Evidence of this rich tradition of craftsmanship has been transmitted down through a small number of high quality carvings, of which the current sculpture is one of the greatest surviving examples, perfectly encapsulating this tradition. In its exquisite articulation from a lustrous coloured pebble in which the full contours have been so skillfully and compactly utilised, it is a truly outstanding sculpture, a tour-de-force of carving. The only other jade mythical beast of the period of comparable quality ever to have appeared at auction was sold in our New York rooms, 2nd November 1979, lot 51, and is now in the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung. Catalogued as Six Dynasties in the 1979 auction, it was more recently redated to the Han period by Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, pl. 26:7, on account of its similarity to a jade bixie discovered in 1972 at Xianyang near present-day Xian, near the tomb of the Han emperor Yuandi (r. 48-33BC), now housed in the collection of Xianyang City Museum, and illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua dacidian: jin yin yu shi juan, Shanghai, 1996, p.54, pl. 166.
Slightly smaller (8.4cm) than the current figure, the Hotung mythical beast shares the same distinct features: the powerful bulging eyes and sharply defined jaws; the dynamic taut posture bristling in anticipation of impending movement, snarling and ready to pounce; the fine striated lines, especially at the edges, so typical of early Han jades, with strong bands of relief and deeply incised curved lines that radiate around the body, enhancing the overall sculptural quality; the short curved wings sprouting from the shoulders and the long coiling tail; as well as the skillful integration of the natural russet-brown inclusions into the design of the beast.
For examples of early mythical jade animals from the Qing court collection, compare the famous Eastern Han dynasty bixie in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the museum's exhibition Splendid Treasures. A Hundred Masterpieces of the National Palace Museum on Parade, Taipei, 2012, cat. no. 18; and the Han dynasty jade winged beast in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Jadeware 1, Hong Kong, 1995, pl. 201.
See also a Six Dynasties jade beast illustrated by Eskenazi, Chinese jades from a private collection, London, 1976, cat. no. 7. Previously exhibited in the Stockholm exhibition Celadon-Jade, 1963 and published in the catalogue by Bo Gyllensvard as cat. no. 65, it was also included in the 1975 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition Chinese Jade throughout the Ages, illustrated by Jessica Rawson and John Ayers, London, 1975, cat. no. 186. It depicts a crouching lion or chimera with similar bold modelling in the round, with closely related use of fine striated lines to convey the combed arcs of the fur, grooved folds on the chest and skilfully incised spirals, and a similar dynamic posture of impending movement. The catalogue notes that ‘this type of fabulous animal is related to the monumental stone sculptures found outside tombs near Nanking, which were made during the latter part of the Six Dynasties’, referencing Osvald Siren, Chinese Sculpture, volume II, London, 1925, pls. 3-7 and 9-13.
For other rare examples of comparable quality, see a Six Dynasties jade chimera from the collection of Dr and Mrs Cheng Te-k’un, illustrated by James Watt, Chinese Jade from Han to Ch’ing, The Asia Society, New York, 1980, pl. 12; and two smaller chimera from the collection of W.P. Chung, illustrated by Ip, Yee, Chinese Jade Carving, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1983, cat. nos. 126 and 127.
Xu Hanqing, the former owner of this sculpture, was born in Shandong in 1882, and served as an official of the Minister of Justice and a member of the Inspection Committee of the Jinan branch of the Qing Central Bank in the last years of the Qing dynasty. In the early Republican period, he was instrumental in the founding of the Continental Bank, and formed an extensive collection of works of art and calligraphy. A work of calligraphy by Su Shi from his collection, sold in our New York rooms, 19th September 2013, lot 565, is now in the collection of the Long Museum, Shanghai.
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