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A magnificent fine celadon-glazed archaistic vase, hu, Qianlong six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1736-1795). Estimate HK$30,000,000 – HK$40,000,000 ($3,887,109 – $5,182,812). Photo Christie’s Image Ltd 2014

The vase is well potted in baluster form with an angular sloping shoulder rising to a broad waisted neck surmounted by a galleried rim. It is finely moulded and carved all around with five registers of archaistic scrollwork, the central frieze with an undulating band filled with formal ring and hook motifs, between bands of stylised dragons, and with lappet borders at the extreme ends. It is covered with an even glaze of soft sea-green tone. 14 7/8 in. (38 cm.) high, zitan stand, Japanese wood box

Provenance: The Matsushita family collection, Japan

Inspired by the Past – An Archaistic Vase for the Qianlong Emperor
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director Asian Art

The Qianlong Emperor was perhaps the greatest of China’s imperial antiquarians. For Qianlong the collecting of antiques was a passion and he has been described as having an ‘omnivorous fondness’ for collecting art. All three of the great Qing emperors – Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong – were ardent antiquarians, who collected and studied material from earlier dynasties. However, it was the Qianlong Emperor who was the most enthusiastic collector and who was unsurpassed in the number and range of items he added to the imperial collection. He collected not only early ceramics, but material in a wide range of other media, most notably bronzes. The Qianlong Emperor was inspired by the Northern Song Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-25), and commissioned the publication of illustrated catalogues of the imperial collections, including the Shiqu baoji (Shiqu catalogue of the imperial collections); Midian zhulin (Court collection of treasures), the Tianlu lin lang (Tianlu collection of masterpieces), and the Xiqing gujian (Xiqing mirror of antiquities). The latter, which was compiled in 1749, may well have provided models for porcelains in ancient bronze style, such as the current vase.

This beautiful vase represents a particular style of archaism seen in porcelain vessels of the Qianlong period, when the interest of the emperor in archaic bronzes and other antiques inspired the potters at the imperial kilns to interpret the shapes and designs of early bronzes for application to fine porcelain vessels. The refined decoration on this vase displays a perfect melding of focussed technical development and informed archaistic influence in its perfectly controlled celadon glaze combined with shape and decoration based upon vessels from the height of China’s Bronze Age. Both the basic form and the carefully modulated relief decoration on the vase have been inspired by Zhou dynasty bronzes of the 9th century BC.

It is clear that the decoration and shape of the present vase was inspired by bronze vessels such as the Western Zhou, 9th century BC, bronze lei, in the Freer Gallery of Art illustrated by John A. Pope et al., Freer Chinese Bronzes, vol. 1, Washington DC, 1967, pl. 83. However, the potters did not feel constrained to slavishly follow the bronze proto-type and adapted the shape slightly to produce a harmonious form more suited to porcelain. On the porcelain vessel the shoulder handles of the original bronze were omitted and the neck lengthened in order to give the ceramic vase a more elegant profile. Crisply cast bands of decoration in a formal broad wave-pattern band, like that on the current vase, can also be seen on the large bronze Xiao Ke ding, in the Shanghai Museum illustrated in Zhongguo Qingtongqi Zhanlanmulu, Wuzhou, 2004, nos. 68-9; and on the Hu gui, also in the Shanghai Museum, illustrated by Chen Peifen in Ancient Chinese Bronzes in the Shanghai Museum, London, 1995, pp. 74-5, no. 46.

The delicate pale celadon glaze, which complements the shape and decoration, has its origins in fine high-fired celadons of the Tang dynasty, but was ultimately the result of research and development by potters at the Qing imperial kilns. In the 18th century the Jingdezhen imperial kilns devoted considerable effort to the perfection of celadon glazes which could be applied to a white porcelain body. Although celadon-type glazes, coloured with small quantities of iron, were applied to porcelain bodies at the Jingdezhen imperial kilns in the early Ming period, the Kangxi potters perfected a particularly delicate version over a very white (low iron) porcelain body. The delicate celadon glaze was coloured using only about half the amount of iron found, for instance, in typical Longquan celadon glazes of the Southern Song and Yuan dynasties. The new celadon glaze for porcelain was further modified in the Yongzheng period to produce an even more finely textured and slightly bluer pale celadon glaze, and small adjustments continued to be made in the Qianlong reign. This range of delicate Qing dynasty celadon glazes has been much admired by Chinese connoisseurs, and individual glazes have been given names such as douqing (bean green) and dongqing (eastern green) in the Kangxi reign, dongqing (winter green) and fenqing (soft green) in the Yongzheng reign. In the Qianlong reign these fine celadon glazes were sometimes used on undecorated pieces – the perfection of the glaze enhancing the elegance of the form. However, celadon glazes were also applied to porcelain vessels with low relief surface decoration, which in the Qianlong reign tended to be quite formal and was often carved at slightly different levels, allowing a dichromatic effect to develop as the glaze pooled in the deeper recesses and was thinner on the higher elements of the design. The present vase is an excellent example of this effect. The technique allows the details of the elaborate, crisp decoration around the body to be highlighted by the delicate translucent glaze pooling in the deeper recesses to provide a contrast of colour tones, which not only creates a pleasing dichromatic effect, but also accentuates the dense, undulating, archaistic design.


While in China this form could be used as a jar or as a vase, when the current vessel was in the Matsushita Family Collection in Japan it is likely that it was used during the tea ceremony as a container for flowers. Mr. Konosuke Matsushita (1894-1989), the founder of the Panasonic Corporation, was a connoisseur of the tea ceremony and built a significant collection of art related to it. Fine Chinese vessels, especially those inspired by the past, were greatly prized for use in the Japanese tea ceremony and this vase with its bronze-inspired shape and decoration, as well as its delicate celadon glaze would have fulfilled the aesthetic requirements for the tea ceremony very well. It is interesting to note that a similar vase was presented to the Japanese Imperial family in 1902 by the Qianlong emperor’s great great grandson – see below.


A small number of other Qianlong vases from international collections with this rare combination of shape and decoration have been published. One from the Baur Collection is illustrated by J. Ayers in Chinese Ceramics in the Baur Collection, vol. 2, Geneva, 1999, pl. 290 [A379], and again in Sekai Toji Zenshu, vol. 15, Tokyo, 1983, p. 111, pl. 121. Another, formerly in the T.Y. Chao Collection, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1 November 2004, lot 875. An example from the Gordon Collection was sold by Christie’s New York, 24 March 2011, lot 1112, while another from the collection of Zai Zhen (1876-1948), a great great grandson of the Qianlong Emperor, who inherited the title Prince Qing in 1917 and who presented this vase to the Japanese Imperial family in 1902, was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong, 30 May 2012, lot 3963. An example in the Chang Foundation, Taipei, is illustrated by J. Spencer, Selected Chinese Ceramics from Han to Qing Dynasties, Taipei, 1990, pl. 155; while another in The Wang Xing Lou Collection is illustrated in Imperial Perfection: The Palace Porcelain of Three Chinese Emperors: Kangxi – Yongzheng – Qianlong, Hong Kong, 2004, p. 184, no. 68.