Lot 55
  • 55


200,000 - 300,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • ceramic
the bulbous body tapering towards the base, surmounted by a long neck with galleried rim, set on the shoulder with a double-stranded handle ending with a dragon head biting the angular rim, opposite a chicken-head mock spout and two lugs on each side of the shoulder, covered overall in a thin olive-green glaze ending irregularly above the foot 


The rim has been restored and sprayed. There is restoration to one handle, and one dragon horn. The beak of the chicken-head and the lug handles have been restored. There are areas of touch up to the glaze on the body, as well as areas of loss. There is one test hole to the base.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Chicken-head ewers are perhaps the most distinctive and representative ceramic vessels of the tumultuous, yet innovative period between the Han (206 BC to AD 220) and Tang dynasties (618-907). Production began in the Jin dynasty (265-420) by the southern Yue kilns of Zhejiang province, but was soon copied by other southern manufactories and later adopted by northern celadon kilns. This ewer with its finely detailed chicken and dragon heads ranks among the largest examples of its type.

The so-called 'Heavenly Chicken Ewers' with their mock spouts, which can either be solid, or hollow but without connection to the inside, or with a tiny, non-functional pierced opening, were purposefully made as tomb wares. The wide use of such ceramics, including the tombs of emperors, reflects the auspicious symbolism of the chicken motif. Chickens were believed to have the power to exorcise evils, cure diseases and have other beneficent effects. Images of chickens were therefore painted and real chickens or replicas in cast metal or carved wood were hung on front doors. In Chinese the word for chicken is homophonous with the term “auspicious” and as a motif chickens enjoyed continuous popularity right up to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) periods, when they provided the decoration of the fabled imperial porcelain “chicken cups”.

Chicken-head ewers generally range from 4 to 14 inches (10 to 35cm) in height and the present piece is one of the very few examples of the largest size. The remains of a somewhat smaller (16 3/4  in., 43 cm) chicken-head ewer of similar proportions, but with the chicken head missing, were recovered from the tomb of the Northern Wei emperor Xuanwu (r. 500―515) in Luoyang, Henan province, together with two even smaller similar ewers (of about 36 cm), see Kaogu 1994, no. 9, pl. 4, fig. 6 (Figure 1). For another ewer from the tomb of Prince Gao Run (543-575), brother of the founding emperor of the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577), in Cixian, Hebei, see Kaogu 1979, no. 3, pl. 4, fig. 4. Examples comparable to that of Gao Run were sold in these rooms, 7th December 1983, lot 124, and in our London rooms 15th December 1981, lot 121.

Ewers of comparable size and shape to this lot are extremely rare. One such vessel was unearthed from a Northern Qi tomb in Hejian county, Hebei, see Zhongguo chutu ciqi quanji / Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China, Beijing, 2008, vol. 3, pl. 15. Other examples from the Idemitsu Museum of Art, Tokyo, the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, and other collections are illustrated in Yutaka Mino and Katherine R. Tsiang, Ice and Green Clouds: Traditions of Chinese Celadon, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, 1987, cat. no. 36 and figs. 36 a-e. For comparison see a Yue ware ewer included in the exhibition Vibrant Greens, Celadon Glazes over Two Millennia: Masterpieces from the East Zhejiang Museum of Yue Celadon Ware, Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, Peking University, Beijing, 2013, cat. no. 68.

Over time, the shape of this popular form evolved and the body gradually became taller and more elongated, the applications more complex, and the lugs angular. Examples of earlier chicken-head ewers from the Eastern Jin dynasty include one in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, illustrated in Mary Tregear, Catalogue of Chinese Greenware in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, Oxford, 1976, no. 76; one sold in these rooms, 7th November 1980, lot 34, and again in our London rooms 9th June 1987, lot 175. Green-glazed ewers first appeared and were primarily produced by the Yue ware kilns of Zhejiang, though later they were also made at kilns in Guangdong, Jiangxi and Anhui, and eventually in north China as well. A Sui dynasty (581-618) example was sold in our London rooms, 15th December 1981, lot 121. Chicken-head ewers are primarily green-glazed, though white and black glazes are also known.

The dating of this lot is consistent with the result of a thermoluminescence test, Oxford authentication Ltd., no. C200h2.