Rare 1500 Year-Old Chinese Pilgrim Flask Resurfaces in Toronto
Updated: Jan 26
Wishing everyone a Happy New Year and hoping for a much better 2021. I've had a chance to relax over the holidays and now I'm back at work in my Toronto office. Hopefully the pandemic situation will settle down over the coming weeks as we get over this crazy extended lockdown.
For this blog I wanted to showcase one of the research projects I have been working on for the last two months. In addition to my appraisal work for estates and insurance companies, I also help auction houses and private clients research items they have in their possession. This may include more straightforward object identifications and valuations, but in some cases, more complex research is required.
The story of this particular object goes back to the summer when one of my Toronto clients and I came across an olive glazed pilgrim flask at a local auction. This object really caught our eye since very seldom do we see anything like this in the GTA.
The shape is definitely of Chinese origin and we felt the dating was Tang Dynasty (618-907) or earlier. But in our initial observation, the design looked almost Middle-Eastern or Central Asian because of the stylized interpretation of the dragon and phoenix. Having the two mythical beasts surrounded by large fruiting branches were also unusual in the Chinese vocabulary.
The provenance of this flask was quite impressive for an item that found its way to Toronto. It was once owned by my mentor H. H. Pao Xie 鮑恒发 (full-name Sear Hang Hwei Pao Xie) (1937-2009), whom some of you know I have been working on his vast estate of Asian artwork for the past five years.
Mr. Pao owned Toronto's famous Pao & Moltke antique store in the Yorkville area from the 1980's until the mid 2000's. Even though he dealt in a wide range of Asian Art, his main focus was Chinese early ceramics from the Han to Tang Dynasty, huanghuali furniture, jade carvings and scholar's art. He acquired the flask at Sotheby's London about 35 years ago and sold it to a Vancouver collector where it was hidden away until this past summer.
I first met Mr. Pao in 2006 while starting my Asian Art career at my first Toronto auction house called Ritchie's Auctioneers (the house went bankrupt because of very dubious bookkeeping in the summer of 2009).
One of my first jobs at Ritchie's was the administrator for their small Asian Art department. In those days, a 'good' Asian Art sale at a regional auction house would have brought in CAD 50-60k per season in total! This was a couple of years before the Chinese Art market really took off, and just looking back, it's incredible how far this category has grown in the past 15 years.
Back then, the Chinese art market in Toronto wasn't as sophisticated as it right now, and there were much fewer dealers, collectors, academics and connoisseurs in the city. Having a background in European art history, I was still a neophyte in my new field and really needed help from some of the experienced experts.
Mr. Pao was one of those who took me under his wing and not only helped me with the required connoisseurship in Chinese Art, but also guided me with my own career development. Some of the advice I keep to this day include the importance of knowledge, integrity and customer service, in addition to hoarding as many old auction catalogues and research books as humanly possible - even if they were duplicates!
A lot of our talks would be over cheap dim sum in China Town or roast chicken at his favourite restaurant in Little Portugal. He also supported my first few sales as both a consignor and buyer, even while he was terminally ill in the late 2000's. To say Mr. Pao's guidance was instrumental in developing my Chinese Art career would be an understatement, and I'll always be grateful for his support.
Anyways, back to the flask. So after its discovery at the auction house, I went back home to find as many similar comparables through the old catalogues I have hoarded over the years. The flask's dating was even older than we first expected, and was most likely from the Northern Qi to Sui Dynasty (550-618). I recommended the flask to my client with an anticipated price, and he in turn purchased it.
After paying for the flask, my client asked me to write a short research essay on the subject. (He also gave me permission to publish it on my blog). I had a few of the reference books available, but with Covid, all the East Asian libraries in Toronto were closed. I was eventually able to find some of the older books through online sources and put together the brief research essay below:
View 1 showcasing the 'phoenix' side of the pilgrim flask
View 2 of showcasing the 'dragon' side of the pilgrim flask
A Rare Olive Glazed Stoneware Pilgrim Flask
China, Northern Qi Dynasty to Sui Dynasty (550-618)
Heavily potted and of flattened heart-shape form and with a pair of loop handles on the shoulder, the body raised on a tall splayed foot and surmounted by a short neck rising to a thick rim, one side decorated with a dancing phoenix amidst large wavy plants bearing bunches of grapes, the other with an inverted three-clawed dragon, the glaze of an even brownish-olive tone. Height 23.5 cm (9 ¼ inches)
Sotheby’s London, 18 June 1985, lot 29
Pao & Moltke, Toronto
Private Collection Vancouver
Private Collection Toronto
Pilgrims flasks like the present example are known as bianhu which translates to a ‘flattened jar’. Travelers preferred these types of jars as storage containers for longer journeys because their lug handles were exceptionally functional.
Simply decorated prototypes of these types of flasks appeared in the northern parts of China during the 2ndand 3rd centuries. These were typically in the buff, with the occasional incised or painted geometric patterns. By the 6th Century, many of these flasks were coloured and had intricate moulded designs.
A design of a phoenix on these flasks is a typical motif of the 5th and 6th Centuries, but designs of dragons are exceptionally rare. In the last 1000 years, the combination of a dragon and phoenix China would symbolize the conjugal pairing of an emperor/empress (male/female), but from the Chinese Warring States Period to the Tang Dynasty, these creatures (in addition to the tortoise and tiger) were auspicious representations of the four cardinal directions in addition to the quadrants of heaven. These beasts were believed to inspire strength, fortune and perseverance.
The presence of large bunches of grapes and sinuous vines is an additional highlight to this flask. Sometimes mistaken as mulberry, these are in fact grapes vines cultivated for wine. Watson (1984) in his discussion about these vases state that they “have much of the Hellenistic tradition which was present specially in Khotan, Miran and Loulan, the cities of the southern Silk Road through Central Asia”.
In Chinese culture, grapes as an art motif were used for over 2000 years and typically signify the wish for an abundance of wealth and heirs. Here, they may have more of a Central Asian or Hellenistic symbolism that allude to the Bacchanal enjoyments of wine and the ecstasy of life.
Images with a dragon on these types of flasks are difficult to find as depictions of phoenixes are more common. Examples of phoenixes flanked by grape vines can be found on a similar example sold at Sotheby’s London, June 10 1986, lot 112 (Fig. 1), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Fig. 2), the Meiyintang Collection (Fig. 3), and British Museum in London (Fig. 4), with the latter once part of the collection of George Eumorfopoulos.
A brown-glazed stoneware flask
7th Century Height 23.2 cm (9 1/8 inches)
Sold at Sotheby’s London, 10 June 1986, lot 112.
Pilgrim jar with two loop handles
Sui to Tang Dynasty, late 6th to 7th Century
Height 21.9 cm (8 ½ inches)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Samuel T. Peters, 1926 (26.292.44). Image from Hare’s Fur, Tortoiseshell, and Partridge Feathers, page 83
Brown-Glazed Stoneware Pilgrim Flask
Sui Dynasty (581-618)
Height 21 cm (8 ¼ inches)
The Meiyintang Collection, Geneva, acquired from Sotheby’s London 14 November 2000, lot 119.
618-908 AD Height 23.5 cm (9.2 inches)
The British Museum, London, Formerly from the George Eumorfopoulos Collection (1936.1012. 253)
Similar flasks of this shape but with design of Central Asian dancers amidst grape vines can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago (Fig. 5) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fig. 6), while a smaller flask with green glaze and design of just grapes and also from the Eumorfopoulos Collection can be found at the British Museum (Fig. 7).
Sui or early Tang Dynasty, c. late 6th/7th Century
Height 24.1 cm (9 ½ inches)
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Lucy Maud Buckingham Collection, (1924.270)
Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577)
Height 24.1 cm (9 ½ inches)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. William P. Frankenhoff and Mrs. Richard E. Linburn Gifts 2001 (2001.629). Acquired from Christie’s New York, The Falk Collection I: Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 20 September 2001, lot 7
Tang Dynasty (618-908) Height 13.5 cm (5.7 inches)
The British Museum, London, Formerly from the George Eumorfopoulos Collection (1936.1012. 243)
Cox, Warren E. The Book of Pottery and Porcelain, Two Volumes. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1970.
Honey, William Bowyer. The Ceramic Art of China and Other Countries of the Far East. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1944.
Krahl, Regina. Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, Volume Three (II). London: Paradou Writing, 2006.
Mowry, Robert D. Hare’s Fur, Tortoiseshell, and Partridge Feathers. Cambridge: Harvard University Art Museums, 1996.
Watson, William. Tang and Liao Ceramics. New York: Rizzoli, 1984.