5 minutes with… A Yongzheng-period moonflask

This stunning flask — almost 300 years old and, standing at 54 cm high, one of the largest of its kind ever seen at Christie’s — is offered in London on 6 November. Specialist Marco Almeida explains why it is expected to realise well over £1 million

‘For porcelain collectors, a moonflask like this represents the zenith,’ says Marco Almeida, International Senior Specialist in Chinese ceramics at Christie’s. In front of him is a unique blue and white porcelain moonflask from the Yongzheng Period (1723-1735), which is being offered in London on 6 November.

Moonflasks require an exceptionally high level of skill to make. ‘This is an incredibly difficult object to fire because it’s so heavy,’ Almeida explains. ‘It would have been made in different sections, put together and then fired. Many of them collapsed in on themselves in the kiln, or fell over because they were so top-heavy.

‘Moonflasks are usually big, but this is one of the largest we’ve ever seen, standing at about 54 cm tall,’ continues the specialist. ‘It’s also striking because the colours are so vibrant. Only the highest quality refined cobalt ores produce such bright blues, indicating the quality of this example.’ The flask is decorated with a floral design and each flower has a symbolic meaning, representing a season or a personal quality of the Yongzheng Emperor.

The Yongzheng period lasted only a decade, but some of the finest, most delicate pieces of porcelain were created during this time because of the patronage of the Imperial court. ‘The Yongzheng Emperor was a connoisseur and keen antiquarian, and a significant number of artworks commissioned for his court were made in an antique style, including this moonflask, which copies porcelain from the early Ming dynasty, some four centuries earlier,’ the specialist explains.

In the same vein, Ming-dynasty (1368-1644) porcelain had copied designs from Persian and Central Asian metalwork, which was imported into China along the Silk Road. ‘Persia and Central Asia have a long history of working with metal, and from the Tang dynasty (618-907) trading along the Silk Road brought in new shapes, forms and materials,’ says Almeida.

‘You look at this moonflask and you know that you’re standing in front of something important’ — Marco Almeida

During the Ming dynasty many of these metalwork shapes were reproduced in porcelain and adapted to Chinese tastes. Unlike Chinese moonflasks, however, which serve as decorative objects, their Persian prototypes were practical, and used for carrying liquids.

This particular moonflask would have been a prominent piece in any collection, even the Yongzheng Emperor’s, confirms the specialist, who suggests that despite there not being any surviving evidence, the superior quality of this flask and its imperial reign mark indicate that it may have been in his court collection.

The imperial reign mark on this moonflask indicates that it might have been owned by the Yongzheng Emperor, or a scholar in his court

The imperial reign mark on this moonflask indicates that it might have been owned by the Yongzheng Emperor, or a scholar in his court

So how does our specialist advise displaying such a piece? ‘As we’ve seen from photographs of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, there were large cabinets with different-sized compartments,’ says Almeida. ‘Each compartment would have held an object, and a moonflask like this one would have sat in the central position surrounded by smaller pieces from the same period.’

Almeida says he would put it behind glass and on a strong plinth to keep it safe. ‘Regardless of whether you’re a connoisseur of Chinese art or simply have a love of porcelain, this moonflask is undoubtedly a beautiful object,’ he states. ‘You look at it and you know that you’re standing in front of something important.’