W hen Samuel Sydney Marchant (1898-1975) opened his first antiques shop in London almost a century ago, he had a mission to trade in only the finest and rarest objects with impeccable provenance. Through the decades and about four generations later, the family run firm Marchant has long established itself as a foremost specialist in Chinese works of art, particularly porcelain and jade, from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Marchant’s close association with Sotheby’s goes back a long way. “[Samuel Sydney] attended the famous Eumorfopoulos auction at Sotheby's London in May 1940,” according to the founder’s son Richard Marchant. “One of the people who helped and advised me in my early days was A.J.B. 'Jim' Kiddell who was head of the Chinese department at Sotheby's London. I fondly remember him putting his arm around my shoulder and giving me advice.”
After Kiddell’s retirement, Marchant’s good relationship continued with the late Julian Thompson, who was then head of Sotheby's Chinese department and later chairman of Sotheby's. Richard would be a frequent and welcome presence at Sotheby's Hong Kong auctions when they began in 1973, and throughout the 1970s and 80s. This was a tradition that continued with Richard’s eldest son, Stuart Marchant.
Through his many great adventures, travelling the world and meeting different people, Richard discovered something quite unexpected: “One of the surprising aspects has been the continual change of taste over the passing years.”
"As a young man, I was attracted to Qing Imperial porcelain in spite of the fact that it was far less popular than Ming porcelain. My appreciation for Qing has continued throughout my life, always focusing on quality, condition and provenance."
Marchant II – Qing Imperial Porcelain
Indeed, Qing imperial porcelain was a passion for which Richard had a keen eye, discerning the most exquisite imperial wares from the hundred years that span from the late 17th to the late 18th century. Following on from the success of Marchant 1 in July 2020, which testified to the connoisseurship and discerning taste of Richard Marchant, the carefully curated sequel presents a tight group of exquisite imperial porcelains from the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns, the apex of material refinement in China’s long dynastic history.
Encapsulating the firm’s attention to quality, condition and provenance, highlights include both monochrome and enamelled wares, such as a celadon-glazed meiping and a rose-pink enamelled ‘chrysanthemum’ dish from the Yongzheng period.
The auction features an exceptional grouping of Qing imperial monochrome ceramics, representing a full range of transcendent greens, reds, blues and yellows seen in the finest glazes of the period, and exemplifying the most refined sensibilities in Chinese art.
Highlights include a vivid green bowl that is extremely rare, and all the more so for its unusually large size. The vibrant tone of a rose-pink ‘chrysanthemum’ dish was achieved through a formula of ground ruby glass, colloidal gold and tin – an effect enhanced by its floral form.
Whether it is called clair-de-lune (‘moon light’) or tianlan (‘sky blue’), the rare lavender bowl represents the most successful monochrome glazes in the early Qing period. Yellow is the only colour that has a direct imperial association, and one specific lemon-yellow enamel was a Yongzheng innovation that required the utmost precision in potting, glazing and firing to achieved its dazzling translucent yellow hue.
Auspicious meanings often form an important component in Chinese works of art. There are easily more than hundreds of fruit, vegetables, trees, flowers, animals, mythical creatures and everyday objects that convey multiple meanings for the general viewer. Together they make up a rich, visual language.
To name several examples, both the number nine and peaches symbolise longevity, beautifully expressed in the collection’s highlight with blue heaping and piling in the style of the early Ming period against a brilliant lemon-yellow ground that adds a sense of Qing-dynasty contemporaneity to the piece. Against a backdrop in celebratory red, bamboo is a pun for the word ‘congratulate’ as well as a symbol for peace; thus the saying zhubao ping'an (‘bamboo reporting peace’). Auspicious fruits symbolise abundance of offspring, further enhanced by incised dragon design. The white stem bowl is decorated with bajixiang, eight Buddhist symbols that includes the Wheel of the Law, parasol, canopy, vase, twin fish, lotus flower, conch shell, and endless knot.
Qing dynasty imperial ceramic forms would often emulate or reference earlier dynasties or ancient ritual objects. Such reverence for the long lineage of Chinese works of art extended beyond aesthetic taste and connoisseurship – in many examples expressing the iconography of imperial power.
For example, Dou derived inspiration from bronze grain containers of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. It was in the Song period when Meiping first appeared in the Song period, when they served as wine containers, while Ru ware was the celebrated official ware of the Northern Song court, its Qing-dynasty imitation reflects the Qianlong Emperor’s penchant for early wares. The Doucai wine cup, with its fine body and delicate motif, was inspired by prototypes of the Chenghua reign, which were especially treasured by the Yongzheng Emperor.