cm high and was decorated with bands of leaves, waves and a cloud-collar at the waisted neck and broad shoulders. The sides were densely painted with six finely painted five-clawed dragons, shown emerging from crashing waves and flying amid stylised clouds and flames.

Finally another truly amazing auction result. A Chinese vase discov­ered during a routine house clearance in a London suburb sold for £43 m or $69 million in 2010, 40 times its estimate and an auction record for any work of art from Asia. The West London auction house Bainbridges trumpeted the object's part in Asian Art week, so there were many Chinese buyers who travelled to London especially for the vase. Hammer price did not include the 20% of extra fees and taxes.

The vase below has a yellow painted trumpet neck and a complex double-walled construction, meaning an inner vase can be seen through the perforations of the main body. Standing 16" tall and decorated with fish, the vase dates from the time of Qianlong, 4th emperor in the Qing dynasty, c1740. It probably once belonged to Chinese royalty but was most likely taken out of the country at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860 when the palaces were ransacked.
Qianlong vase, 1736-95.
Sold at Bainbridges UK in 2010
for £43 million

The major British museums inevitably responded to the modern passion for Chinese porcelain and the heroic prices being paid. The British Museum, as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum, signed historic agreements with the National Museum of China in Beijing, the first cultural agreement between these British and Chinese institutions. The 2008 agreements were signed by the directors of the three museums in the presence of the British Prime Minister and the Chinese Premier, guaranteeing a signif­icant programme of collaboration between the three museums. The first benefit of the agreements started with a series of loan exhibitions on world cultures not currently represented in museums in China. Since then there have been loan exhibitions of 17th century Chinese porcelain from the Shanghai Museum that travelled to the V&A. And a collaborative exhibition in Shanghai that celebrated the Shanghai Expo.

At Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, an exhibition called Qianlong Emperor, 1736–1795 will continue only until 21st June 2015. It tells the story of China’s foremost art collector Emperor Qianlong who studied and collected Chinese painting during his long reign, was a passionate poet and essayist, embraced the arts of European, Japanese and Indian cultures, and loved to practise calligraphy. From a particularly fascinating time in China’s history, this exhibition includes a lavish display of paintings in silk and paper, silk court robes, precious stone-inlaid objets d’art, court portraits, ceremonial weapons, silk court robes and ceremonial hats and other palace treasures.


Andrew said...

I'm afraid our passion for Chinese antiquity had passed and we have only a couple of remaining pieces worth less that $1000. Twenty years ago we would have rushed to the exhibition and while I did consider it, I felt very much been there and done that. That is quite personal. Your post was terrific and I am sure the exhibition will be fascinating to many. I think the Gallery under promoted it. All I heard or noticed about it was the banners on the exterior Gallery walls.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, You have brought up a fascinating subject--the development of the Asian art market, and the meanderings of various masterpieces. I imagine that many don't wish to investigate too closely, because as with ancient art, looting and smuggling seem to be the order of the day.

I was lucky to attend a lecture about collecting Chinese masterpieces (mostly paintings) by the very elderly artist and collector C.C. Wang, who spun a fascinating tale of Imperial tutors (I think his relatives) emigrating from China with all the treasures they could carry, and the Wild West days of acquiring Asian art. Some of his collection ended up in the Met, but much of it mysteriously disappeared in true soap opera fashion: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/16/arts/charges-of-looting-as-heirs-dispute-c-c-wang-collection.html?_r=0


Train Man said...

$86 million Australian for a vase, even a historical and royal vase? There must be a mistake.

Hels said...


I hear you. People change their collecting preferences over the years, as their incomes and interests change. I was passionate about late 17th/early 18th century silver art from Britain, France and Germany, but especially Huguenot silver made after they were expelled from France in 1685. But the prices went up and up, and ordinary families have been squeezed out of that market.

Hels said...


the development of the Asian art market in auctions outside Asia has been staggering. I can see auctioneers not opening the bidding in London and Paris until all the Chinese buyers are on line and ready to "bring their treasures home".

Thank you for the reference. I don't know about faking Chinese art objects or looting in times of war etc, but I do know about uncertain or totally incorrect provenances.

Hels said...

Train Man

I too didn't believe the final hammer price, so I went back to check the results. Correct! It was a world record for a piece of Asian art, Helen Porter of West London auction house Bainbridges said back in 2010.

Black Lau said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...

Black Lau

I recommend you buy the "Golden Age of China: Qianlong Emperor, 1736–1795" catalogue.

The Qianlong Emperor was not only a captivating ruler, whose reign lasted an extraordinary 60 years, but also a distinguished art collector, talented poet, painter and calligrapher. His vision was to create a new cultural golden age, and Qianlong’s patronage expanded the imperial art collection many times over.

Lena said...

Thanks for sharing, those jars and vases look nice.

Hels said...


Agreed. The National Gallery of Victoria exhibition back in 2015 was excellent. The Qianlong Emperor 1736–1795 studied and collected Chinese painting for decades, and studied the cultural products from a wide range of nations. It was truly a golden cultural age.