A Christie’s Sale of Imperial Chinese Porcelain Could Inject New Life into a Fragile Market

On September 21 at Christie’s, Marchant, the venerable London-based dealer of Asian art, is selling eight pieces of imperial Chinese porcelain they hope will reinvigorate the once-booming Western market for these ceramics. 

The sale sparks interest on multiple fronts. Marchant is a London-based dealer specializing in this exact sort of thing, and has been since 1925, so its collaboration with a house like Christie’s is unusual.

Also, the works headed to sale date to around the time of the ascension of Wanli (1573–1620) as emperor. According to Samuel Marchant, this was an era of very notable porcelain for the late Ming Dynasty, as quality of production fell sharply toward the end of Wanli’s reign.

Marchant knows his stuff. His great-grandfather was Samuel Sidney Marchant founded the firm, and Richard Marchant, Samuel’s grandfather, joined the family business at the age of 17 in 1953.

On the phone with ARTnews, Samuel spoke of the differences between early, middle, and late Ming dynasty porcelain and between Imperial porcelains made “during the reigns of Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong, who are three of the three most prominent and famous emperors of the Qing Dynasty.”

Recently, porcelain from the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty that has proven most valuable. One notable example is the $36 million “chicken cup” purchased in 2014 by Liu Yiqian, one of China’s biggest art collectors. A Reuters report called the cup one of the “most sought-after items in Chinese art, viewed with a reverence perhaps equivalent to that for the jeweled Faberge eggs of Tsarist Russia.” (Liu paid for it with his AmEx card, which he had to swipe 24 times, and went on to drink tea out of it.)

Marchant says the reason there are so few pristine examples of porcelain from Wanli’s reign is that “toward the end the emperor, and the country, were essentially going bankrupt.” Between 1590 and 1600, what is considered the middle of the Wanli reign, China became embroiled in wars and rebellions, and the once prosperous country began to suffer under a newly solipsistic emperor, which may have led to the decline in quality porcelain production. To Marchant and his gallery, that drop in quality means the early Wanli era hasn’t really gotten the attention that it deserves.

The highlight of the sale is the Keswick “Hundred Deer” Jar, which is estimated to fetch $700,000–$900,000. The jauntily decorated jar, which shows all manner of blue, red, yellow, and green deer playing in a forest, nuzzling with one another and wading through a stream, was purchased by Richard Marchant at an estate sale in Surrey, England, in 1967.

It has been kept safely in storage ever since, Marchant says, until being unveiled for the Christie’s sale. For years the only information available about the jar apart from the tell-tale Wanli mark on the jar’s bottom—six Chinese characters in underglaze blue surrounded by two circles. But, while preparing for the sale Marchant traced the ownership back to William Keswick, a prominent 19th-century English business man with Jardine Matheson based in Hong Kong.

Keswick held various posts during his time in China, at times sitting on the city’s Legislative and Executive Councils and Consul for the Kingdom of Denmark in Hong Kong. His influence in the city was enough for they to be a street named after him. Similar examples of the jar are in the collections of the National Palace Museum in Taipei and Tokyo National Museum.

Courtesy Christie’s

Like the “deer jar,” the other seven pieces in the collection are exceedingly rare, Marchant says, with known examples belonging to museum collections. A large bowl decorated with a lotus and “eight Buddhist treasures” titled Doucai Bajixiang is one of only four known examples in the world.

The sale is part of a nine-auction Asian Art Week at Christie’s, running from September 19–28, that includes five Chinese works of art sales. Live bidding is set to commence September 21, which not coincidentally marks the 450th anniversary of Wanli’s ascension. But that isn’t the only reason for the sale. 

“It’s actually something that we’ve been thinking about for about five years now, perhaps a little longer,” Marchant said of the sale. “We’ve been waiting for the right time and the right reason.” That reason is that the collection is of “significant scholarly and academic importance” to warrant being in an institution or museum. For that, they need the kind of exposure a global entity like Christie’s can bring.

Collecting Chinese porcelain has had a cyclical nature. In the early 20th century, it was treasured by modern giants of industry in the West with names like Rockefeller and J.P Morgan. In Sweden, Chinese porcelain collected took hold in the 17th century with King Gustaf VI Adolf, who died in 1973, amassing a collection of over 2,600 pieces. 

“There has been a premium put Imperial Chinese porcelain, especially from the Ming Dynasty, since the 19th century on in the West,” says Eric Zetterquist of Zetterquist Galleries in Manhattan, which specializes in ceramics from all across East Asia. “Since the 80s and 90s the primary buyers have been in Japan, and of course, China.”

One wonders then if there is room for rare and delicate Chinese tableware in a world where heads are often only turned by multimillion-dollar painting sales and Instagramable moments. If so, this could be the collection that proves it.