Sancai wares from the Tang dynasty (618-907) are among the most charming types of Chinese ceramics, with notable examples excavated from sites including the mausoleum complex where China’s only female emperor Wu Zetian (624-705) was buried. The present vessel is rare and remarkable for its elegant form, vivid modelling, and vibrant and luminous glaze. Only four examples of similar form exist, three of them lack the blue glaze which is very rare in Tang sancai but seen on this piece.

TANG DYNASTY, ESTIMATE $350,000-450,000

An almost identical blue-decorated sancai goose vessel, but with its head missing, was excavated from the kiln site at Gongyi city (formerly known as Gongxian), Henan, illustrated in Gongyi Kiln of China, Beijing Art Museum, 2011, pl. 179 (fig. 1). Gongyi is the most important center of Tang sancai, with its wares discovered in many sites in and outside of China, including in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and the Middle East. The far reaching influence of Tang sancai as represented by Gongyi wares also led to the development of sancai-style ceramics in other countries, such as the so-called Nara sancai in Japan, exhibited in Three-Color And Green Glazed Wares in Japan, Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum, Seto, 1998; and discussed in Li Zhiyan, Zhongguo youtao yishu (Chinese Glazed Pottery), Hong Kong, 1989, pp. 186-190.

N09393_gooseessay_fig1bFig. 1: From kiln site at Gongyi, now at the Henan Province Institute of Cultural
Relics and Archaeology. Remaining Height 25.5 cm.

The second nearly identical example is in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, formerly from C.T. Loo and the collection of Avery Brundage, illustrated in He Li, Chinese Ceramics. A New Standard Guide, London, 1996, pl. 170 (fig. 2); and in Five Thousand Years of Chinese Art Series: Tang Three-coloured Pottery, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1995, Part II, pl. 159. The same piece was twice exhibited on loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in Chinese Ceramics from the Prehistoric Period Through Chiʼen Lung, 1952, pl. 66, and The Arts of the T’ang Dynasty, 1957, pl. 213. The third and slightly smaller example in the form of a duck, is illustrated in Zhengzhou Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, ed., Henan Tang Sancai and Tang Blue-and-White, Beijing, 2006, pl. 121 (fig 3).  The fourth related example was exhibited in Masterpieces of Chinese Arts from the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1989, pl. 49.

Blue glaze is very rare among Tang sancai wares, and even rarer are white wares with blue decorations from Gongyi. The blue-decorated Tang white wares look essentially the same as blue and white porcelain and are hence considered the world’s earliest blue and white wares. Three such wares made in Gongyi for the Islamic market were discovered from the Belitung shipwreck which was bound for the Middle East but sank in Indonesian waters in 826 or soon after, see Regina Krahl et al., eds., Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, Washington DC, 2010, pp. 208-212. Tang sancai is well known for its association with Islamic ceramics, and scholars have proposed that the cobalt blue used in Gongyi was probably imported from the Middle East. Tang blue glazes, as seen on this sancai goose, are significant for studying the origin of blue and white porcelain and cross-cultural exchanges between China and other countries. For recent studies by Oxford University see Nigel Wood et al., ‘Blue and White – The Early Years: Tang China and Abbasid Iraq Compared’, in Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, ed., Transfer: The Influence of China on World Ceramics, London, 2009, pp. 21-45. 

N09393_gooseessay_fig2dFig 2: Goose jar, 618–906. China; Henan province. Low-fired ceramic,
mold-impressed and with three-color glaze in green, brown, and yellow.
Courtesy of Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, The Avery Brundage
Collection, B60P1108. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
Height 30.4 cm

A small sancai goose figure of different form, entombed in 709 for General An Pu, is illlustrated in Three-color Ware of the Tang Dynasty: The Henan Province Discoveries, Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum, Tokyo, 2004, pl. 56. A related sancai duck in the Seikado Bunko Museum is illustrated in Sekai toji zenshu, vol. 11, Tokyo, 1976, col. pl. 197. For a sancai ‘duck and lotus’ cup see Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China, Beijing, 2008, vol. 3, pl. 66. Compare also a sancai duck-shaped rhyton, sold in our London rooms, 21st June 1983, lot 95.

Used primarily by nobility and officials, Tang sancai wares were versatile as daily utility wares, religious ceremonial objects, and as funerary goods.  Some sancai kilns were directly managed by the Tang government. See discussions in Hsie Mingliang, The World of Ancient Chinese Lead-Glazed Wares: From the Warring States to Tang, Taipei, 2014; and Shenzhen City Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Tang Ren Qi Yong [An Exhibition of Wares Used in Life of the Tang People], Beijing, 2013. A symposium at National Taiwan University, Taipei is summarized in Bulletin of Chinese Ceramic Art and Archaeology, No. 5, Peking University, July 2015.

N09393_gooseessay_fig3Fig. 3: Unearthed from a tomb in Xin’an county,
Henan, now in the collection of the Henan
Province Museum. Height 21.7cm