Lot 223
  • 223


80,000 - 120,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Length 3 3/4  in., 9.5 cm
in a recumbent pose, with the body curving slightly to the right in a subtle arc, the legs folded to either side of the torso, the lifted head set with short triangular ears and a ridged snout curling under at the end, the gaze directed ahead, the thick round tail dangling languidly at the opposite end of the body, the hooves and the ribs neatly incised, swirling wisps of qi emanating in raised bands from the shoulders and hips, the stone a pale yellow with icy inclusions at one side of the body and a variegated russet at the other side


Christie's London, 31st March 1969, lot 133.


Robert P. Youngman, The Youngman Collection of Chinese Jades from Neolithic to Qing, Chicago, 2008, pl. 109.

Catalogue Note

Although the tapir is a real animal — which has a body resembling a hog's, a short trunk like an elephant's, and is biologically related to the horse and the rhinoceros — it assumed mythical properties in traditional East Asian thought. In legends, tapirs were often given chimerical qualities and believed to eat people's nightmares. Representations of tapirs in Chinese art emerged by the Eastern Zhou dynasty. See, for instance, a Warring States bronze finial in the form of the animal in the collection of the Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C., acc. no. F1940.23. In later dynasties, images of tapirs were typically produced as part of an archaistic exercise, with the form of the creature mimicking its expression in Zhou and Han dynasty bronzes. Jade carvings of tapirs are exceptionally rare. Even within this small group, the present carving was produced particularly early and bears atypical physical features. Other jade 'tapirs' date to the Qing dynasty and closely follow the visual formula of the ancient bronze models. See for example, an 18th century white jade 'tapir' vessel, from the collection of Lolo Sarnoff, sold in these rooms, 17th-18th March 2015, lot 323; and an 18th/19th century white jade 'tapir' sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th April 2013, lot 3203. By contrast, the present carving dates several centuries earlier to the Song - Yuan period, and the animal's anatomy brings greater attention to the tapir's natural relationship to the horse, particularly in the long slender legs and hooved feet. Thus, the artisan's selection of this particular subject and decision to emphasize alternative physical characteristics testify to the high degree of original thought that went into making this figure.

The quality of the stone and the carving are also noteworthy. The yellow, russet, and dark brown variegation of the jade beautifully imitate the types of patterning that naturally occur on a tapir's hide. Additionally, the movement of the dark brown veining contributes to the sense of vitality of the animal. Together, these show the care with which the artisan matched the subject to the innate properties of the material.

The gentle contouring of the form and the attention to details - such as the subtle suggestion of the ribs where the body bends, and the sinuous curve of the spine that enhances the sense of the corporeal weight at rest - are consistent with the best animal-form carvings of the Song - Yuan period. Compare a strikingly similar yellow and brown jade figure of a hound, attributed to the Tang - Song period, and exhibited in Chinese Jade Animals, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1996, cat. no. 75; a Song dynasty white and russet jade carving of a horse from the Gerald Godfrey Collection, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 30th October 1995, lot 845; a Song dynasty yellow and russet jade carving of a hound, from the Muwen Tang Collection, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 1st December 2016, lot 200; a Song dynasty gray jade carving of a hound, from the W. P. Chung Collection, exhibited in Chinese Jade Carving, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1983, cat. no. 136; and a Yuan dynasty pale celadon jade carving excavated in Shanghai and published in Zhongguo chutu yuqi quanji/The Complete Collection of Jades Unearthed in China, vol. 7, Beijing, 2005, cat. no. 216.