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An extremely rare blue and turquoise ‘dragon’ box, Jiajing six-character mark and of the period. Estimate £20,000 – 30,000 (€27,000 – 40,000). Photo Bonhams.

The sturdily potted vessel rising from a slightly splayed foot rim, the exterior incised with three striding dragons amongst a lotus scroll, framed by scrolling cloud motifs to the foot and to the stepped band beneath the rim, the incised decoration picked out in turquoise and reserved on a deep blue ground, the interior and base covered in a plain, bluish-tinged colourless glaze. 25.5cm (10in) diam; 8cm (3.1/8in) high.

Notes: The combination here of cobalt blue and turquoise is extremely rare on imperial wares. At present only two other boxes of this type, dating to the Jiajing reign, are known; the first sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 4 April 2012, lot 31, and illustrated by Regina Krahl, in Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1689. The second example is in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, and is illustrated by John Ayers, Far Eastern Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1980, no. 166.

The genre actually found its source of inspiration from an earlier prototype, produced during the Chenghua period, when much experimentation with two-colour schemes was carried out.

This palette does not however seem to have been widely used in the Chenghua reign either, as only two boxes of that period appear to have survived: one in the British Museum collection (illustrated in both Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, Jessica Harrison-Hall, London, 2001, no. 6: 17. and The World’s Great Collections, Oriental Ceramics, Vol.8, Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, Bo. Gyllensvard, plate no. 237).

The other box, thought by Krahl to perhaps reside in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Ming Qing ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain], Geng Baochang, Hong Kong, 1993, col. pl. 45. As noted by Regina Krahl, this colour scheme, vaguely reminiscent of the palette found on Fahua wares, seems to have occasionally been used also on dishes and bowls from the Chenghua period, remnants of which have been found in excavations of the Chenghua strata at Zhushan, Jingdezhen.

During the later Jiajing reign, bi-chromatic designs enjoyed a renewed popularity and many such wares, ordered for imperial use, are found in Museum collections worldwide. Amongst these a similar box to the present example, but with yellow and green glaze, is in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published by Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang gu taoci ciliao xuancui [Selection of ancient ceramic material from the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2005, vol. I, pl. 165

C. Clunas in his Gifts and Gift-giving in Chinese art highlights how lacquer boxes of this shape were in this period used as containers for gifts, and he suggests that porcelain boxes of the same shape, such as the present lot, may have been used for the same purpose. Interestingly, from references in literary texts such as the Jing Ping Mei, he notes that, most likely, the boxes would have been returned to the original owner, containing a reciprocal gift.

Bonhams. ASIAN ART, 25 Feb 2015 10:30 GMT – LONDON, KNIGHTSBRIDGE