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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Wu

$11.72 Million Yuan Dynasty Vase from the Tianminlou Collection Sells at Christie's Hong Kong

Updated: Apr 22

I hope everyone is looking for the Christmas holidays! I just got back from a long trip to East Asia where I was in Hong Kong for 8 days. On my way back to Toronto I stopped in Tokyo for 7 more days.


While in Hong Kong I visited the numerous actions that took place at the end of November. This included the big sales at Christie's and Bonhams, and a smaller online sale at Sotheby's. I also managed to visit a couple of museums including the blockbuster 'Gazing at Sanxingdui: New Archaeological Discoveries in Sichuan' at the Hong Kong Palace Museum.


For this trip, the most important auction took place at Christie's at the Hong Kong Convention Centre where the Tianminlou 天民楼 Collection was featured.


The Tianminlou Collection was formed during the 1960's by Ko Shi Chao (葛士翹) (1911-1992), a Shanghai and Hong Kong businessman born in Chengdu. He owned factories that produced electrical appliances. After developing strong ties with international dealers and auctions, the collection during the 1980's became mainly recognized for its exquisite porcelain from the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties.


In 1987, highlights of the collection were exhibited for the first time at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. The exhibition was complemented with the iconic two volume catalogue 'The S. C. Ko Tianminlou Collection' written by the late John Ayers.


This set of books was one of the most famous exhibition catalogues on Chinese porcelain ever produced. If you study this subject, it will be one of the first books you seek when building your library.


Chinese Porcelain: The S. C. Ko Tianminlou Collection by John Ayers, from the library of Anthony Wu

Image 1. Here iss a photo of my 1987 Tianminlou Collection exhibition catalogues. They are instantly recognizable because of the navy blue cloth covers and the silver embossing. (I have the original case as well, but after years of usage, it is not fit to be photographed.)


When S. C. Ko passed away, his son Ko See For 葛師科 oversaw the Tianminlou Collection. The younger Ko would loan objects from the collection to museums including important exhibitions in Taipei (1992) and Shanghai (1996).


Both the elder and younger Ko's were for many years chairmen of Hong Kong's prestigious Min Chiu Society 敏求精舍. The society was formed in 1960 with forty members (mostly collectors), and met monthly to discuss advances on Chinese art connoisseurship.


The Min Chiu Society put together public exhibitions approximately every 5 years of which many of the Tianminlou objects were the highlights. Currently, the Tianminlou Collection is still known in Chinese art circles as one of the finest ever assembled that is still in private hands.


Image 2. I had the honour of visiting the Tianminlou Collection numerous times over the past 20 years. Here's a photo from May 2014 where I was holding their famous Chenghua blue and white 'palace' bowl. This was the first time I handled one of these rare bowls since there are so few of them in private collections or appearing at auction.


Produced during the Chenghua reign (1465-1487) of the Ming Dynasty, these bowls are renowned for their delicate potting, soft blues and graceful floral motifs.


Behind me you can see a large Yuan Dynasty blue and white charger in the display case. Even though the Tianminlou Collection is famous for having top representative porcelain wares from each reign, their blue and white objects really stand out.


Tianminlou auction catalogues from China Guardian and Sotheby's from the library of Anthony Wu

Image 3. I've visited the Tianminlou Collection six times throughout my career, so it was bittersweet to see some of the top pieces being sold off. There have been some sales from the collection including a sale at China Guardian in Beijing on 3 March 2019 and Sotheby's in Hong Kong on 3 April 2019.


Catalogues with the Tianminlou Yongle blue and white moon flask featured at Sotheby's and the Shanghai Museum, from the library of Anthony Wu

Image 4. Most recently a single object of from the Tianminlou Collection - a Magnificent Yongle Blue and White Moon Flask - was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 9 October 2023.


This moon flask was a sight to behold with its Middle Eastern influence, graceful form, and wonderful painting. It set a very high price for an early Ming Dynasty Yongle Period (1403-1424) blue and white vessel, selling at HKD 85,618,000 (approximately CAD 15 million).


This vase has been extensively published and was featured on the cover of the collection's 1996 Shanghai exhibition (right photo).


Christie's Hong Kong November 2023 catalogue of the Tianminlou Collection, from the library of Anthony Wu

Image 5. Here is the rare Tainminlou Collection catalogue at Christie's Hong Kong this sale season. (I say 'rare' because only small number of these books were produced). In total, 15 porcelain objects from the collection were offered. These included blue and white, wucai 五彩 (five colour) and monochrome pieces.


Christie's Hong Kong Yuan Dynasty Blue and White Meiping Vase from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 7a. The star of the Christie's Tianminlou auction was this incredible blue and white meiping vase from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). Meiping 每瓶 (plum blossom) vases are named because they were supposed to hold a single branch of plum blossoms.


This meiping has a beautiful design of lotus blooms and scrolling vine, and the shoulder depict large ruyi-form lappets containing more florals. It was extensively published and part of Chinese art exhibitions in Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo and Beijing. This vase was originally purchased for a very large sum of GBP 286,000 at Sotheby's London, 10 December 1985, lot 191.


Also of note for this Yuan meiping was that it came with the all-important cover, which are missing from 99% of these vessels. The estimate of HKD 20/30 million dollars was considered conservative, and this vase ended up selling for HKD 67,775 million (approximately CAD 11.72 million).


Base of the Christie's Hong Kong Yuan Dynasty Blue and White Meiping Vase from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 7b. The base of the Yuan Dynasty blue and white meiping vase (and the cover). You can see all the past exhibitions stickers.


Anthony Wu examining the Christie's Hong Kong Yuan Dynasty Blue and White Meiping Vase from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 7c. An image of me carefully examining the Yuan Dynasty meiping from the Tianminlou Collection.


The rare cover of the Christie's Hong Kong Yuan Dynasty Blue and White Meiping Vase from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 7d. And finally, a rare chance to examine an actual cover of a Yuan Dynasty vase! The lovely finial resembles a candle flame and the sides are painted with lotus lappets.


A Large Blue and White 'Grapes' Charger from the Yongle Period at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 8a. Also up for sale at the Christie's Tianminlou sale was this large and rare 'grapes' barbed rim charger from the Yongle Period (1403-1424). The blue tones are exceptionally vibrant and the foliate rim are seldom seen for this type of porcelain. This charger was most likely a Ming court tribute piece to the Middle East.


The charger was estimated at HKD 8/10 million and sold for HKD 26.996 million (approximately CAD 4.63 million).


Base of a Large Blue and White 'Grapes' Charger from the Yongle Period at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 8b. A detail of the early Ming charger's base. They are often highly polished and have an extremely smooth feel.


A Rare Blue and White 'Figural' Bowl from the Xuande Period at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 9a. One of my favourite items at the Tianminlou auction was this finely painted blue and white 'figural' bowl with Xuande mark and period (1426-1435). The quality of the painting is exceptional and it depicts ladies sitting in a garden. Around the female figures are well-painted bamboo and clouds.


There exists very few examples of Xuande bowls containing figures and it was such a pleasure to be able to examine one from such an esteemed collection. This bowl was estimated at HKD 15/18 million and ended up selling for HKD 18.525 million (approximately CAD 3.25 million).


Interior of a Rare Blue and White 'Figural' Bowl from the Xuande Period at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 9b. An interior view of the Xuande bowl and its even white tone.


Base and Reign Mark of a Rare Blue and White 'Figural' Bowl from the Xuande Period at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 9c. And a view of the Xuande bowl's base and its six-character reign mark 大明宣德年製 which translates to 'made in the Xuande reign of the Ming Dynasty'. You can also see the details of the figures in their palatial garden.


A Blue and White 'Flowers of the Four Seasons' Moon Flask from the Yongzheng Period at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 10a. Many Qing Dynasty objects were on display in the Tianminlou sale like this beautiful blue and white 'flowers of the four seasons' moon flask from the Yongzheng Period (1723-1735).


The form and design are based on early 15th Century Ming Dynasty prototypes, and like the other pieces from the collection, the moonflask was extensively exhibited. There was a lot of interest in this piece as evidenced by the final price of HKD 32,440,000 (approximately CAD 5.7 million) against an estimate of HKD 18/26 million.


Reign Mark and Old Exhibition Stickers from a Blue and White 'Flowers of the Four Seasons' Moon Flask from the Yongzheng Period at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 10b. A view of the moonflask's base and its six-character reign mark 大清雍正年製 which translates to 'made in the Yongzheng reign of the Qing Dynasty'.


A Blue and White 'Scrolling Floral' Basin from the Yongzheng Period at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 11a. On the subject of Qing porcelain wares imitating Ming Dynasty prototypes is this blue and white 'floral scroll' basin from the Tianminlou Collection at Christie's. The exterior contains a large frieze of scrolling vines while the interior has a central motif of a geometric medallion. The rim contains a fine band of crashing waves and ocean sprays.


Sometimes called a 'hat form' basin because of the unique shape, this particular example was produced during the Yongzheng Period (1723-1735). The auction estimate of HKD 6-8 million may have been a bit aggressive for this piece since the final price for the basin as HKD 5.767 million (approximately CAD 1.01 million).


Interior of a Blue and White 'Scrolling Floral' Basin from the Yongzheng Period at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 11b. A view of the basin's interior and its different types of Ming-style decorations.


Reign Mark of a Blue and White 'Scrolling Floral' Basin from the Yongzheng Period at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 11c. A detailed view of the basin's six-character reign mark 大清雍正年製 which translates to 'made in the Yongzheng reign of the Qing Dynasty'. This porcelain piece was also very well exhibited.


A Chinese Celadon Kui Dragon Vase with Qianlong Mark at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 12a. Even though there were so many more porcelain pieces from the Tianminlou Collection that I had the pleasure of examining, I wanted to finish off with this beautiful celadon glazed 'kui' dragon vase with Qianlong mark and of the period (1736-1795).


The proportions are extremely graceful and the carved design of archaistic dragons is quite lovely. This vase sold for HKD 22.155 million (approximately CAD 3.89 million) against an auction estate of HKD 12/20 million.


Base and Reign Mark of a Chinese Celadon Kui Dragon Vase with Qianlong Mark at Christie's Hong Kong from the Tianminlou Collection

Image 12b. The base of the vase and its impressed six-character reign mark 大清乾隆年製 which translates to 'made in the Qianlong reign of the Qing Dynasty'.


Large Tibetan Densatil Monastery Gilt Copper Figure of Virupaksha at Bonhams Hong Kong

Image 13a. It was more than just viewing the Tianminlou Collection during my visit to Hong Kong this season. Over at Bonhams at their Pacific Place gallery was one of the most impressive Himalayan artworks I have ever seen. And this includes from museums too!


Up for auction was a Tibetan gilt copper figure of the Buddhist deity Virupaksha, the Guardian of the West. Here he is in contrapostto (counter-balance) stance while wearing ornate armour and holding a snake in his left hand.


This figure would have been attached to one of the big stupas (Buddhist architectural mound) at the famous Densatil site, a monastery that flourished during the 15th Century in Tibet. He stands at an incredible 73 cm high and is one of the largest examples of any Tibetan gilt copper sculpture.


The Virupaksha sculpture was estimated at HKD 35/55 million and realized a price at the low end of HKD 37,964,000 (approximately CAD 6.7 million).


Reverse of a Large Tibetan Densatil Monastery Gilt Copper Figure of Virupaksha at Bonhams Hong Kong

Image 13b. A view of the figure's reverse and the openings where he would have been attached to the side of the Densatil monastery.


Detail of the Face of a Large Tibetan Densatil Monastery Gilt Copper Figure of Virupaksha at Bonhams Hong Kong

Image 13c. Detail of the Buddhist guardian Virupaksha's face. You can see his fierce expression and fanged teeth.


Detail of the Chest Plate of a Large Tibetan Densatil Monastery Gilt Copper Figure of Virupaksha at Bonhams Hong Kong

Image 13d. A close up of the figure's snake and armour. There are so many details in the arm and shoulder guards, and the large plate on his chest contains turquoise and lapis lazuli inlays.


Thank you again for reading this blog and I hope everyone has a happy holiday! My next post will be in the New Year as I go through some of the museum highlights I saw in Japan this past trip.


And hopefully I will be staying put for the next few weeks before I start going on my appraisal trips to Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa. I need a rest! And as usual, you can follow me on my Instagram @anthonywuart.com.

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