Lot 18
  • 18


600,000 - 800,000 GBP
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  • 49.8 cm, 19 5/8  in.
the rounded sides rising from a short slightly spreading foot, the galleried rim flanked by a pair of large intricately carved taotie-mask handles above a loop suspending loose rings, the sides with four further smaller taotie handles supporting loose rings, the stone of a deep spinach-green tone with lighter green inclusions and dark green mottling


Collection of Robert Napier, First Baron Napier of Magdala (1810-1890).


International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-36, cat. no. 2806.


The Chinese Exhibition. A Commemorative Catalogue of the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy of Arts, November 1935 – March 1936, London, 1936, pl. 53.
Stanley Charles Nott, Chinese Jade Throughout the Ages, London, 1936, pl. XXX top.


the washer is in overall very good condition, with exception of a few very minute nicks to extremities in consistent with its age and use, both larger loose rings with some natural flaws running through.
"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

An Appreciation of A Qianlong-Era Monumental Spinach-Green Jade Washer Dr. Xu Lin, The Palace Museum, Beijing

This monumental spinach-green jade washer measures 50 cm in width at its widest point and 12.8 cm in height. Its mouth is 34.8 cm in diameter, and its base is 25.2 cm in diameter. Generously proportioned, the washer is carved from Khotan jade of a relatively dark colour. It has a reflective polished surface and a round base. Its bottom is plain and without decorative patterns. It has a relatively deep base, and is carved with two large beast-head handles with freely-moving rings. Protruding above the washer’s body, each beast head has a single horn, a pair of ears, round eyes, a large nose, a large mouth, and eyebrows and cheeks that extend sideward onto the rim of the washer’s mouth as curled cloud patterns. The rings of the handles were carved in openwork from the same piece of raw jade as the washer’s body. Beneath the rim, on the other sides, are four additional smaller beast-head handles of the same design, also with freely-moving rings carved in openwork. The small and large beast-head handles echo one another in this rare work of art.

This washer was exhibited in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from November 1935 to March 1936, and was included in the accompanying exhibition catalogue (fig. 3)[1]. This exhibition included not only works sent by the Chinese government from the Palace Museum, but also works from many public and private organizations and collections around the world. A total of 3080 works were shown. Impressive in scale, the exhibition was the most extensive international presentation of Chinese art and provided Europeans a rare opportunity to gain a comprehensive understanding of Chinese art. The jade expert Oscar Raphael was responsible for curating the jade exhibits[2]. The present jade washer was selected from a British private collection.

The washer was included by the French author and major jade collector Stanley Charles Nott in his 1936 book Chinese Jade Throughout the Ages (fig. 4)[3]. Equally dedicated to research and collecting, Nott (1902-1957) can be regarded as one of the first Western scholars to study the culture of Chinese jades and to develop a profound passion for them. Already in 1927, he began publishing books about Chinese jades, including both academic studies and illustrated catalogues. These publications documented works of that had left China and were also testaments to Nott’s research on the historical development and craft of Chinese jades.

Compared to similar works currently in the Palace Museum collection, the present washer, which measures 50 cm at its widest point, is exceptionally large. Jade washers of such monumental proportions are very rare, and necessitated the use of a large amount of raw jade. Although relatively dark-coloured, the jade has an extremely rich and “fatty” lustre, one of the distinctive characteristics of spinach-green jade harvested from the Khotan region by the imperial court during the mid-Qing period.

Such a large jade washer would have been nearly impossible during the Kangxi and early Qianlong periods, during which the jade-producing areas of Khotan and Yarkent were occupied by the Dzungars and could not be easily accessed. The imperial court resorted to repurposing jades from past dynasties or using raw jade sent as tribute or smuggled. Thus these early periods produced almost no large works. The Yongzheng Emperor even ordered his ministers in the 10th year of his reign (1732) to “find some good raw jade and bring it here”. In the 15th year of the Qianlong reign (1750), the court was still refashioning jade belts of the Ming dynasty, indicating a severe material shortage. In the 24th year of the Qianlong reign (1759), the Qing army defeated the Dzungars decisively and cemented its control in the northwestern border region of Xinjiang, which came under the rule of the central government.

The jade tribute system was formalized in the 25th of the Qianlong reign (1760). From then onwards, raw jade from Khotan and Yarkent would be sent every spring and autumn to the court, amounting to 4000 jin every year. In fact, at the height of this tributary traffic, the Qing court received some 300,000 jin of raw jade every year. The raw jade supplied increased in both quantity and size throughout the Qianlong reign. In the 56th year (1791), for example, 5585 pieces of jade were sent to the court. By the latter part of his reign, the court had accumulated so much raw jade that it would sell samples of inferior quality or with too many blemishes at Chongwenmen to supplement its income.

This influx of raw jade provided the material foundation for the Golden Age of Chinese jade during the Qianlong reign. Famous monumental jade sculptures produced during the middle and late Qianlong period include Jade Mountain with Great Yu Controlling the Waters and Jade Mountain with the Nine Elders of Huichang, as well as several monumental jade weng pots carved with dragons and clouds. During the same period, ordinary works meant for display also increased in size, including archaistic jade ding tripods and bi discs, large-scale hu vases carved with birds and fishes, and incense tubes. All these works were made possible by the ample and stable supply of raw jade.

Comparing the Qianlong Emperor’s jades and the poems he wrote about them, I find that he often referred to both spinach-green (biyu) and Khotan-green (qingyu) jade as “green jade” (lüyu), suggesting that he could not distinguish between them. Khotan-green jade that had a darker shade was referred to as green jade, but historically the category encompassed greyish and whitish green shades. In modern geological terms, Khotan-green jade and spinach-green jade are in fact very easy to distinguish. The former is formed through the corrosion of magnesium-rich marble and consists primarily of tremolite. The latter is formed through the corrosion of ultramafic and, while consisting primarily also of tremolite, it includes ferroactinolite. It tends to be green and often contains black dots. The category of “spinach-green jade” includes not only jade from Khotan, but also stones harvested in Manas in northern Xinjiang, Russia, Canada, and Pakistan. The rich colour of spinach-green jade is due to the small amount of chromium that it contains. Most of the Qing court’s spinach-green jade was sourced from Xinjiang, particularly the Khotan area but also partly from Manas. However, Manas jade only began to be sent to Beijing during the latter part of the Qianlong reign, and was not favoured by the Emperor because it tended to be marked by large white spots and to lack “fattiness”. Consequently, the finer examples of Qianlong-period spinach-green jade, those on which the Emperor composed original poems, were virtually all created from raw spinach-green jade from the Khotan region.

Raw spinach-green jade mostly originated in the White Jade (Yurungkash) River and the Black Jade (Karakash) River. According to the recollections of the officials who purchased jade for the government from the 1950’s onwards, both rivers produced spinach-green jade, but raw jade from the White Jade River was superior because of its rich colour and “fattiness”. Jade from the Black Jade River tends to be larger, darker and closer to black in colour, and is still sufficiently “fatty”. Based on my current understanding, I believe that the present washer was carved from raw jade harvested from Black Jade River.

The washer has an elegant and regular form, and its surface is polished to a fine gloss. The beast-head handles and especially the six freely moving rings were difficult to carve from a single piece of jade. Jade carving is a subtractive process that does not allow for any error. At a time before modern electric tools, jade was cut primarily by hand on a standalone iron mill. The creation of a monumental work of such perfection required the careful execution of a dozen procedures, including the examination and selection of raw jade, drafting of the design, rough carving, hole-boring, articulation of the rings, fine carving, detailing, and polishing. In this case, the monumental size of this washer even required that it be suspended on a crane during some of these procedures, making it much more labour-intensive than smaller works.

The Qianlong reign was the Golden Age of Qing-dynasty jade. According to palace documents of the period, jade washers with freely-moving rings, whether created at the palace workshop (Zaobanchu), at the Suzhou Manufactory, or under the Lianghuai Salt Administration, typically came with two, four, or six rings (figs. 5 and 6). For example, a qingbai (‘greenish white’) jade washer with two rings received from Suzhou was recorded on the 26th day of the second month of the 57th year of the Qianlong reign (1792)[4]; a heibai (‘black and white’) jade washer with two rings received from Suzhou was recorded on the 26th day of the first month of the 58th year (1793)[5]; and a spinach-green washer with six rings sent as a tribute by the Governor or Guangxi was recorded on the 25th day of the seventh month of the 59th year (1794)[6]. Furthermore, an entry dated to the 18th year of the Daoguang reign (1838) in Qinggong chenshe dang records a Khotan-green washer with six rings displayed in Chengsudian [Hall of Sincere Solemnity] (fig. 7)[7].

Court records suggest that jade washers with two rings were by far the most common. Entries dated to the middle and later Qianlong period record the creations of such works almost every month and at different locations. Because of the difficulty to make them and the amounts of resources they required, jade washers with four rings were less common, and those with six rings were even rarer. Moreover, Khotan-green jade washers with six rings were more common than spinach-green ones, due to the preponderance of raw Khotan-green jade over raw spinach-green jade. Spinach-green jade washers with six rings are thus extremely rare.

The present jade washer has an archaistic form. The Qianlong Emperor admired and was deeply influenced by classical Han Chinese culture, and was very fond of antiques. Many court paintings picture him wearing Han-style clothing and surrounded by antiques, among them ancient bronzes and jades imitating them (fig. 8). The Qianlong court also collected many bronzes it had inherited from the Ming. Driven by his love of the past, the Emperor ordered Liang Shizheng and others to begin the compilation of Xi Qing gujian, an illustrated catalogue of the bronzes in the imperial collection. Completed in the 20th year of the Qianlong reign (1755), the catalogue was modelled on the Xuanhe bogu tu of the Northern Song dynasty, an illustrated catalogue of bronzes in the Song imperial collection, and included some 1500 bronzes in the imperial collection dating from the Shang and Zhou through the Tang dynasties, with Shang and Zhou ritual bronzes predominating. Xi Qing gujian accurately illustrates each work and details its dimensions, weight, and inscription, far surpassing similar catalogues of the past and setting a new standard for Chinese publications at the time. It consists of forty volumes and an appendix of sixteen volumes. In the 58th year of the Qianlong reign (1793), Wang Jie and others were ordered to compile Xi Qing xujian jiabian, a twenty-volume supplement of Xiqing gujian in the same format that records 975 bronzes and seals in the Qing imperial collection dating from Shang and Zhou through Tang, Song, and subsequent periods. In the same year, Wang Jie and his colleagues compiled also Xi Qing xujian yibian, a twenty-volume catalogue of the bronzes in the Shengjing (present-day Shenyang) Palace dating from the Shang and Zhou through the Tang periods. Also produced during the Qianlong reign, the sixteen-volume Ningshou gujian another supplement, catalogues 701 bronzes dating from the Shang and Zhou through the Tang, housed in Ningshougong (‘Palace of Tranquil Longevity’) in the Forbidden City.

The four large-scale catalogues of bronzes in the Qianlong imperial collection are known collectively as Xi Qing sijian (‘four Xi Qing catalogues’). The many bronzes documented therein often served as models for archaistic jades created by the Qianlong court.

I have not found a single bronze that has the form of the present washer in Xiqing sijian or among extant excavated bronzes and bronzes in museum collections. However, pan dishes with two or four rings are relatively common (fig. 9). This suggests that jade washers with two or four rings were based on bronze pan dishes, and craftsmen sometimes chose to create jade washers with six rings. This innovation may have been because the additional rings improved the aesthetic appeal and visual harmony of jade washers as they increased in size during the Qianlong period. However, such jade washers with six rings were still very rare because of the amount of human and material resources they required.

If the form of these jade washers with beast-head handles and rings originated in bronze pan dishes, why do we refer to them as washers and not pan?

Let us first consider pan dishes. They originated in the Shang, Spring and Autumn, and Warring States periods as water vessels. During the Shang and Zhou periods, a hand-washing ritual known as woguan was performed before and after banquets, as recorded in the Book of Rites[8]. In this ritual, water would be poured on someone’s hands by another person from the top. Pan dating from the late Western Zhou through the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods tend to be excavated with yi ewers placed inside them. This indicates that pan were used to collect and contain water, and yi were used to pour it.

The pan dish is characterised by a large and flat opening, a shallow and flat body, a circular base that enables stable placement, and two handles that facilitate lifting. Pan from the pre-Qin era came with various kinds of handles, but generally featured fixed handles on opposite sides. From the Western Zhou through the Warring States periods, pan began to feature one, two, or four loose ring-shaped handles. In the Palace Museum is a three-footed, two-ringed bronze pan from the Warring States period and formerly in the Qing imperial collection (fig. 10). Pan also came with beast-head handles with rings in the mouths, including the famous Guoji Zibai pan, which has eight handles and rings. Mentioned above, the bronze pan with four rings featuring aquatic scenes that the Qianlong Emperor thought to date from the Han dynasty is now believed to date from the Warring States period instead. It is understandable that, without the knowledge of pre-Qin artefacts furnished by modern archaeology, the Emperor often mistakenly attributed antiques to the Han dynasty.

During the pre-Qin period, only pan existed and not washers. After the Warring States period, the woguan washing ritual became defunct, and pan gradually came to be replaced by washers. However, during the Han dynasty, xi remained a verb (‘to wash’) and did not refer to a vessel type, as evidenced by the corresponding entry in the Han dynasty dictionary Shuowen jiezi (‘Explaining graphs and analysing characters’): “The character xi refers to the washing of feet.” In other words, the original meaning of xi is the action of washing one’s feet[9]. Only later did the word gradually come to be used as a noun referring to a vessel type.

The oldest known and extant jade washer is a spinach-green washer. It was excavated from the mausoleum of Shi Sheng in Quzhou, Zhejiang, dating from the Southern Song dynasty[10]. The washer ingeniously takes the natural form of a lotus leaf, with its curled stem serving as the handle, and anticipated Ming- and Qing-period jade washers based on plant forms. After the Song dynasty, jade washers became more common, but initially they were used primarily for washing brushes and thus limited in size. During the Qing dynasty and especially the Qianlong period, jade washers underwent a significant evolution; they retained the basic Ming-dynasty form but came to serve various display purposes as well.

Reading through the records of the Qing Palace Workshop (Zaobanchu), one notices an interesting phenomenon: the titles of washers often directly mention the existence of two, four, or even six rings, allowing the reader immediately to understand the vessel types. By contrast, the titles of jade pan dishes never mention the existence of such rings or feature even the character for ‘ring’. It is evident that the Qing court did not regard such washers as the same vessel type as pan, which are frequently mentioned in its records.

These records indicate that pan at the Qing court referred mostly to dining utensils and other food containers serving practical purposes. By contrast, the present monumental jade washer with six rings is a work of innovative archaism created under the auspices of the Emperor himself, its primary purpose being display and aesthetic appreciation.

In its material quality, craftsmanship, form, and decorative programme, the present washer embodies the distinctive qualities of mid-Qing imperial jade.

[1] International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-6, cat. no. 2806.

[2] Hu Jian, ‘Percival David and the 1935 London International Exhibition of Chinese Art’, Wenwu shijie, 2009:6. China Second Archive and Liu Nannan, eds., ‘Select Historical Sources for the Beijing Palace Museum’s Participation in the London International Exhibition of Chinese Art’, Minguo dang’an, 2010:3.

[3] Stanley Charles Nott, Chinese Jade Throughout the Ages, Tonbridge, Kent, 1936.

[4] China First Archive and the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, ed., Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu dang’an zonghui (Complete compilation of the archival material of the Qing dynasty imperial workshops), Beijing: Renmin chuban she, 2005, vol. 52, p. 621.

[5] Ibid., vol. 53, p. 132.

[6] Ibid., vol. 55, p. 123.

[7] Qinggong chenshe dang (Display archive of the Qing palace), internet version, p. 08972 (Chen 211, dated to the first day of the seventh month of the 18th year of the Daoguang reign, 1838).

[8] Yang Tianyu, ed., Liji yizhu (Annotated Book of Rites), Shanghai: Shanghai guji chuban she, 1997, inner chapter 12, p. 452.

[9] Xu Shen, ed., Shuowen jiezi, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1963, vol. 11, first part, p. 237.

[10] Quzhoushi wenwu guanli weiyuanhui, ‘Zhejiang Quzhoushi Nansong mu chutu qiwu’ (Objects excavated from a Southern Song tomb in Quzhou, Zhejiang Province), Kaogu, 1983:11.



Imperial Jade Basin with Six Loose Rings

Regina Krahl


This majestic spinach-green basin ranks among the most impressive jade vessels remaining in a private collection, and appears to be the largest jade basin recorded. Jade boulders of the immense size and intense, even colour as would have been required to create this piece are extremely rare and were rarely cut down to manufacture vessels, but would rather have been left more or less intact and turned, with minimal surface carving, into scenic miniature mountains. Jade vessels of any form, of the size of this piece, are therefore otherwise virtually unknown from this or any earlier period, and the present piece is further remarkable and exceedingly rare because of its six freely moveable rings suspended from animal masks.

The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795), who was particularly enamoured with jade, secured access to the region, where the raw material was mined, the Tianshan region around Hetian, or Khotan, in modern Xinjiang province in China’s far West, in 1759 through military campaigns. While his predecessor, the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735), had still been faced with a severe shortage of good nephrite material and had to fall back on ordering his craftsmen to rework earlier items, from the latter half of the Qianlong reign onwards, large quantities of fine jade became available to be fashioned into vessels or items of decoration.

Yet only two jade dishes of the Qianlong period larger than the present basin appear to be recorded, a pair of flat-rimmed spinach-green jade chargers (65.3 and 66.6 cm) in the Palace Museum, Beijing, without handles or any decoration except for a fine line around the rim, but each engraved in the centre with a long poem by the Qianlong Emperor, see Gugong Bowuyuan cangqi daxi. Yuqi bian. 10: Qing/Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum. Jade, vol. 10: Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2011, pls 184 and 185. Otherwise, 18th-century or earlier jades generally measure well below 30 cm; vessels of around 40 cm are already exceptional and rare even in the Palace collections; but the Palace Museum, Beijing, holds one archaistic vase of Qianlong mark and period that is 48 cm tall, see ibid., pl. 6.

Many of the most impressive jade vessel forms devised in the Qianlong period follow archaic bronzes and the present basin is no exception. The shape represents a free interpretation of an archaic bronze basin known as pan. Archaic bronze pan were water basin used for ritual ablutions, and this function may well have been preserved into the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), even for basins in other materials. Although the archaic bronze style was re-interpreted in the Qianlong reign and prototypes of this precise model would be difficult to find, the basic form of this vessel as well as the animal masks holding loose rings are all based on Bronze Age models. While in the monumental exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, 1935-6, where this vessel was displayed, its animal heads were identified as lion heads, they are probably best described as taotie, a term that denominates the fabulous zoomorphic masks prevalent on archaic bronzes. 

In the West, basins of this type – but generally much smaller – are generally called ‘marriage bowls’, and some related bowls indeed are carved with a pair of fish in the centre, symbols of conjugal unity. In China, such bowls are generally known as ‘washers’ – and the smaller ones may well have been used for washing brushes – or ‘loose-ring basins’, on account of their freely moveable rings, which represent a particular challenge to fashion from the hard stone. While such basins typically have two handles with loose rings, examples with four do exist, but six are hardly ever seen.

Although no close comparisons to this jade basin appear to have been published, a few equally striking vessels in other shapes loosely based on archaic bronzes may be compared to it, which may have been created side by side with the present piece by the same craftsmen in the same imperial workshop, and thus display a similar style and are using a similar spinach-green jade. One such piece is a tall (33 cm) spinach-green jade vase in the form of an archaic bronze gu with two ring handles, another is a covered incense burner in form of an archaic bronze gui with four ring handles, ibid., pls 80 and 104, both in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, which display the same smooth, pleasing roundness in their carving style, the taotie heads having well-curved horns and bulging eyes (figs 1 and 2).

One other remarkably large ‘marriage bowl’, but smaller than the present piece, is a green jade example formerly in the W. Williams, K.B. Kitson, and S. Bulgari collections, 41.2 cm wide, with only two bat handles with loose rings and overall carved decoration, sold in our London rooms, 14th February 1956, lot 158 and 21st February 1961, lot 305, and at Christie’s Hong Kong, 27th May 2008, lot 1604 (fig. 3).