This piece is an extremely rare and outstanding example of phoenix-head ewers that were inspired by Sassanian metal examples and adapted to suit Chinese taste. The form and molded relief decoration follow metal wares of the Middle East, while the phoenix-head and ruyi-shaped panel bordered by further ruyi heads remain firmly rooted in Chinese tradition. Thus, it embodies the commercial and cultural exchange that characterizes the art of the early Tang dynasty.
Phoenix-head ewers molded with applied masks against a stippled ground, which are reminiscent of granulated metalwork, are rare and those covered almost entirely in a monochrome green glaze are even rarer. A sancai ewer of this design and with a stippled ground, sold in our London rooms, 7th December 1993, lot 139; one lacking the stipples from the Hakone Art Museum, Hakone, is illustrated in Mayuyama: Seventy Years, Tokyo, 1976, vol. 1, pl. 233; another is published in Hirano Tatsuo, Kotoken Senka, Osaka, 1988, pl. 40; a fourth, from the George Eumorfopoulos collection, now in the British Museum, London, is illustrated in R.L. Hobson, The Eumorfopoulos Collection, vol. 1, London, 1925, col. pl. L, fig. 389; and a further ewer sold in our London rooms, 7th November 1993, lot 139. See also a sancai ewer of this type, but molded on the central panels with flower heads, in the Shaanxi Provincial Museum, Xi’an, illustrated in Out of China’s Earth: Archaeological Discoveries in the People’s Republic of China, London, 1981, pl. 244; and another with a stippled ground, in the Gansu Provincial Museum, Lanzhou, published in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua Daquan. Taozi juan [The quintessence of Chinese cultural relics. Ceramics], Hong Kong, 1993, p. 126, pl. 440.
Margaret Medley in Metalwork and Chinese Ceramics, London, 1972 (p. 4), discusses the far-reaching effect on Tang potters of the opening of diplomatic relations between the Chinese Emperor Yangdi of the Sui dynasty and the Sassanian Persian Empire (224-651), which led to the exchange of tributary gifts as well as the arrival of Persian craftsmen at the Imperial court in the Tang capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi).