Ming: The Intervention of Imperial Taste

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No other period in China’s history is so closely associated with ceramic production than the Ming dynasty. Its porcelains have attained such recognition that the word “Ming” has almost become a generic term for any piece of Chinese ceramic created before the 20th century. The preceding Yuan dynasty had established Jingdezhen as China’s ceramic metropolis, and trade of porcelain and ceramics flourished during this period. However, during the Ming era the imperial court started to take an interest in the arts, nurturing one of China’s most highly regarded and beautiful art forms to ever emerge. This Asia Week, Ming: The Intervention of Imperial Taste celebrates the involvement of the Ming court in ceramic production, the personal tastes of the emperors and the spirit of their reigns. Click ahead to read about the story of Ming porcelain and view highlights from this sale.

Ming: The Intervention of Imperial Taste

New York | 14 March

Ming: The Intervention of Imperial Taste

  • A fine blue and white barbed rim 'floral scroll' dish, Ming dynasty, Yongle period. Estimate $200,000–300,000.
    Blue and white underglaze decoration, a legacy from the Yuan dynasty, was developed into the refined blue and white for which the Ming period is so renowned. Large dishes such as the present example were an innovation of the Yuan period, and may suggest the Yongle emperor’s interest in creating porcelains suitable for export. However the bold and spontaneous designs characteristic of Yuan blue and white give way to subtler and more formalized motifs such as the stylized floral sprays on this dish, reflective of the emperor’s delicate taste.

  • An exceptionally rare Anhua-decorated Tianbai-glazed Meiping, Ming dynasty, Yongle period. Estimate $2,300,000–2,800,000.
    The present meiping is a brilliant example of two innovations of the Yongle period. Copying blue and white designs in low relief, anhua (“secret decoration”) design schemes are almost invisible unless held to the light. The tianbai (“sweet white”) glaze is a development from earlier monochrome white glazes, and also warmer and more luscious than transparent glazes used over underglaze-blue decoration. The color white also holds strong significance in Buddhist ritual ceremonies, which the Yongle emperor strongly patronized.

  • An exceptionally rare and important blue and white Moon Flask, Ming dynasty, Yongle period. Estimate $2,200,000–3,000,000.
    The Yongle emperor recognized the diplomatic potential of Chinese porcelain, which was highly sought-after throughout Asia and the rest of the world. Some of the best pieces produced during this period were officially shipped abroad or gifted to foreign diplomats. The movement of Yongle porcelains was strictly controlled by the court, and such wares were not available through usual trading channels that brought Yuan porcelains to the Middle East. Pieces such as the present moon flask, with its quintessentially Chinese design, would have been brought to faraway lands through the ambitious expeditions of Admiral Zheng He, where it would have been immediately recognized and coveted as a luxury good.

  • An exceptionally rare and large blue and white reserve-decorated ‘Peony’ dish, Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period. Estimate $1,000,000–1,500,000.
    Both literally and figuratively, the succeeding Xuande reign is characterized by a marked imperial interest in ceramic production. The generalized use of the emperor’s reign mark on porcelain suggests that production at the imperial kilns was almost exclusively for the palace. The present dish is ambitious even for the royal court, due to its large size, the technical expertise required for this design scheme and the high quality and quantity of cobalt needed.

  • A fine blue and white lobed 'Fruit and Flower' bowl Xuande mark and period. Estimate $600,000–800,000.
    Amongst connoisseurs, Xuande blue and white porcelain ranks amongst the highest of all such wares. The present fruit-and-flower design can be considered as one of the most successful and classic patterns from the Xuande repertoire. Technical mastery is combined with a sophisticated understanding of design elements to create a harmonious yet energetic design. 

  • A superbly painted rare blue and white 'Dragon' brush washer Xuande mark and period. Estimate $1,500,000–2,500,000.
    In a society like imperial China, writing, reading and the arts were of utmost importance. The Xuande emperor was one ruler who took an active interest in cultural pursuits, and would have utilized brush washers such as the present piece for both state and personal endeavors. With its imperial reign mark, subtle mallow form, and roundels of five-clawed dragons, such a piece would not have been accessible outside the court.

  • A fine green-enameled 'Dragon' bowl, Zhengde mark and period. Estimate $250,000–350,000.
    The technique of painting porcelains with overglaze enamels became widespread at Jingdezhen during the fourteenth century, and soon became one of the essential decorative processes during the Ming dynasty. One decorative scheme that emerged from the late fifteenth-century included green-and-white enameled wares decorated with dragons. This motif required the vessel to be fired twice; first the dragon was incised into the unbaked body and covered with a layer of wax, which would melt in the kiln when fired. The dragon would then be filled with green enamel and fired a second time at a much lower temperature, resulting in the appearance of a lively dragon leaping off the porcelain surface.

  • An exceptionally rare molded yellow-glazed 'Dragon' stembowl, Jiajing mark and period. Estimate $60,000–80,000.
    Porcelain stembowls such as the present piece would have been used to hold altar offerings. Sumptuary laws reserved the color yellow exclusively for imperial use, and this attractive yellow glaze was achieved by adding a small about of iron oxide into the glaze mix. Every stage of production had to be carefully managed, as the slightest irregularity would have resulted in the rejection of the piece.

  • A large and important Wucai 'Hundred Deer' vase, Wanli mark and period. Estimate $800,000–1,200,000.
    One of the last major additions to the artistic vocabulary of the Ming period was the development of wucai decoration, a combination of vibrant underglaze blue and overglaze polychrome enamels. This magnificent wucai ‘hundred deer’ vase embodies the bold and vigorous style of Wanli porcelain. Carrying numerous auspicious messages ranging from longevity to official salary and promotions, the hundred deer motif is also an innovation of the Wanli emperor’s reign, and continued to be utilized by succeeding emperors well into the Qing dynasty.

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