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Feat of Clay
Christie's Auction of Ceramics in Hong Kong, by Uma Nair


Ming underglaze copper-red vaseArtifacts redolent of myth, mystery and majesty. Christie's Auction of Ceramics at Hong Kong said everything about the power of perfection to the tender process of achieving the subliminal essence in the firing of age old techniques that seeked to capture the infinite in tenuous dictums of technical virtuosity.

To celebrate 20 years of their presence in Hong Kong Christie's brought forth a collection of ceramic ware that exemplified history and embraced nostalgia. From the word go it was all eyes on the Early Ming under glaze Copper Red Vase a great masterpiece of Hongwu porcelain. Every aspect of its manufacture has been successful,' says Rosemary Scott senior academic consultant at Christie's Asian departments, from being thrown on the wheel, the choice and execution of its decoration ,the application of its glaze, to its final firing',

Finally after much speculation and feverish bidding this Ming Vase went down to the hammer for an astounding HK$78,520,000, US$10,207,600.

For its pedigree and its persona this rare Yuhuchunping , Hongwu Period (1368-1398) piece was sold to Mr. Steve Wynn, Chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts who has announced that he will be donating this exceptional piece to a museum in Macau. ` In view of the importance of this piece, we are particularly thrilled that it will be returning to China where it can be enjoyed and appreciated by the maximum number of students and art lovers' said Christie's.. The vase realized HK$78,520,000, a world record price for Ming porcelain.

The buyer, Mr. Steve Wynn (left), Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Wynn Resorts (Macau), and Mr. Edward Dolman (right), Chief Executive Officer of Christie’s International with the early Ming underglaze copper-red vase which realized an astonishing HK$78,520,000 in The Imperial Sale held at Christie's Hong Kong today (30 May), setting a world auction record for any Ming porcelain.

What makes this piece a gem of purest ray serene? The use of copper to produce red on high fired ceramics has from its first appearance in the Tang dynasty provided a formidable challenge to the potter. The process of producing the desired colour is so sensitive that great care has to be taken with the composition of the base glaze, the percentage of copper, the temperature and degree of reduction in the firing and the placement of vessels within the kiln. In fact research shows that the copper red decoration was discovered empirically or by accident. This vase is undoubtedly is one of the finest examples of under glaze porcelain to have been made during the Hongwu reign.`It is remarkable that it has fired so perfectly and even more remarkable that it has survived in excellent condition to the present day,' says Scott.

Collectors in Hong Kong seemed to be excited to hear the news of the new world record set by the Ming ware and soon they sat and went back in time talking of the yesteryear. How Hong Kong's impending change from British to Chinese Communist rule had led to an exodus of Chinese art, with residents sending their collections overseas out of fear that China may prevent the export of items deemed to be cultural patrimony.

The second highest bidding in the ceramic and Imperial auction was nabbed fairly and squarely by an extremely rare blue and white 'three friends' jar, Guan, Yuan Dynasty, mid-14th century exquisitely painted globular jar that went for HK$21,400,000, US$2,782,000.

It was imminently clear those transition periods that bridge the abyss from one culture to another hold a special fascination to our society. Chinese firing techniques changed according to tastes and influences of rulers. Objects d'art of any size and significance appeared to substantially have a link between the spread of an empire and the formulation of a new culture.

The next highest bid was an important Ming blue and white jar, Guan, Chenghua six-character mark within double-circles and of the period (1465-1487) that sold for HK$16,920,000, US$2,199,600.

Collectors and connoisseurs alike have revered the Chenghua reign this jar was a product of greater refinement of raw materials and better preparation. The fact that it had as little iron impurity resulted in whiter body material. According to studies there was also slight adjustment in the composition with the proportion of clay to baidunzi (china stone) being increased so that so that there was more alumina and less calcia to produce honey white body which could be fired at a slightly higher temperature than previous porcelains and was thus more vitrified. The glaze on this jar was improved by reducing the amount of flux in the glaze which allow it to mature at a higher temperature enabling more of the residual batch material to be dissolved in the glaze during firing. This produced a smooth glossy glaze with minute bubbles evenly distributed. This gives the glaze its much admired unctuous jade like texture, while the tiny bubbles produce a soft appearance without masking or distorting any decorating beneath. A reduction in the amount of iron in the glaze resulted in a cleaner clearer glaze. The persistence of colour texture and style of painting of the cobalt blue is in keeping with another feature of the Chenghua style. This jar reflected therein the magic of Chinese Cobalt.

Hexagonal Dragon VaseThe sale proved to be the awakening of an ephemeral treasure trove, with ceramic ware reflecting the prowess and aesthetics leanings of varied dictums of dynasties. A superb Imperial blue and white hexagonal 'Dragon' vase, Qianlong six-character sealmark and of the period (1736-1795) went for HK$13,560,000, US$1,762,800.

Tall slender and hexagonal this painted entity with a full faced dragon grasping a shou medallion above a brand of archaistic cicada blades was a quaint piece that had embellished key frets and a tall waisted neck with a shou character between archaistic foliate dragon motifs above and below. What stood out in this piece was not only its novelty of form but the brilliance of the cobalt blue.

With a fantastic collection of an amazing number of ceramics on sale this auction was also about learning about different genres in the Chinese period of porcelain and clay firing. During some periods, the Chinese porcelain maker's art attained a complexity that mirrors the conflicting influences at work. The aesthetics of the Song dynasty preceding the Yuan rulers had been about daintiness of form, hue and pattern. The Mongol domination, which extended over China and the Iranian world, signaled the end of the Song ideal in the Chinese art of the object. Palace wares became huge, the colors intense and contrasted and patterns crisply arrayed and outlined. The Yuan wares reveal from Day One a cultural revolution which the Ming who overthrew them nevertheless perpetuated.

Even the porcelains that supposedly maintained earlier tradition reveal a change of sensibility. There were some ravishing bottles of so-called pear shape more heavily potted and the pale greenish (qingbai) glaze, much loved in Song times. The radical change of orientation came out most strikingly in entirely new categories.

The contrasting tonalities and the sculptural handling of the dragons and the frets made the sale have a vigor that was rare to see.

The most spectacular expression of the aesthetic revolution was the blue-and-white porcelain and this sale reflected the fact that Ming porcelain makers were boldly innovative across the border. In the early 15th century, they used copper oxide to produce the first red-glazed ceramics. Some are monochrome; others are decorated with dragons reserved in white on the outer sides. From rounded shoulders to waisted necks to flared mouths and penciled styles this auction that celebrated 20 years of Christie's in Hong Kong became an exercise in the patronage of ceramic arts that flourished well before our modern times.

Uma Nair

Thanks also to Janice Yeung, Christie's Hong Kong - Public Relations Department. Images © Christie's.

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