Sotheby’s Presents Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art in London

Sotheby’s biannual sale of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art in London will take place on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 and presents for sale over 220 lots.

The auction, estimated to realise approximately £4 million, will be headlined by a unique pair of Imperial gilt and patinated-bronze winter plum trees, their branches covered with perching cloisonné enamel magpies, and a selection of ten pieces of Song ceramics from the Collection of Francisco Capelo.

Robert Bradlow, Director and Head of Sotheby’s Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department, London, said: “Following the outstanding results achieved at Sotheby’s spring series of sales in Hong Kong – the company’s best ever in Hong Kong – which established some truly exceptional prices for rare and important Chinese works of art, we are delighted that our London auction will present for sale a range of remarkable objects that span from the Neolithic period through to the Qing Dynasty. London has traditionally been the selling centre for Song Ceramics and in May 2008 the Kempe collection – a group of some 138 Early Chinese White, Green and Black Wares – almost quadrupled its low estimate of £990,000 and we are delighted to once again be offering for sale such a fine group of Song Dynasty ceramics from the collection of Francisco Capelo.”

A spectacular Fine and Exceptionally Rare Pair of Imperial Gilt-Bronze and Cloisonné Models of Magpies in Winter Plum Trees, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period, comes to auction for the first time in their history (lot 63). Estimated at £500,000-700,000 and formerly in the collection of the Hon. Nellie Ionides (1883-1962) – elder daughter of Marcus Samuel, First Viscount Bearsted, who founded the Shell Oil Company – the two Chinese bronze trees with cloisonné enamel birds in the branches had pride of place in the Library at Buxted Park, Sussex. Nellie Ionides was a passionate collector who became a great friend of Jim Kiddell, a partner at Sotheby’s. One day in the late 1940s, Mr. Kiddell was asked by Francis Edgerton who ran Mallett’s in New Bond Street to go and look at the present group. He immediately recognised their exceptional quality and said he had a buyer in mind, namely Nellie Ionides. They have passed down through the family to her great granddaughter.

No other similar pair of gilt-bronze trees with cloisonné magpies appears to be recorded, making the present pair, created in almost mirror image, a unique example. Magpies are known as birds of joy and happiness and a flock of magpies perched on a bare tree generally symbolise the wish for the arrival of spring. The quality of the workmanship is evident in the finely modelled and expertly crafted birds, with particular attention paid to detail in a lively and vivacious rendering. These colourful magpies with long tails are called ‘birds with longevity ribbon’ (shoudainiao) and the exquisitely cast winter plum trees invoke the blossoming that the new season will herald.

An outstanding group of ten pieces from the Collection of Francisco Capelo features in the sale, with estimates ranging from £30,000 to £300,000. A keen collector, Francisco Capelo fell under the spell of ancient Chinese ceramics after seeing an exhibition of the Meiyintang Collection at the Museé Cernuschi in Paris, which highlighted some of the finest achievements of Chinese potters from the Song and earlier periods. From this he developed his approach to Chinese ceramics, guided by both personal taste and an astute appreciation of quality. Ceramics from the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279) have a timeless beauty that has been a revelation to many an experienced art collector. This was undoubtedly the peak period of the potter’s craft, where the possibilities of forming on the potter’s wheel, of improving and expanding body and glaze recipes, of fine-tuning firing methods, and of introducing decorative effects with the help of basic carving tools or carefully administered colouring agents were brought to the greatest perfection. The exact outcome of each piece varied, imparting an individual and distinct identity and attraction. Song ceramics belong to one of four different categories: white, green, black and bright blue-glazed stonewares.

Headlining the present collection is an Exceptional Ding-Type Russet- Splashed Black-Glazed Foliate Dish (lot 153) estimated at £300,000-350,000. The interior is covered in a rich black glossy glaze suffused with an irregular scattering of iron-oxide which creates the stunning effect of small ‘partridge-feather’ mottles, as in traditional Chinese connoisseurs’ eyes this type of glaze evokes the plumage of a partridge. The surface has a vibrancy that makes the whole vessel come alive. The elegant flower shape of this dish is unusual and no other similar example appears to be recorded.

Further highlights include a Fine and Rare Carved ‘Ding’ Bowl (lot 146, est. £120,000-150,000), notable for well defined deep carving of the design, a possible indication that the vessel was made for a special occasion, possibly as a wedding gift. The decoration comprising a pair of ducks in a lotus pond is rich in symbolism, with the ducks representing connubial bliss and loyalty. A Rare ‘Qingbai’ Buddhist Lion-Shaped Pillow (lot 150, est. £120,000-150,000) embodies the attributes of both male and female through the powerful Buddhistic lion with brocade ball in its mouth and small cub.

‘Jun’ is quite unique in the Song dynasty in being the only colourful ware of the period. A Fine and Rare Small ‘Jun’ Splashed Tripod Censer (lot 151, est. £60,000-80,000) is a fine example of its type. The blue colour is not the result of an added pigment, but rather an optical illusion, created by minute glass particles that have separated out in the fired glaze and scattered light in such a way as to produce this effect. Splashes of deep purplish-red derived from copper are applied to the glaze before firing, adding a flamboyant effect which would have had an immense appeal to the literati and nobility of the time. A Rare ‘Yaozhou’ Carved Celadon Bowl (lot 152, est. £60,000-80,000) and a Fine ‘Jun’ ‘Lotus Bud’ Water Pot (lot 145, est. £50,000-70,000) comprise other superb examples from the collection. A further example of the mastery over the use of glazes and potting techniques is evident in a Very Fine and Rare Flambé-Glazed Bottle Vase, produced by Qing craftsman (lot 126, est. £60,000-80,000). Notable for its impressive size and brilliance and depth of glaze, the present piece demonstrates further innovations and developments on some of the traditional Song glazes; in this instance, the flambé glaze is derived from the ‘Jun’ wares. The deep reddish-purple tone lightly mottled with milky pale blue is particularly impressive.

A Rare Large Twelve-Panel Painted Screen, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century (lot 40), painted in gouache on silk on a gilt ground, depicts a scene of phoenix and cranes flying and standing around a central magnolia tree, among flowering peony, plantain and rockwork (est. £80,000-120,000). The subject of bird-and-flower painting was much favoured by the literati from as early as the Song dynasty, when under the patronage of the Northern Song emperor Huizong (r. 1101-1125) the Imperial Academy was established. The subject matter of myriad birds including the sacred bird, the phoenix, in a natural landscape setting filled with lush greens and flowers of all varieties allowed the artist to display his skills and also functioned as a metaphor for society. The colourful birds represented the higher echelons of society while the smaller birds the common people. The phoenix symbolises the emperor or the empress and as such, all the other birds are depicted paying homage to it. Boldly painted with powerful colouration, screens of this type were used as important furnishing of halls and palaces and would have been placed in a prominent position dividing the space or used as a background setting.

The sale will also include a rare Cloisonné Enamel and Gilt Cup Stand of Xuande mark and period (lot 35, est. £100,000-150,000), unusual for the stylised wave rim, and a Fine ‘Doucai’ Butterfly and Peony Dish, Yongzheng Mark and Period (lot 209, est. £100,000-150,000). The design of butterflies and peonies has traditionally been a favoured motif in China for its highly auspicious qualities, with the peony symbolising wealth and honour, and the butterflies (hudie) representing the wish for ‘accumulation of blessings’ (fudie). Depicted together, they convey the powerful message for many blessings, wealth and high social status (fudie fugui). The present dish is remarkable for its fine potting and naturalistic painting style characteristic of the best Yongzheng wares. The design is also striking for its highly stylised rockwork, skillfully painted in washes of underglaze-blue reminiscent of traditional Chinese ink painting, and the flowers executed in the bright doucai palette of glossy overglaze enamels.

Image: Imperial Gilt-Bronze and Cloisonné Models of Magpies in Winter Plum Trees, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period (est. £500,000-700,000). Photo: Sotheby’s