Lot 5
  • 5


500,000 - 700,000 HKD
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  • stoneware
the slender baluster body gracefully potted with a tall waisted neck, elegantly rising to a disc-form flange and a tapering cylindrical mouth, the exterior exquisitely and freely carved with large peony blooms borne on meandering stems with broad leaves, all between lappet bands at the shoulder and the foot, the tapering tube-form mouth encircled by a spiral rib, covered overall in an olive-green glaze that pools to a deeper tone in the recessed areas, the foot unglazed, revealing the light grey ware


Collection of Charles E. Russell (1866-1960).
Sotheby's London, 12th July 1960, lot 156 (£600).
Bluett & Sons Ltd, London, 1960 (£600).
Collection of Roger Pilkington (1928-69), from 1960 (£600).


International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-36, cat. no. 1347 (illustrated in the catalogue).
Celadon Wares, The Oriental Ceramic Society, London, 1947, cat. no. 95 (illustrated).


R.L. Hobson, Bernard Rackham and William King, Chinese Ceramics in Private Collections, London, 1931, fig. 338.
Roy Davids and Dominic Jellinek, Provenance. Collectors, Dealers and Scholars: Chinese Ceramics in Britain and America, Great Haseley, 2011, pl. 133 (centre).


Good condition except for a possible flake - a now touched up area of 0.7 by 0.3 cm to where the neck joins the shoulder, as well as another 'C'-shaped shallow flake to the edge of the unglazed footring and other minor firing irregularities.
"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. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

A Bottle for Avalokitesvara
Regina Krahl

Buddhist holy water bottles (kundika) of this unusual, graceful shape never entered the regular repertoire of China’s ceramic kilns, probably because assembling the complex form from individually wheel-thrown sections proved too taxing a manufacturing process. Only one other ceramic bottle of this form appears to be recorded.

Bottles of this type are best known from images of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Guanyin, who since the Five Dynasties’ period (907-960) was often depicted holding a bottle like this. The extended flange around the neck makes this vessel particularly suitable to be carried around. The deity’s elegant gesture of dangling the bottle effortlessly between two fingers, as if weightless, using the flange as support, can be admired in several 10th-century paintings on hemp, silk or paper from the Buddhist Cave Temples of Dunhuang on the Silk Route, for example, which are preserved in Paris or London (see, for example, Jacques Giès, ed., Les arts de l’Asie centrale. La collection Paul Pelliot du musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet, Paris, 1995, vol. 1, pls 54, 66, 68-1, 71, 72-1, 73-1; and Roderick Whitfield and Anne Farrer, Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. Chinese Art from the Silk Route, London, 1990, pl. 12). The Bodhisattva’s uncommon gesture duly highlights the bottle’s significance as a container of holy water.

Depicted in these paintings are most likely bottles of gold, silver or bronze, but it is extremely difficult to find a preserved metal example from that period. Holy-water kundika both of metal and stoneware more typically have an additional covered spout at the shoulder for filling, and ceramic versions of that form were produced, for example, by the Ding white-ware kilns of Hebei.

The present bottle was made at the Yaozhou kilns of Shaanxi province, which by the Five Dynasties’ period had become important purveyors of celadon wares, perhaps inspired by the success of the Yue celadon kilns of Zhejiang in south China. From the beginning, however, they developed their own techniques and designs, and created some of the most imaginative celadon wares ever made; and from the beginning, they seem to have experimented with the present shape, but perhaps with little success. Only a fragmentary bottle of this form with carved designs in high relief characteristic of that period, was recovered from the Five Dynasties’ remains of the kiln site, see Wudai Huangpu yaozhi/Excavations of the Five Dynasties Period Kiln-site at Huangpu in Tongchuan, Shaanxi, Beijing, 1997, col. pl. 6, fig. 2; pl. 37, fig. 4; p. 82, fig. 45: 5; and p. 288, fig. 165 bottom (fig. 1). No complete example appears to be preserved from that period.

By the Northern Song period (960-1127) the Yaozhou kilns had become the foremost manufactories of celadon wares in China, and had developed a style of their own, suitable for production on a large scale. Tea and food bowls and dishes with carved or moulded designs were made in considerable quantities, not only for the home market but also for export abroad, as excavations particularly at Fustat in Egypt have shown. Contemporary copies were made in various regions of Henan province, even by the Ru kilns of Baofeng.

Besides this output of celadons devoted to serial manufacture, however, the Yaozhou kilns created also small numbers of more labour-intensive, carefully individually crafted ceramics, which were not easily replicated, either in more complex forms or with more elaborate designs. The kilns produced very few upright shapes altogether, which are much more time-consuming to form and to decorate, take up much valuable kiln space, and are more likely to fail in the firing. The present piece is one of those rare creations. Only one comparable holy-water bottle appears to be recorded, from the Charles B. Hoyt Collection in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, probably made around the same time, but not an identical twin, both having been individually conceived. The Hoyt bottle is of similar size, but differs from the present piece in its decoration, the flower design being reduced to a narrow band and the space below filled with two rows of petal panels, one ascending, one descending; see Tseng Hsien-ch’i and Robert Paul Dart, The Charles B. Hoyt Collection in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 1964-72, vol. II: Chinese Art: Liao, Sung, and Yüan Dynasties, pl. 49 (fig. 2).

The Song strata of the Yaozhou kiln site at Huangpu district, Yao county, near Tongchuan in Shaanxi province, have brought to light only eight fragments of celadon vessels that may have been of similar form, as recorded in Songdai Yaozhou yaozhi/The Yaozhou Kiln Site of the Song Period, Beijing, 1998, pl. 78, figs. 3-6 and p. 294, fig. 149: 8-10, and p. 296, fig. 150: 1-3 and 5-6, including one with very similar design but lacking the top (pl. 78, fig. 3), and one similar top (fig. 150: 5); as well as a slightly smaller example with monochrome black glaze, col. pl. 13, fig. 4; pl. 126, fig. 1; and p. 426, fig. 210: 3. Except for some tripod incense burners large enough to be used in temples, the Yaozhou kilns otherwise rarely produced items intended for ritual use.


The Pilkington bottle comes from the famous collection of Charles Ernest Russell (1866-1960), one of the most far-sighted collectors of his time, one-time owner of one of the ‘David Vases’ and one of the first to appreciate Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) blue-and-white as well as Qing dynasty (1644-1911) imperial porcelain. His collection that ranged from the Song to the Qing dynasty was partly published by R.L. Hobson in 1931, several of his pieces ended up in the collection of Sir Percival David, now in the British Museum, London, and some sixty pieces, mainly of the Song dynasty, were sold at Sotheby’s London, upon his death. The present bottle was included in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy of Arts in London 1935, the most important exhibition of Chinese art ever mounted, with over 3000 international loans from around the world, to which Russell lent sixteen pieces.