• Fine Chinese Ceramics and Work auction at Christies

    Sale 7762

    Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art

    3 November 2009, London, King Street

  • Lot 186



    Price Realised  


    The vessel supported on five elephant-head legs connected by a circular stretcher and raised on a cup-stand base with spreading stem, the exterior of the censer decorated with five applied flowers moulded in shallow relief, the pierced cover with similar floral motifs between stems supporting the bud finial, glazed blue and amber with straw splashes
    8¼ in. (21.5 cm.) high

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    The result of Oxford Authentication Ltd. thermoluminescence analysis test, no.C101j69, is consistent with the dating of this lot.

    Complete censers of this type are extremely rare, and this example would have been additionally prized, since its glazes include blue, coloured with imported - and hence expensive - cobalt. The central section of a similar Tang sancai censer, also standing on five legs and with sprig-moulded, five-petalled, flowers applied around the vertical walls, is illustrated by M Sato and G. Hasebe in Sekai toji zenshu 11 Sui, Tang, Shogakukan, Tokyo, 1976, pl. 222. However, this censer was decorated only in green, amber and cream glazes, without the cobalt blue of the current vessel. The central section of another Tang sancai censer with five legs and sprig-moulded, five-petalled, flowers is illustrated in the same volume, plate 81. The latter vessel also lacks cobalt blue glaze, but the body of the censer is made of marbled clay. The shape of the current vessel also shares points of resemblance with the well-known underglaze iron painted Yue ware censer excavated in 1980 from the tomb of Lady Shuiqiu at Lin'an, Zhejiang province, which is dated to AD 901 (illustrated in hongguo wenwu jinghua daquan - Taoci juan, Taipei, 1993, p. 229, no. 181).

    The latter Yue ware censer has legs on the form of monster masks above single feline paws. However, the majority of decorative legs on Tang dynasty sancai censers simply resemble the large paws of a feline, but interestingly those of the current censer and the two sancai censers mentioned above are all more specific in their design. The green, amber and cream example has feet in the shape of humans, supporting the censer on their shoulders, while the legs of the marbled censer appear to be leaping felines. The legs of the current censer, however are comprised of elephant heads with the trunk held downwards and a foot on either side. Elephant heads are very rare on Tang dynasty ceramics, but would have been entirely appropriate for a censer in a Buddhist context, since the Bodhisattva of Universal Virtue Samantabhadra (Puxian) is often depicted seated on an elephant, and an elephant could even symbolise the Buddha, with specific reference to his miraculous birth. A Buddhist figure riding on an elephant appears in one of the murals in a Tang dynasty cave at Dunhuang. Modelled elephant heads can be seen in high relief on the sides of a Tang dynasty sancai jar with lotus base and stupa-shaped lid, which was excavated in 1959 from a tomb at Xi'an, Shaanxi province (illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan - Taoci juan, op. cit., p. 124, no. 434).

    The legs on Tang dynasty metal censers are usually either plain, or are comprised, like the Yue ware censer mentioned above, of a single paw topped with a monster mask. This is the case with the five-legged silver gilt censer excavated in 1987 from the crypt of the Famen Temple pagoda in Fufengxian, Shaanxi province (illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan - Jin, yin, yu, shi juan, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1994, p. 131, no. 126). This silver gilt censer shares some aspects of the shape of the current ceramic example, but the upper section is not so fully rounded. However the knob on the top of the censer is clearly in the form as a budding lotus, which probably suggests the simplified form of the knob on the ceramic vessel. A lotus bud-shaped finial can also be seen on a Tang dynasty silver gilt five-legged censer, which like the current ceramic censer has a pierced, semi-hemispherical lid. This silver gilt censer was excavated in 1970 at Hejiacun, Xi'an, Shaanxi province (illustrated in Gilded Dragons - Buried Treasures from China's Golden Ages, British Museum Press, London, 1999, p. 111, no. 72).

    Special Notice

    No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 15% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.


    Christie's London, 19 June 2001, lot 8.

    Pre-Lot Text

    By Neil Collins

    Clive Collins was born in Liverpool on 5 January 1917, and has lived in the area all his life. He went to school at the Liverpool Institute. After serving first in the army, and then in RAF Coastal Command as a navigator during World War II, he took control of the family company, a small, ailing paper bag converter.

    With his brother, Ashby, he saw the potential for a new packaging material, polythene, and travelled to America several times hoping to learn more. Whilst there, he found time to visit the leading museums, stimulated by his inheritance of a few nondescript pieces of far eastern art. In 1955, by hard work and luck, he found an American who had served in Britain in the war and had been impressed by the resilience of the British. The result was the licence, on very favourable terms, for a process to make polythene film in Britain.

    Combining business with a keen interest in sport, he narrowly missed becoming a county hockey player for Cheshire, and dominated the awards board for many years at Prenton, a leading Merseyside tennis club. The sale of the polythene bag business in 1963 to BXL, a joint venture between BP and what is now Diageo, the international drinks group, saw him continue to work for BXL, becoming a divisional managing director before retiring.

    He then became chairman of a small electronics company which was eventually sold to De La Rue, the banknote printers. With the funds to expand his collection, and the time to indulge, he created a remarkable rhododendron garden outside Keswick in the English Lake District. There, on a steep slope overlooking the Derwent valley, he planted more than 200 species, some of them now the finest specimens of their type in Britain.

    The first subject that had caught his eye was Japanese prints, which then hardly qualified for serious collectors, but as he moved on to Japanese ceramics, he was inevitably drawn to their inspirations in the far older traditions of Chinese art. He purchased a number of jades, but in more recent years concentrated on ceramics, with their almost infinite varieties of shape, colouring, patterns and glazing. From being attracted to pieces that looked nice and were colourful he has come to appreciate the purity of the glazes, the skills of painting and the consistency of repeated patterns, all done with what by today's standards was primitive technology, powered only by water.

    The collection now being sold is the result of nearly half a century of learning a little of this enormous subject. At 92, he has decided that caring for it is beyond him, and he is pleased to think that others will be able to appreciate the pieces in future. He rarely visited auction rooms, mostly buying from a few trusted dealers, and says that he has learned more from his mistakes than from purchases that have become valuable treasures. He visited mainland China only once, as a member of a party studying rhododendrons rather than ceramics. In recent years, as the quality of the photography has improved, he says he has often been able to identify interesting pieces by inspecting the pictures of the items.

    He says he is often asked which piece is his favourite, but with over 500 items in the collection, cannot answer. He has followed his instincts, and the knowledge built up over decades, without regard to Chinese tastes, or the then value of what he was buying. His much-loved wife Joan, who shared his interest but not his passion for the subject, died in 1996. They were married for half a century, and had two children, Neil and Melanie.