Lot 3106
  • 3106


2,500,000 - 3,000,000 HKD
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  • 18 cm, 7 1/8  in.
intricately sculpted in the form of three half-kneeling boys supporting a vase on their shoulders, the vase of baluster form, flanked by a pair of archaistic phoenix handles, the exterior brightly enamelled against a lime-green ground, depicting alternating stylised lotus and hibiscus sprays below a ruyi band, all below a further floral band and upright lappets, the incurved rim bordered by a floral scroll, each boy modelled in the round with arms held upwards, clad in loose fitted robes of patterned textiles gathered at the waist, their faces with cheerful expression below hair tied into twin-knots, all raised on an iron-red trefoil pedestal decorated with floral and foliate scroll bands in gilt, the base inscribed with a six-character seal mark in gilt


The vase is in overall very good condition, with only minor chips to the extremities such as one section of the ribbon of one boy and a couple to the base, as well as some enamel flakes particularly to the blue and pink robes, the latter has been slightly retouched.
"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

The Qianlong Emperor had an insatiable predilection for novelty and innovation and was rigorous in the standards he upheld, prompting his craftsmen to search for and realise ever new designs that enabled them to showcase their technical proficiency. Polychrome ceramics with lifelike qualities, as demonstrated by the current work, were seen in the repertoire of Chinese ceramics from earlier reigns, but it was not until the Qianlong period that the level of craftsmanship reached its pinnacle and saw remarkably dynamic three-dimensionality in the production of works of art. The current piece is an exceptional example of such technical advancement, and this is demonstrated not only in its form but also in the colour scheme and choice of motifs, all thoughtfully incorporated to form an outstanding work undoubtedly held in high esteem by both the Emperor and craftsman alike. Meticulously conceived and rendered, the well-proportioned lime-ground vase is flanked by a pair of archaistic handles and ornately decorated with impeccable lotus blooms and other floral motifs in the yangcai palette. The vase is supported on three applied figures of boys, each portrayed with a round, cherubic face below hair tied into twin-knots, but clad in different coloured clothing picked out with different motifs. All are raised on a gilt-decorated iron-red trompe l’oeil lacquer-imitation stand with a gilt-inscribed six-character seal mark on the base. There is no doubt that the current work, steeped in extraordinary craftsmanship and innovative artistic ambitions, ranks amongst the finest trompe l’oeil pieces of the Qianlong period.

Vases decorated with boys, such as the current example, were used by the Qianlong Emperor as gifts and tributes for officials and gentry. This is reflected in the Qing court records in the 4th and 7th months of the 20th year of the Qianlong reign (in accordance with 1755). These records reveal that the Emperor decreed that, under the supervision of Tang Ying, 50 vases decorated with three or five boys were to be produced so as to be sent to Jehol and gifted to people (The First Historical Archives of China, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, eds, Qinggong neiwufu zaobanchu dang'an zonghui [General collection of archival records from the Qing imperial household department workshop], Beijing, 2005, vol. 21, pp. 470-471).   

By virtue of the technical difficulties in their production, ceramic vessels with appliqué designs are very rare. Although the Qing court records suggest that over 50 such vases were commissioned, there are very few extant examples, of which most are applied with boys clambering on top and fired on footrings, unlike the current vase, which was fired on spurs. Compare a Qianlong yangcai floral vase, inscribed with a six-character underglaze-blue seal mark to the base, from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in China. The Three Emperors, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005-2006, cat. no. 301, and illustrated in The All Complete Qianlong: The Aesthetic Tastes of the Qing Emperor Gaozong, Taipei, 2013, cat. no. II-3.30. Modelled with a trefoil rim and foot, the vase is further applied with three boys similar in size to those supporting the current vase. One boy is rendered clambering atop the shoulder of the vessel, another tying a knot to a ribbon around the neck whilst the third holds one end over his shoulder.

Compare also other Qianlong yangcai vases decorated with differing numbers of boys, including a turquoise-ground lantern vase decorated on the exterior with seven boys, from the collection of M.D. Ezekiel, illustrated in R.L. Hobson, The Later Ceramic Wares of China, London, 1925, pl. IX, fig. 2, and later sold at Christie’s London, 18th March 1930, lot 73, Christie’s New York, 12th December 1977, lot 211 and again in these rooms, 28th/29th November 1978, lot 318. Compare also another vase, decorated with five boys, inscribed with an iron-red six-character seal mark, sold at Christie’s London, 10th May 2016, lot 78.

The three half-kneeling boys, upon which the vase rests, are marked with such strength and unity that they evoke the anthropomorphic feet of the Warring States period bronze vessels, as well as the guardian figures of the Tang dynasty. The structure and proportion of the vessel, with applied motifs in between the vessel and the stand, are also notably similar to those of contemporaneous ‘three ram’ zun vases, such as one decorated with a Jun-type glaze, illustrated in Grand View: Special Exhibition of Ju Ware from the Northern Sung Dynasty, Taipei, 2007, cat. no. 15.

It is rare to find an incurved rim as found on the current vase in the Qianlong period. See a pink-ground famille-rose ‘butterfly’ vase from the collection of the Ping Y. Tai Foundation, modelled with a comparable incurved rim, sold at Christie’s London, 18th October 1971 from the Fonthill heirlooms, lot 65, and again at Christie’s Hong Kong, 3rd December 2008, lot 2388.