Works of Art 2023

This year’s selection of works of art, drawn from private collections, ranges from the Warring States period to the Qing dynasty. Two objects are deaccessioned from a private museum in Osaka, Japan: the first being a fine Han dynasty silver- and turquoise-inlaid gilt-bronze belthook with an unusual design of two bears, a motif often depicted in other objects and materials but rarely seen on belthooks, and the second, a gilt-bronze basin with an inscription and date to the rim, also from the same period. This vessel is elegantly engraved with coiled dragons to the interior, as found in other vessels of this period.

From around the same era is the powerful Warring States to Han dynasty gilt-bronze bixie from the important Rousset collection (1901–81) in Paris. This exceptional forward-striding model shows great movement more commonly seen in jade carvings and is intricately detailed. The next item is an extremely rare and unusual gilt-bronze fragment of a lotus spray from the Northern Wei/Northern Qi dynasty, 5th to 6th century. This superb and heavily cast shard is in high relief and must have been part of a large Buddhist sculpture, with the lotus sprays either held by a figure or as part of a nimbus. Sculptures in bronze and of such large scale are extremely rare. The modelling of these blooms with their boldly defined detail compares well to lotus flowers found in stone sculptures of this period.

The exquisite Tang dynasty white jade foliate cup is of such rarity that it can only be compared to an almost identically decorated oval octagonal cup excavated in a hoard at Hejiacun, Xian, in Shaanxi province and dated Southern and Northern dynasty to early Tang, now in the collection of the Shaanxi History Museum. This cup is delicately carved and in the form of a flower, with the foot also worked into the shape of a flowerhead. Later interpretations of this type of cup are given handles and are less subtle in their decoration. It was previously in a Japanese collection and is accompanied by a wood box with an inscription. Matching in rarity is the Song dynasty russet jade plum blossom cup which is clearly modelled after a style found in several examples in museum collections, including a Guan ware cup in the National Palace Museum, a Southern Song silver-gilt cup excavated in Fujian, and a silver cup dated Liao dynasty excavated in Mongolia, amongst others. I have yet been able to find published examples in jade.

The carver of the yellow and russet jade rhyton cleverly used the stone to its full effect with the addition of subtle details, creating a work of art true to its natural form and reminiscent of bronze and lacquer rhytons from the same period. From the Song or Yuan dynasty is the unusual jade bottle vase with dragon in relief — an object of beauty for the scholar’s table. The style of the dragon and the plain flat base as well as the type of stone point to this dating.

Once in a while, I come across extremely rare and unusual objects that defy reason and are a source
of puzzlement, such as the cinnabar lacquered Longquan incense burner. Despite extensive research, I was unable to find a previously published example of cinnabar lacquered porcelain, although I do recollect a Song or Yuan dynasty Junyao bowl covered in 18th century cinnabar simulating brocade during my time working at Christie’s London in the 1990s. This object remains a mystery as to why someone would choose to cover porcelain with lacquer. The superb carving is evident on first inspection and can be closely compared to cinnabar lacquer from the late 15th to early 16th century, placing it to the Hongzhi (1488–1505) or Zhengde (1506–21) period. The censer was previously at John Sparks Ltd, after which it was in the collection of Michael John Gillingham (1933–99), the chairman of John Sparks from 1976–91, and next in an English private collection.

Another incense burner—of massive proportions—is the Wanli period pewter censer inlaid with designs of five-clawed dragons and phoenixes. In this material, large pieces are highly unusual and only a few have been published. This example has a four-character mark, Hu Yulin zao or ‘made by Hu Yulin’; it comes from a Japanese private collection.

Several imperial jades from the 18th century are in this year’s selection. The distinctive and finely carved mottled grey-green melon jar and cover in spinach-green jade was previously published by Knapton Rasti Asian Art in 2012 and Sotheby’s New York in 1987. Two jade incense burners are included, the first of which is in spinach-green jade, previously held in an American collection and published by Knapton Rasti Asian Art in 2008; the other is in ‘chicken bone’ jade, likewise from American collections, published by Palm Springs Museum in 1986 and then again by Knapton Rasti Asian Art in 2013. The small Qianlong period brushwasher in pure white jade in the form of an incense burner has impeccable provenance and would have almost certainly been an object for one of the emperor’s curio boxes. Small and worked from the finest stone by a master carver, the precisely defined rounded feet evidence no room for error. On a much bigger scale, the white jade ruyi sceptre from an important Taiwanese jade collection is cut from stone of the highest quality and immaculately decorated with nine ruyi sprays; it can compete with the best examples in any museum.

I advised an English private collector many years ago on the last two objects. The first is a large finely detailed limestone model of a seated lion from the Song dynasty. The stylistic image of this animal can be compared to other large stone animals seated in the same stance, as well as to jade carvings from the same period. The second is a superbly and deeply carved large Yuan dynasty marble basin and stand decorated with egrets amongst lotus and which is comparable to blue-and-white ceramics from the same period. A marble cricket cage with very similar carving conservatively dated early Ming was shown in 2008 by Knapton Rasti Asian Art.