In their dissertation on blue and white porcelains traded with Western Europe, Llorens Planella and Maria Teresa Canepa note that a considerable amount of the porcelain imported from China to Spain and Portugal in the late 16th century was destined for the royal court and included pieces that appear to have had both practical and ornamental functions, see Llorens Planella and Maria Teresa Canepa, Silk, Porcelain and Lacquer: China and Japan and their Trade with Western Europe and the New World, 1500-1644. A Survey of Documentary and Material Evidence, Leiden, 2015, pp. 149-157. For example, a posthumous inventory taken of Philip II of Castile's possessions made between 1598 and 1607 lists a piece of porcelain of a very unusual shape, which is described as ‘a blue and white porcelain jug with a spout and six handles to pour [liquids], appraised at twenty reales’. They note that 'this reference may have referred to a type of blue-and-white vase with a bulbous body on a high foot with a cup-shaped mouth that is perforated inside, which is connected to the base with six hollow curved tubes, dating to the mid-sixteenth century, such as the one offered here. Although a few vases of this shape are known, it has not yet been possible to determine a specific function. It has been suggested that the shape may have derived from Indian or Iranian metalwork, and that it may have served as a water sprinkler, a perfume vase or a wine cup warmer', see ibid., p. 152 and footnotes 161-163.
Two sprinklers of this very rare shape, both similarly decorated with three buddhist lions playing with ribbon-tied balls, are illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, vol. II, London, 1986, p. 658, nos. 1021 and 1022. Another example, closest in design to the present lot, decorated with lions at play, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, published in R. L. Hobson, Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, vol. II, New York, 1976, pl. 68, fig. 1. Several examples have been sold at auction, compare, for example, a sprinkler sold at Christie's New York, 23rd march 2012, lot 1987, and another sprinkler sold in Sotheby's London, 14th May 2014, lot 212.