Imperial Wanli Gold
This gold ewer and cover, and this set of a gold jue and stand must rank among the most costly and precious works of art of their time. Both are recorded by inscription to have been made by imperial workshops in the Wanli period. Although they have no direct counterparts, they clearly stand in the tradition of precious metalwork made for the Ming imperial court. Gold vessels are the rarest of all imperial works of art of China. Hardly any gold objects have survived from the imperial collection in the Palace Museums of Taipei and Beijing. Since gold does not appear to have been intended for burial, but was used in life, only a very small number of gold objects have survived in tombs. The few Ming gold vessels that have been excavated appear to be personal possessions of members of the imperial family that were enterred with them when they died, and often were antique heirloom pieces that had been treasured for generations. No Ming gold vessels appear to be preserved abroad besides four vessels of the Xuande period (1426-35) formerly in the collection of George Eumorfopoulos, sold in our London rooms 31st May 1940, lots 509-12, one of them later in the collection of Dr. Carl Kempe and sold again in these rooms 11th April 2008, lot 2325, which seems today the only other Ming gold vessel remaining in private hands.
Although many Ming emperors are renowned for their love of opulence, the finest imperial works of art that we know are notable for their craftsmanship, but not their precious materials, being made of porcelain, lacquer, cloisonné etc.; and even if imperial works in such materials have not survived in large quantities, they were still produced on a reasonably large scale, as they were intended not only for the Emperor himself, but for a wider distribution within the imperial household, and as rewards to distinguished individuals outside the court.
Precious metalwork, and gold in particular, belongs in a different category. The emperor and his immediate entourage always enjoyed the privilege to use gold, but sumptuary laws restricted a wider use. Sets of jewel-encrusted gold vessels with five-clawed dragons might have been the ultimate – and perhaps only – utensils distinguishing the ruler from his entourage. Since early on in the dynasty, the Ming the court had ensured its hold on the country's greatest masterpieces by a tight control of official workshops. Gold vessels were made by various imperial household agencies, apparently on an individual basis, and therefore tend to be unique. The Yuyongjian inscribed on the present ewer was a household department under eunuch supervision responsible for making fine utensils for the Emperor's use; the Yinzuoju recorded on the present jue stand, was an office in charge of making jewelry and other gold and silver items for the Ming imperial family.
Sets of gold vessels including ewers and jue sets have been found in the tombs of Ming emperors and princes. With their fine engraving and lavish encrustation with coloured jewels, the present pieces closely follow a style established in the early Ming period. The Eumorfopoulos group, which has traditionally been associated with the Xuande Emperor, included besides a ewer, a basin, a covered tripod bowl, and a small covered jar, as well as some gold ornaments and accessories. All pieces were made of pure gold and encrusted with jewels, and the vessels were engraved with five-clawed dragons and clouds.
The only Ming imperial tomb that has been properly excavated, is also the only excavation site so far to have yielded a very large group of gold items: Dingling, the mausoleum of the Wanli Emperor (r. 1573-1620), which was built between 1585 and 1590. It contained some 500 gold and silver items, among them less than two dozen vessels or vessels parts (such as covers and stands for jade bowls). The Dingling gold vessels are very similar in style, workmanship and general opulence, and were made around the same time by the same agencies of the imperial household that were responsible also for the present pieces. They included a gold ewer, but different in form from the present piece; and a jue and stand very similar to the specimen here (fig. 1). The Yuyongjian responsible for the making of our ewer also made a small handled jar and cover for the Wanli tomb; the Yinzuoju that crafted our jue set made in the same year (1601) a small bowl for the Emperor (fig. 2); some years prior to this (1597) it had made a large tray, and in 1570, still in the Longqing reign, an elaborate gold filigree box; all these items ended up in the Wanli Emperor's tomb. Whereas the present pieces are both inscribed as being made of 90 % pure gold, the Dingling vessels are variously inscribed as being 85 %, 80 % or 60 % pure, and the jue set to be of 'standard purity' (zu se).
The contents of princely tombs vary immensely, from being extremely simple to incredibly lavish. Almost none of them contained any gold vessels. A great exception is the opulent tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, which rivals that of the Wanli Emperor and is unusual for a Prince. A son of the Hongxi Emperor, who ruled for only one year between the Yongle (1403-24) and Xuande reigns, Prince Zhuang was buried in Zhongxiang, Hubei province, in AD 1441.  No expenses seem to have been spared to furnish his burial place, which contained over 5000 items, not counting any silks and other organic materials. Yet among some 200 gold articles it held only four gold vessels (two ewers, a basin and a bowl), accompanied by gold spoons, ladles, and chop sticks, a gold cover, probably made to accompany a porcelain stem bowl, and a set of a gold and a silver jue on a joint silver stand. Although smaller ornaments in the tomb were encrusted with colourful jewels and worked in gold filigree, the vessels themselves were plain – unlike the Xuande and Wanli specimens – which clearly identified them as belonging to a lesser category than those made for an Emperor. One of the ewers dated by inscription to the brief Hongxi reign is again identified as a work of the Yinzuoju.
Other important gold vessels have been found in royal tombs around Beijing, but none with five-clawed dragons. A gold ewer encrusted with jewels has been recovered from the tomb of Wan Tong, younger brother of Wan Guifei, the Chenghua emperor's favourite and influential consort, who died in 1482. This ewer, today preserved in the Capital Museum, Beijing, is engraved with four-clawed dragons (fig. 3).  Two pear-shaped ewers from an unidentified royal tomb attributed to the Chenghua period (1465-87) are now also in the Capital Museum, one plain, the other decorated with engraved winged dragons and clouds and encrusted with jewels. Gold vessels were also discovered in the tomb of an imperial concubine, who died in the Tianqi reign (1621-7) and was buried in Beijing together with heirloom gold pieces of various periods. She owned a small Xuande gold piece bottle and two pieces from the Hongzhi reign (1488-1505), dated by inscription to 1434 and 1488, respectively, documenting that they had been in circulation at the Ming court for well over a hundred years, before being enterred as antiques.
The ewer here presented is particularly opulent in its craftsmanship and no vessel worked in this elaborate style appears to have been otherwise preserved. Filigree work was practised in China since early times, but was generally not used for the decoration of vessels. The closest comparisons to the dragons on this ewer are the gold filigree dragons recovered from the Wanli Emperor's tomb, where one pair had been applied to the Emperor's famous gold filigree headdress (fig. 4), and another pair encrusted with jewels was found loose in the tomb and has since been attached to a replacement black silk cap. The Dingling dragons are, however, depicted striding and their heads are made of chased gold rather than gold wire.
The jue and stand from the Wanli Emperor's tomb (fig. 2) is very similar in form and design to the present one, also inlaid with jewels, but the dragons both on the cup and around the mountain in the stand are chased in relief, see ibid., pl. 71. The tomb further contained another gold stand with relief-chased dragons with a different, more stylized mountain support in the centre made to hold a jade jue.
Although we know little about ritual or profane utensils used at the inner court for food and drink, the recurring appearance of certain gold vessel shapes in various imperial and royal Ming tombs might provide some glimpses into this otherwise very closed world. The presumably profane items generally include wine ewers, bowls and other eating utensils such as chopsticks, spoons, ladles and strainers, and large basins perhaps for ablutions – ritual or practical – which may have been used together with larger ewers. Ritual items generally consisted of libation cups in the shape of archaic bronze jue on stands, as well as covers and stands for stem bowls in other materials.
The melting down of ancient gold and silver vessels is often put forward to explain their scarcity. This may certainly have limited the number of extant items in private hands, but does not explain the scarcity of such wares in palace collections, since in an imperial context such desperate moves were rare, and the Qing emperors scrupulously preserved the imperial holdings of their predecessors. The Qing even continued the Ming tradition, as a smaller gold ewer, inlaid with precious stones, decorated with filigree work, and inscribed with the Qianlong reign mark, documents, that was sold in these rooms, 11th April 2008, lot 2305, from the collection of Dr. Carl Kempe (fig. 5).
 Dingling duo ying/The Royal Treasures of Dingling Imperial Ming Tomb, Beijing, 1989.
 See Zhongguo jin yin boli falangqi quanji, 3: Jin yin qi [Complete works of Chinese gold, silver, glass and enamelware, 3: Gold and silver items], vol. 3, Shijiazhuang, 2004, pls 247 (ewer), 248 (jue set), 249 (jar), 251 (bowl), 254 (tray) and 253 (box).
 Craig Clunas, 'The Other Ming Tombs: Kings and Their Burials in Ming China', Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol.70, 2005-6, pp.1-16.
 'Hubei Zhongxiang Mingdai Liang Zhuang wang mu fajue jianbao [Short report on the excavation of the Ming tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang at Zhongxiang, Hubei]', Wenwu 2003, no.5, pp.4-23; and Liang Zhu, ed., Liang Zhuang wang mu/Mausoleum of Prince Liang Zhuangwang, 2 vols, Beijing, 2007.
 See the website of the Capital Museum, www.capitalmuseum.org.cn.
 Gems of Beijing Cultural Relics. Gold and Silver Wares, Beijing, 2004, pls 82, 84 and 85.
 Ibid., pls 48, 49, 50.
 Dingling duo ying/The Royal Treasures of Dingling Imperial Ming Tomb, Beijing, 1989, pls 111-113.
 Ibid., pl. 93.
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