Asian Antiques Appraisals And Valuations

Yongle Ewer Expected to Break Records at Sotheby’s Auction

A 600-year-old Chinese ewer, originally created for the Ming Dynasty’s Emperor Yongle, is expected to set a new auction record at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on April 8th. The 9-inch tall, blue-and-white jug features a clawed dragon design and was crafted between 1402 and 1424. Nicholas Chow, an expert in Chinese art, describes it as “one of the most iconic imperial porcelains we have sold in 50 years.”

The porcelain ewer, created for personal use by Emperor Yongle, has not been on the market for almost 40 years. The only extant blue-and-white example of this design, it was previously part of the celebrated T.Y. Chao collection before being sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 1987 for HK$5.72 million. It has been in a private collection for 36 years and is expected to spark a bidding war at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, with a pre-sale estimate of £8.3 million.

Blue-and-white porcelain pieces from the Yongle and Xuande periods of the Ming Dynasty are highly sought after. The blue color was created using the Smalt or Samarra cobalt imported from Persia, which was scarce at the time and used sparingly. These cobalt pigments, rich in iron oxide, resulted in darker blue spots in certain areas of the surface, known as ‘heaped and piled.’

The ewer’s five-clawed dragon motif, rendered in an agitated swerving pose, is a familiar sight on imperial Ming porcelain. Scholars believe the shape of the ewer was inspired by Middle Eastern metal prototypes used among nomads. This design was only adopted in the Xuande period, and it became the blueprint for all later dragon-decorated imperial porcelains.

While there are other pieces of similar shape and painting style, this ewer is the only extant example of its design. An undecorated pure gold ewer from the mausoleum of Prince Zhuang of Liang (1411-1441), and an imperial gold ewer of the same shape, decorated with incised five-clawed dragons, are the closest in shape to this piece. The latter is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while the former bears an inscription indicating it was made by the imperial Jewelry Service.


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