he upcoming Monochrome sale (11 July, Hong Kong) offers a diverse range of exceptional Chinese artworks from the Neolithic period to the Qing dynasty, all characterised by their timeless aesthetic. From the eternal translucence of jade of the Hongshan culture to the rich warm grain of late Ming huanghuali, the selection will inspire existing and new collectors with an insight into the most refined aesthetic sensibilities of Chinese art. Here, we ask Nicolas Chow, chairman of Sotheby's Asia and the international head and chairman of the Chinese Works of Art department, to choose his favourite works from the sale.
An Exceptional 'Oil Spot' Bowl
NORTHERN SONG – JIN DYNASTY
"Northern oil spot bowls have often been overlooked compared with their grander southern counterparts of the Jian kilns in Fujian Province. This bowl is an absolute masterpiece of its type. Gazing into this little bowl will bring to mind the expansive reaches of space. The bowl was packaged in the most exquisite Edo period lacquer box within a Japanese paulownia box. It was once owned by the Kano family, owner of the Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., hence inscribed on the cover as a sake cup."
Many of the greatest teabowls of the yuteki ("oil spotting") tenmoku (or "Yōhen Tenmoku") type that have been passed down in Japan are the products of kilns in Shanxi and other parts of North China, and this piece is a fine example. The present lot has rounded sides rising from a short straight foot to a rim bordered with a thin concave groove, unctuously enveloped overall save for the foot with a lustrous black glaze attractively suffused with an intricate pattern of iridescent purplish 'oil spots' of varying sizes, the glaze neatly stopping short of the lower body and foot, revealing the unglazed pale grey body. The Tenmoku of the North China kilns are distinct from those of the Jian kilns for their grayish white clay, which is low in iron content and has a white or yellow cast. It was fired using charcoal as fuel. This piece has a black glaze covering both inside and outside and is densely covered with large and small silver spots; the whole bowl displays a reddish-purple cast. The oil spotting of Jian tenmoku is formed from multiple crystals containing fine creases, but on the oil spotting pieces of North China, the dots are like snowflake crystals. It is a small but elegantly shaped piece and the lines of the foot are clean-cut and sturdy. Iron slip has been painted over the exposed portion of the foot, indicating awareness of the black footed Jian tenmoku.
A Rare Archaic Bronze 'Tapir' Ritual Vessel and Cover, You
EARLY WESTERN ZHOU DYNASTY
"One of the most exquisite, understated and documented ancient bronzes to come to the market in recent years. It comes with an enviable provenance going back to the 19th century."
You of this stout form with an elliptical cross-section and domed cover were popular in the early Western Zhou period, both in the relatively austerely decorated type as seen in the present piece and in highly-decorated vessels, often embellished with flanges. This is a rare vessel is possessed of elliptical form, well cast with a compressed pear-shaped body resting on a splayed foot, the neck bordered with a band enclosing scrollwork and a small animal head mask on each side of the body, interrupted by two small loop handles supporting the U-shaped bail handle with a crisply cast tapir-mask terminal on each end. The animal mask handles were each uniquely cast and those on the present vessel are particularly notable for their naturalistic modelling. It is also unusual to find examples of this miniature size. It was previously in the hands of prominent collectors, including Wu Dacheng and Sadajiro Kawai.
A Russet-Splashed Black-Glazed Jar
"It's a type that one sees often, but in terms of the glossiness and depth of the glaze, and the intensity of the splashes, these qualities elevate this above most others."
Black-glazed ware of the Song dynasty represents a more adventurous and varied style of early ceramic production. From the Tang dynasty black-glazed stoneware began to make significant contributions to Chinese ceramics, with the best Tang wares being produced at the kilns in the Yellow River area of Northern China. Minimalist forms that were often inspired by nature, covered with monochrome glazes, soon led to painted and splashed designs which were achieved by exploiting lighter overglazes on the dark ground. The present lot is sturdily potted with a body rising from a countersunk base to a broad shoulder below a short neck, the exterior applied overall with a glossy black glaze extending onto the interior of the neck and falling and pooling neatly just above the base, further liberally applied with russet-brown splashes, the base with a wash of blackish-brown glaze and revealing the grey stoneware body, Japanese wood box. The present jar was formerly in the celebrated collection of the Manno Art Museum, Osaka.
A Jade Notched Disc
NEOLITHIC PERIOD – ZHOU DYNASTY
"The convergence of the jagged outline of the jade and the superb straight lines incised on the surface — an archaic abstract masterpiece."
The outer edge of the disc is worked with three pronounced notches forming three arcs, each with a series of crenulation formed by a pair of three-pronged teeth, all encircling the central aperture, delicately incised on one side with two horizontal lines and one diagonal line, the well-patinated brown stone with variegated mottles of russet and black.
A Rare Huanghuali Folding Stool, Jiaowu
"I've always liked folding stools. This is a particularly fine example and an ingenious marvel of early furniture design."
As conveniently lightweight and comfortable seats, folding stools such as the current example were popular in the Ming dynasty among travelling scholars and military officials. This design derives from prototypes known since the Han dynasty, when folding stools were imported by nomadic tribes from Central Asia and popularised by Emperor Lingdi (AD 168-189), who was fascinated by the foreign portable seat. The folding stool appears to be the first elevated type of seat in China, predating the emergence of the rigid frame chair. The present lot is constructed with beaded-edged curvilinear shaped seat rails carved with confronting chilong drilled for a woven seat, the round legs mortised, tennoned and lapped to the seat rails and base stretchers, hinged by metal rods passing through holes in their centre and secured on both sides by chrysanthemum-shaped metal plates, reinforced by rectangular plates with ruyi heads, a rectangular footrest mortised and tennoned to a pair of legs and base stretcher, metal straps with ruyi heads added for reinforcements on where the four legs, base stretcher and leg-seat rail join.
A Rare Jade Figure of a Female Attendant
SUI – TANG DYNASTY
This is a miniature gem of early jade carving brings to mind related pottery figures from the Sui dynasty."
This charming figure is rendered standing upright and dressed in long flowing robes detailed with linear folds and splayed around the foot, depicted holding a jar in the left hand and the robe tassel in the right, skilfully portrayed with a soft serene facial expression beneath a top-knot worn to one side, the pale creamy-brown stone with extensive russet patches and dark brown streaks, pierced with an aperture. The figure is notable for the detail the carver has successfully captured, from the linear folds of the robe to the delicate wrinkles on the lady’s face. It closely follows pottery figurines from the Sui and early Tang dynasty, as evident in the hairstyle and slim proportions of the figure, such as one in the Shanghai Museum, published in Liu Liang-yu, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics.