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Purchase Story

Letter from London, July 2017

Ian McKay | July 14th, 2017

Ian McKay, <[email protected]>

There’s a definite leaning towards Chinese works of art in this month’s selection, with some 2000 words in all devoted to the subject.

Elsewhere, this July “Letter” looks at a canine meteorite, a sumptuous binding for a very special Galileo book, a foxy car mascot, some oddly attractive blue shoes, snuff and tobacco boxes of distinction, Japanese netsuke, a set of Napier’s bones, and a few other things besides.


Renard the Fox, Untameable and, for many, Unaffordable

 Nowadays, the idea of leaving a car that boasts a Lalique mascot unattended for more than a few seconds is unthinkable, especially so if it were anything like the 8¼" long, clear and frosted glass fox seen here.

Such things were initially intended as caps to cover radiators but, as they became increasingly elaborate, car manufacturers seized the opportunity to use them as a means of displaying their own emblems or logos, while for the owners such mascots came to be seen as status symbols.

Between 1920 and 1931, René Lalique designed some 30 mascots inspired by nature—his animals, figures, insects, birds, a fish, and a star all intended to evoke associations with movement, speed, power, and mythology.

The Renard mascot seen here—emblematic of stealth, cunning, and conquest—is one of only a handful known to exist and in a special Lalique sale held by Christie’s on May 16, it sold for the sort of money that would today buy you a very, very smart car on which to flaunt it.

$316,295!


In Questionable Taste or Irresistible?

There may be those who think that the two items illustrated here, both of them part of one of Bonhams’ regular “Home & Interiors” sales, held April 25 and 26, are fussy, garish, or even vulgar, but like some of those bidding in the Knightsbridge rooms, others will find them great fun and appealing.

Seen below left is a Doulton Lambeth clock by George Tinworth and Hannah Barlow that stands a little over 8½" tall and presents a large, nautilus type shell that, as well as being a home for the clock, is decorated with seagulls in flight and resting on the waves. Around the base, cherubs ride seahorses. Unsigned, but dated 1879—and showing some restoration—this horological and ceramic oddity sold at $10,885.

The gilt-mounted Dunhill “Aviary” lighter seen below features an engraved and brightly painted Perspex body on which are depicted birds of paradise in black, silver, reds, and green, perched on leafy trees against a blue sky. It sold for $12,030.


"The Terrier from Outer Space"

I don’t know who came up with the name that serves as my headline, whether it was the finder, a previous owner, or even Christie’s South Kensington, who offered it as part of an April 27 “Science & Natural History” sale, but one can certainly see what they meant.

Roughly 8½" high and wide, the meteorite seen below, with a naturally formed eyehole and socket, is a celebrated zoomorphic example of the iron meteorites that mostly originate from the asteroidal bodies that briefly existed between Mars and Jupiter some four to five billion years ago, and whose shattered remains form the present asteroid belt.


The “Terrier” meteorite was sold for $88,220 by Christie’s South Kensington.

Recovered from the edge of the Kalahari desert, in what is now Namibia, it is one of the so-called Gibeon iron meteorites thought to have resulted from a meteorite shower that occurred thousands of years ago, when an enormous iron mass from the asteroid belt exploded into small fragments upon slamming into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

In times past, local tribesmen would fashion small shards into spear points or tools, but this exceptional find was made as recently as 1991 with the use of a modern metal detector. Once part of the Macovich collection of meteorites, it sold at $88,220.

Sold for $22,455 in the auctioneers’ South Kensington sale-room was the large Triceratops horn seen here.


This Triceratops horn from the famous Hell Creek Formation sold at $22,455.

Dating from the Maastrichtian, late Cretaceous period (68 to 65 million years ago), it is a brow horn from one of the more fearsome-looking dinosaurs, but one which—though named for its three-horned head and face—was in fact a herbivore, a vegetarian.

Recovered from the splendidly named Hell Creek Formation in North Dakota, it is 24½" long and has seen some facsimile casting before being mounted.

In the first ten years of the present century, no fewer than 47 complete or partial Triceratops skulls have been found in this one formation, leading paleontologist John Scannella to observe, “It is hard to walk out into the Hell Creek Formation and not stumble upon a Triceratops weathering out of a hillside.”

Among the scientific instruments and related lots offered in the London sale was a lovely ivory set of Napier’s bones, an early form of calculator that those of a mathematical and enquiring nature can learn to operate by resorting to Google.


The set of Napier’s bones sold at $27,270.

Of early 18th-century German origin, this 2¾" long set of bones comprises, at left, a broad rod (labelled RA:CVRICA) for cubes and squares, a single fixed multiplier rod, and 11 number multiplier rods—all of which can be contained in the gilt-tooled leather case. It sold for $27,270.


More Miniature Mastery from the World of Netsuke

It was in the February issue that I featured, under the headline “A Shaggy Dog Tale from the World of Netsuke,” a 2½" high netsuke of an excessively shaggy-looking bitch and her pup that had been very much the star, “estimate on request” attraction of a November 2016 Bonhams sale.

It had sold for $273,965 as part of the first portion to come to auction of a fine netsuke collection formed by American concert pianist and music teacher Julius Katchen (1926-1969) and his wife, Arlette.

When offered in the late ’60s as part of the final dispersal of the celebrated M.T. Hindson collection of netsuke, it was a piece that Julius Katchen had been determined to acquire, and though he sadly died a few months before the sale, it was purchased in his memory by his widow, who had shared her husband’s passion for netsuke and in later years continued to add to the collection, filling in perceived gaps.

The first of three further sales in which Bonhams planned to sell the remainder of the Julius and Arlette Katchen collection took place on May 10, and a few of the 200 lots offered are illustrated and briefly described here.

The star turn on this occasion was an 18th-century ivory netsuke of a recumbent ox, 2" long and almost as tall, that is signed Tomotada (A). It sold for a five-times high estimate sum of $192,915. Believed to be a unique model and possibly a collaboration between Tomotada and another master of netsuke carving, Masanao, this was another ex-Hindson piece.


A: Recumbent ox by Tomotada, $192,915.


B: Curled-up crane by Masanao, $87,395.

Definitely the work of Masanao, whose signature it bears, was a late 18th-century netsuke of a curled up crane (B), its neck bent and its head resting on one of its wings. Just under 2" in diameter, and formerly in the collection of Gordon Fox of Montreal, it sold at $87,395.

In 1964 Julius Katchen had surprised other netsuke collectors and specialist dealers, among them London’s Geoffrey Moss—who was bidding at a Kent country house sale for both Katchen and the eventual underbidder—by paying what would now be around $1225 for an ivory netsuke of a puppy (C). It set a netsuke record which stood for five years.


C: Puppy by Kaigyokusai Masatsugu, $38,840.

With one paw resting on a bird whistle, and with a knotted collar and lead trailing around its back, this 1½" wide netsuke is a mid- to late 19th-century piece by Kaigyokusai Masatsugu. This time it sold at $38,840.

Sold for $33,985, again much more than had been predicted, was a simple and amusing little, 1½" high 19th-century netsuke by Ohara Mitsuhiro of Daruma (D), a traditional figure representing Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. Here, Daruma is shown in familiar form, curled up and enveloped in what may be either a sack or his own voluminous robe.


D: Daruma by Ohara Mitsuhiro, $33,985.


E: Fish head by Ohara Mitsuhiro, $13,755.

A second and similar-sized netsuke by Ohara Mitsuhiro that sold for $13,755 features a severed and a startled-looking fish head in a stained shallow bowl that seems to me to be a mushroom cap (E).

One of the unexpected highlights of last November’s Katchen sale had been an Ohara Mitsuhiro netsuke of a sleeping owl that was bid to $54,235, some eight times the estimate. That, too, was illustrated in the February issue of M.A.D., but linked with an owlish cameo in a story titled “Little Owls Prove a Wise Investment.”


Elephant, Bat, Fish, and Pig--an Ideal Spread for Jaded Appetites

Carved from a fine white jade of translucent and even tone, with russet inclusions, a carving in which two small boys can be seen clambering up onto an elephant’s back (illustrated at right) was sold for $105,195 as part of a May 10, Sotheby’s sale called “Menagerie,” a 100-lot English collection of Chinese animal carvings that raised around $1.466 million.

A little over 4" long, this 18th-century piece was reckoned “particularly attractive for the sense of movement and liveliness that is captured through the twisting turning poses of the figures and of the elephant [in which] ...the craftsman has successfully captured various textures in a display of technical proficiency, such as the thick wrinkled skin of the elephant, the intricately embroidered cloth draped over its back and the smooth, plump faces of the boys.”

The carving, said Sotheby’s, is full of auspicious imagery—the motif of boys riding or climbing on an elephant representing the wish for good fortune. The phrase “ride an elephant” is apparently close in pronunciation to “good fortune” (jixiang).


The elephant and boys figure that led a Sotheby’s sale of a Chinese “Menagerie” on May 10 sold at $105,195.


Five bats on a brush rest that sold for $87,395.

Finely carved in the form of five bats with outstretched and interlocked wings—two nuzzling bats seen on one side and three facing each other on the other—a 2¾" wide white jade brush rest of similar age to the elephant figure made a far higher than expected $87,395.

A similar ten-fold increase on estimate was recorded when a white jade goldfish of the Qianlong period was bid to $84,155. Looking straight ahead and with a long lingzhi root (a prized medicinal herb) in its mouth, this plump, bulging-eyed fish with large fan tail and fins (seen below at right) is 3" long overall.


The overweight goldfish sold for $84,155.

For me, the mention of China and pigs tends to bring to mind the amusing 19th-century essay by Charles Lamb on how the Chinese came, by accident and an initial misunderstanding, to discover the joys of roast pork: “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig” in his Essays of Elia (1823).

In the real Chinese world, however, the pig had been domesticated (and cooked) for many thousands of years before Lamb had his little jest.

It is also the 12th animal in the Chinese zodiac, and it is possible that the plaque with a pig depicted above right is one of a set of 12 depicting the zodiacal animals. Just such a set can be found in collections of the Palace Museum in Beijing and another was sold nearly 30 years ago by Christie’s in Hong Kong.

This single plaque, an 18th-century piece, almost 3½" high and carved on the other face with a character reading hai(pig), was yet another lot that sold for far more than predicted at $89,010.


This pig on a plaque sold at $89,010.


Fanfare for Galileo’s Record-Breaking Discorsi…

Some time has passed since I slipped a book into these “Letters,” but a recent Paris sale contained something that I thought really did warrant inclusion—a quite stunning copy of Galileo’s Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche…. Following the publication in 1632 of his Dialogo..., Galileo had been hauled up before the Inquisition and tried for the heretical views he had put forward in that book.

The Dialogo… was a work which offered both a dangerous defence of the Copernican, heliocentric view of the solar system and one that contained a rather risky portrayal of his old friend and protector Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban III. As one of the three figures whom the book brings together to discuss the merits of Copernican proposal, Barberini takes the part of “Simplicius,” an adherent to the old Ptolemaic and Aristotelian theories.


The handsome red morocco gilt binding made for the dedication copy to François de Noailles of a 1638 first edition of Galileo’s Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche….

Inevitably, Galileo was found guilty at his trial, but though his original sentence of life imprisonment was commuted to house arrest, the printing of any of his works was forbidden and the Dialogo… itself remained on the Catholic Church’s list of banned books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, for another 200 years.

A distraught Galileo was eventually persuaded by a more sympathetic churchman, Ascenio Piccolomini, Archbishop of Siena, to put pen to paper once again and to produce a work that would pull together his life’s work in physics. Nevertheless, like the condemned Dialogo…, this too was presented as a discussion between three figures representing the old, the new, and the impartial views and beliefs.

Already forbidden to publish in Florence or Rome and unable to obtain a licence to print in Venice, arrangements had to be made to have the manuscript of this Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche… smuggled out of Italy. It went first to France, and thence to the House of Elzevir, the celebrated Dutch printers and publishers, from whose Leiden press it was issued in 1638.

On April 26, when some 300 books and manuscripts from the library of Jean A. Bonna were offered in Paris at the saleroom established by Pierre Bergé, the French industrialist, collector, bibliophile, auctioneer, and business and life partner of the late Yves Saint-Laurent, a remarkable copy of that Leiden edition in a beautiful “à la fanfare” binding of red morocco gilt by a craftsman known only as “Le Gascon” was sold for a record $794,165.

This was a first state copy of the work that had been specially bound for presentation to the dedicatee, François de Noailles, Comte d’Ayen, who as French ambassador in Rome had been the man who arranged for Galileo’s manuscript to be delivered to the Elzevirs.

The previous auction best for this work was around $70,000.


One, Two, Buckle My Shoe…No, Make That Three

Three delftware shoes, pictured here, were part of a glass and ceramics sale held by Bonhams on May 17.

The single blue-and-white high-heeled shoe (it stands just under 4" high overall) sports a prominent bow, is dated 1674, and is probably of London origin.

The earliest recorded English delftware shoes have lower heels, rounded tongues, and bows in low relief. Two are recorded bearing the date 1654 and a third is undated. This shoe, said Bonhams, appears to be the next in the chronology.


The single delftware shoe of 1674 that sold for $17,790 at Bonhams and, below, the pair of slightly later examples, dated 1695, that realised $19,410.

It is similar to those of the 1654 group in that it bears triangular patches at the sides, copying real shoes of the time that had open sides over which narrow latchets were fastened with strings. Following changing fashions, however, it differs in having a higher heel, a square tongue, and an exuberantly applied bow, a common feature of all the 17th-century examples recorded by Louis L. Lipski and Michael Archer in their 1984 book on Dated English Delftware.

This single shoe was sold for $17,790, and bid to $19,410 was the pair of delftware shoes, dated 1695, and bearing the initials “AB” to the tongues, that are illustrated here.

Catalogued as probably Brislington (Bristol) in origin, they are painted to a pale blue ground in dark blue, outlined in black, with birds, flower sprays and leaves.

Once part of the Frances L. Dickson collection, sold by Sotheby’s in 1954, they were last seen at auction in 1991, as part of the John Philip Kassebaum collection, again at Sotheby’s. Like the single shoe, they are illustrated in Dated English Delftware.

Delftware shoes, said the Bonhams cataloguer, seem to have no function other than as gift objects, often with amatory or marital associations. Their form reflects changing fashions in footwear, clearly shown by the chronological illustrations in the abovementioned reference work.

The present pair, with decoration in blue and black, are considered most unusual.


Snuff and Tobacco Boxes of Great Refinement

Both the snuffbox and the tobacco box featured in this piece formed part of a Sotheby’s sale of May 4 called “From Earth to Fire,” a catchy title that was coined a little while back for sales of certain ceramic and related lots.

The gold and enamel snuffbox seen here bears an “IB” maker’s mark, perhaps for James Bellis, and a London hallmark of 1767, though the two portraits that it presents are earlier.


This snuffbox decorated with early 17th-century miniatures of Robert Rich and his wife, Elizabeth, was sold for $88,605 by Sotheby’s.

On the lid is seen Sir Robert Rich (1685-1768) of Roos, or Rose, Hall in Suffolk, painted on enamel by the Swedish artist Charles Boit around 1710-15, while inside the lid is a portrait of his wife, Elizabeth Griffith, that is of similar age, or maybe a little earlier, and is the work of Christian Frederich Zincke.

Robert was a member of the powerful Rich family, Earls of Warwick and Holland, one of whom, Richard Rich*, was Lord Chancellor during the reign of Edward VI.

This Sir Robert had served with the Duke of Marlborough’s army as a very young man and it was probably at the Battle of Blenheim, while still barely 20 years old, that he lost his eye and had to wear the patch seen in his portrait.

Robert’s bravery on the battlefield brought him successive promotions but also led to his fighting a duel and being taken prisoner in Gibraltar before raising a regiment to combat the threat from the Jacobite rising in 1715—adventures that were regularly recounted in the London Gazette.

Obviously a survivor, Sir Robert Rich lived to be raised to Field Marshal in 1757 and soldiered on to the ripe old age, for the times, of 82.

This double-portrait snuffbox, the case chased overall with military trophies, had until very recently remained in the hands of his descendants but has now sold at $88,605.


The gold Dutch tobacco box of circa 1690 sold for $80,550.

Unmarked, but probably Dutch and dating from circa 1690, the gold tobacco box seen above, which sold for $80,550, is finely engraved to the cover with a putto seated astride a human skull and blowing bubbles, flanked on one side by a vase of flowers and on the other by a smoking urn above the legend “QVIS EVADET.” The underside is engraved with the initials “TP” in a monogram below a nobleman’s coronet.

The phrase “Quis Evadet?” (“Who will be spared?”) is taken from an engraving of about 1590 by Hendrik Goltzius and represents an allegory of transience and ultimate decay that was not only a favourite theme during the late 16th and 17th centuries, but—said the cataloguer—entirely fitting for the decoration of a tobacco box.

Goltzius’ engraving also included a verse that translates as:

“The fresh and silver flower,
fragrant with the breath of spring,
Withers at once, its beauty perishes:
So the life of man, already ebbing in the newly born,
Vanishes like a bubble or like fleeting smoke.”

Middleburg, in the Zeeland province of Holland, quickly became a major centre of Northern European trade in tobacco, thanks to the Dutch East India Company and its connections in the West Indies, where its growers began to produce their own tobacco.

Typical Dutch tobacco boxes, say Sotheby’s, were made of silver or copper, either for the tabletop or, of a smaller oblong form, for the pocket. This circular example in gold is extremely rare and no comparable box has yet been recorded, though a few circular English tobacco boxes of the period are recorded.

* Some M.A.D. readers, those with a taste for good historical mystery novels, may know Richard Rich from C.J. Sansom’s books featuring Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer-cum-detective, and many more will recognise him, as Riche, from Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. He also features in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons and in the film version was played by John Hurt.


An Auspicious and Bounteous Month for Chinese Works of Art

Star turn among the Chinese works of art sales held in London in May was to be found in a Christie’s auction of May 9, though there was no shortage of high prices, some of them entirely unexpected and unpredicted, in the sales held by Sotheby’s and Bonhams.

The Christie’s showstopper was a magnificent pair of famille rose “butterfly” double-gourd vases, bearing Qianlong six-character seal marks in underglaze blue and of the period (1736-95), that had emerged, out of the blue, from the home of a lady of aristocratic lineage.


The pair of Qianlong famille rose “butterfly” double-gourd vases sold for $19,054,150 at Christie’s.

“It was one of those wonderful eureka moments,” recounts Rosemary Scott, Chinese ceramics specialist and international academic director at Christie’s, in a piece about the vases that can be found online at (www.christies.com), along with a five- or six-minute video about them presented by Scott.

“My colleague Jeremy Morgan was on a perfectly normal valuation visit when he walked into the drawing room,” writes Scott, “and there, on the mantelpiece, he saw these vases. He couldn’t believe his eyes.”

Morgan knew instantly that they were something special and suggested to the owner that she should sit down before he explained just how rare and valuable were the vases, bought in the 1930s, that she had inherited from a forebear.

Made in the 18th century for the court of the Qianlong emperor, probably the greatest of all the Chinese art collectors, the two 9" tall vases are elaborately decorated to the bulbous lower sections with butterflies flying amid leafy floral sprays.

“There are lots of different clues you have to look for to ensure that the piece is genuine,” explains Scott. “These include the clay it is made from, the glaze, the enamels, how it is painted, and in what colours, because certain colours only appear at certain times.

“You also look at the shape…and in this case it is an auspicious shape, being associated with fertility and the new year. The auspicious meaning attached to most of the flowers seen in the Chinese decorative arts is due to the fact they will form a rebus, either alone, suggesting a particular wish, or in combination with another flower, or something else—such as a butterfly.

“To appreciate the quality of the painting we should look not only at the flowers, but especially at the butterflies,” Scott continues. “You get the impression of transparency in the wings, which flutter and catch the sunlight.”

Four other vases of this type are recorded at auction, but this was the first time that a pair had been offered. They were shown in New York City and Hong Kong before being offered in London and the end result was a winning bid of $19,054,150.

Sold for $317,030 in the Christie’s sale was a Guan-type, triple-lobed, double-gourd-form vase of the same period. Made in the form of three conjoined double gourds, rising to the conforming necks and applied overall with a pale greyish-blue glaze suffused with faint broad crackles, the vase is 7½" high.


This Guan-type, triple-lobed, double-gourd-form vase sold for $317,030 by Christie’s.

One of those shock results came with the sale’s last lot to be offered—a large Huanghuali display cabinet of uncertain date and catalogued simply as Qing Dynasty, which spans the years between 1644 and 1911.

Huanghuali pieces have certainly made high prices before at auction, and indeed have featured in these pages, but this one certainly made an unprecedented financial mark. Christie’s suggested that $100,000/150,000 might be about right, but it was bid instead to $2,335,670!


The Huanghuali display cabinet sold for $2,335,670 at Christie’s on May 9.

Sold for a treble estimate $2,031,090 at Sotheby’s on the following day was a large and very rare cinnabar lacquer dish of the late Yuan/early Ming Dynasty.

The interior of the 17½" diameter dish is superbly carved in deep relief through the thick red lacquer with a design of flowering branches of peony surrounded by chrysanthemum, prunus and other blossoming fruit trees, camellia, pomegranate, viburnum or hydrangea, gardenia, and lotus, each plant carefully picked out with incised details and all reserved on a yellow ground.

No stranger to Sotheby’s—though it has been over 50 years since it first came to auction there—it was in 1962 that it sold for what at today’s exchange rates would be $840, as part of the famed collection of Sir Percival David, and in the early 1970s it made two more appearances, selling at $2460 and $2070.

It was in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) that dishes of such massive size began to be created, and they continued to be produced to imperial order until the Xuande reign (1426-35) in the Ming Dynasty. Thereafter, monumental works of this kind were practically abandoned, said the saleroom.

The superb thick lacquer layer assembled for this dish from numerous individual coatings was only rarely re-created in later periods and the exuberance and complexity of the present design is exceptional, say Sotheby’s.

The different plants noted above are “…intricately interlaced, with stems passing under and over leaves, sometimes with three elements superimposed upon one another, the whole carefully laid out and neatly filling all available space while still revealing yellow ground throughout—all contributing to evoke a lush garden in bloom.”

The process of building up a thick enough layer of lacquer by adding and preparing multiple thin coatings, each of which needs to dry before it can be polished and the next one applied, and finally carving the design into it is one that can stretch over years.


The early, large and very rare carved cinnabar lacquer dish sold at Sotheby’s for $2,031,090.

The dish was billed by Sotheby’s as “one of the finest examples from the period when lacquer carving in China experienced its absolute peak,” and lacquer wares of this period, the late 13th and 14th centuries, are much, much rarer than contemporary porcelain—its laborious manufacturing process not lending itself to series production and dependent on the ability of a limited number of individual craftsmen. The names of some lacquer carvers from that period are recorded and this piece bears on the base the signature of Zhang Cheng, a celebrated carver of red lacquer. However, as such inscriptions were also added to later works, scholars are understandably reluctant to attribute pieces directly to his hand, or even to try to identify his style, said the cataloguer.

Sold at Sotheby’s for $586,185, over ten times estimate, was a 13¾" long white jade ruyi, or ceremonial sceptre, dating from the 18th or 19th century.


This white jade ruyi sceptre sold for $586,185 at Sotheby’s.

The terminal is carved in relief with two bats flanking a central shou character (signifying longevity) and the slender, elegantly arched shaft is carved with scrolled geometric motifs near the terminal and pierced at the end for threading a tassel. The translucent stone is of an even white to pale celadon tone with icy-white inclusions.

Given the number of times that Chinese works of art sell for sums that make a mockery of estimates, one hesitates to use the term “shock result” anymore, but I suppose the term really must apply to a 14" high figure of the Shakyamuni Buddha that in a May 11 sale held by Bonhams was bid to $1,098,600 against a valuation of just $13,000/20,000! A silver-inlaid bronze figure catalogued as Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it was said to have been acquired in China in the 1950s, since which time it has been in the same French private collection.

The 14" high figure of the Shakyamuni Buddha was sold by Bonhams for $1,098,600—many times the $13.000/20,000 estimate.

Always thought likely to bring a six-figure bid was an enormous 12-leaf screen, illustrated below full out and accompanied by a detail showing one of the decorative panels. It sold for $626,110—a mere four times the estimate.

An Imperial screen of the reign of the Jiaqing emperor (1796-1820) that is almost 12' wide x 5' high, it has a hardwood, possibly zitan, frame set with 64 famille rose porcelain plaques, all superbly enamelled with mythical imagery of Daoist immortals, auspicious flowers and birds, etc. that, said the cataloguer, are “laden with puns, rebuses and symbolic significance.”


The 12-leaf folding screen sold by Bonhams for $626,110 and, at left, a detail showing one of the porcelain panels with which it is decorated. Here, Xiwangmu, Queen Mother of the East, is seen flying overhead on a phoenix. According to legend, she lived in the mythical Western Kunlun Mountains, near the legendary Orchard of Immortality Peaches. Those peaches ripened only once every 3000 years, on which occasion Xiwangmu would hold a banquet at which the immortals could eat them and prolong their lives for another 6000 years. The three figures at the bottom are sages, gesticulating wildly at three bats, symbols of fortune.


Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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