A RARE 250-year-old Chinese flask brought back to Britain by an Edinburgh shipping merchant has fetched nearly £1.5 million at auction.
The Imperial Chinese dragon “moonflask” was collected by Captain Charles Oswald Liddell, an Edinburgh-born businessman who went to Shanghai in 1877 and stayed in China for 36 years before returning to Britain in 1913.
The turquoise vase, with rampant red Imperial dragon, was one of fewer than five known to have been made for the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned from 1736 to 1795.
It had not been seen for almost a century.
A bidding war in the huge audience at Bonhams’ new Bond Street sale rooms saw its price rocket, and it was finally bought by a Hong Kong bidder, who paid £1,482,500 to “take it home”.
The flask is one of less than five such vessels known made for the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned from 1736 to 1795. A distinguished connoisseur of ceramics in his own right, the Qianlong Emperor presided over one of the greatest flowerings of Chinese art production, and pieces from this period are amongst the most highly sought-after today.
This flat-sided full-bodied flask – round like the moon, hence its name ‘moonflask’ in English and ‘baoyueping’ or ‘bianhu’ in Chinese– is also traditionally known as a ‘pilgrim’s flask’ in the West, since it takes its form from a Middle Eastern prototype for water flasks, which were often carried by travelers. The auspicious five-clawed Imperial dragon flying amongst clouds follows a traditional design dating back to the 14th century.
Collected in China by Captain Charles Oswald Liddell (1854-1941), the vase was brought back to England by him to his country house Shirenewton Hall, a Grade II listed house near Chepstow in Monmouthshire. The Liddell home provided a suitably impressive setting for this Chinese treasure, surrounded by parkland with views over the ‘Golden Valley’, the Bristol Channel and beyond to the Mendip and Quantock Hills.
Captain Liddell was based in China from 1877 to 1913, running his family’s firm for more than three decades whilst also developing his eye for and knowledge of Chinese art. He was fortunate to be present at a crossroads in Chinese history, just as 2,000 years of Imperial power was ending and Imperial pieces were becoming available to Western collectors astonished by their beauty. On his return from China, Captain Liddell created a Japanese Garden and erected an immense 1.5 ton temple bell under a pagoda roof on the east lawn, reflecting his appreciation of Asian cultures.
Mr Sheaf added: “This has been a fantastic way to inaugurate the new London saleroom with such a magnificent object achieving such a stunning price.”
Such vases are sought-after by a new generation of wealthy Chinese collectors eager to acquire a piece of Imperial history.