Made for the emperor: eight rare ceramics from the Wanli emperor's reign

Combining graceful forms and auspicious signs, these works demonstrate why Ming dynasty ceramics are amongst the most sought-after porcelains

In 1572 the eight-year-old Zhu Yijun ascended to the throne of the Ming dynasty as the 14th emperor of China. Taking the regnal name Wanli, he oversaw an empire that had established itself at the forefront of international trading and commerce. While ceramic production would later slow during his effective withdrawal from government after 1600, in the early and middle parts of his reign the imperial kilns produced some of the Ming dynasty’s finest porcelains.

On the 450th anniversary of the emperor’s ascension to the throne, Christie’s will offer eight masterworks of porcelain made for the Imperial court during Emperor Wanli’s reign. Marchant, Eight Treasures for the Wanli Emperor will be offered on 21 September as part of Christie’s Asian Art Week in New York.

These Ming ceramics come from Marchant, one of the world’s leading dealers in Chinese art over four generations, providing some of the rarest Asian art works ever brought to market. The business was established in 1925 by Samuel Sydney Marchant (1897-1975) and has been operating from London ever since.

The upcoming works are incredibly rare and bear exceptional provenance. A wucai ‘dragon’ curved brush rest, for example, was formerly held in Blair Castle, Scotland, seat of the earls and dukes of the historical Atholl noble family.

Leading the sale is the Keswick ‘hundred deer’ jar, once owned by William Keswick, patriarch of the influential Hong Kong shipping family. It depicts a picturesque landscape with plants and deer in abundance.

The hundred deer, or bai lu, are a play on the phrase shoutian bailu, meaning ‘may you receive one hundred blessings.’

wanli ceramics

A very rare blue and white reverse-decorated stem cup, 1573-1620. 3¼ in (8.2 cm) diameter. Estimate: $300,000-500,000. Offered in Marchant: Eight Treasures for the Wanli Emperor on 21 September 2023 at Christie’s in New York

The Ming dynasty, an imperial dynasty of China that began in 1368 and ended in 1644, boasted some of the world’s greatest achievements. From the construction of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, the golden age of blue and white porcelain in the 15th century, and a 14th-century journey by sea as far as the Middle East and Africa, the Great Ming was a period of immense cultural, social and artistic change.

In the 14th century, the Imperial court’s porcelain decoration of choice had evolved to favor the blue and white style. This was consolidated in the 15th century, during the reigns of the Xuande and Chenghua Emperors, resulting in works featuring remarkable cobalt glazes.

wanli ceramics

A superb and exceptionally rare doucai ‘bajixiang’ bowl, 1573-1620. 6½ in (16.5 cm) diameter. Estimate: $600,000-800,000. Offered in Marchant: Eight Treasures for the Wanli Emperor on 21 September 2023 at Christie’s in New York

The Wanli Emperor admired these 15th-century blue and white works, and many of the treasures offered in this sale exemplify the beauty of this technique. The blue and white stem cup, for example, is often compared to a Xuande vessel held in the National Palace Museum, in Taipei. The nine sea creatures known as haishou that appear on the stem are directly inspired by the Shan hai jing, a Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) era text which experienced a revival in the 15th century.

Ceramics from the Wanli era that feature these haishou are exceptionally rare — the National Palace Museum, for example, counts only two stem cups that can be securely dated to that era. Among the other exceptionally rare works from this sale are a doucai bowl which appears to be based on an earlier Chenghua-era bowl of similar style. Doucai, a technique wherein parts of the design are painted in a blue underglaze, and then after the clay is fired the rest of the motif is painted in overglaze before re-firing, was particularly popular in the Chenghua period.

wanli ceramics

Left: A rare blue and white ingot-shaped ‘dragon’ box and cover, 1573-1620. 8⅝ in (22 cm) wide. Estimate: $350,000-450,000. Right: A very rare blue and white writing box and cover, 1573-1620. 12⅛ in (30.9 cm) wide; 8⅞ in (22.6 cm) deep. Estimate: $250,000-350,000. Both offered in Marchant: Eight Treasures for the Wanli Emperor on 21 September 2023 at Christie’s in New York

The rare blue and white ingot-shaped ‘dragon’ box borrows its shape from Longqing era pottery and demonstrates how this combination of glazes and form can produce works of exceptional beauty.

Other works, such as the present rectangular writing box, demonstrate just how advanced Wanli-era artisans were. With 90-degree angle sides, the shape of the clay was subject to uniquely strong pressure during the firing process, making it a work of masterful craftsmanship.

wanli ceramics

An exceptional pair of large wucai 'garlic-mouth' vases, 1573-1620. 18½ in (47 cm) high. Estimate: $600,000-800,000. Offered in Marchant: Eight Treasures for the Wanli Emperor on 21 September 2023 at Christie’s in New York

Wucai, a technique similar to doucai but differentiated largely through the amount of blue colour used, was also prevalent during the Ming dynasty. Its startling effect, with iron-reds, greens and yellows presents the images with clarity and depth. Each of the elements, from the lines to the shapes and colours, retains its individuality while also forming a synergy with those around it. In a pair of vases from this sale, this effect can be seen with remarkable detail.

In Chinese, the form of these vases is known as suantouping, while in English they are known as ‘garlic-mouth’ vases, due to the bulb-like section at the top of the neck. Scholars trace the shape’s history back to ancient bronzes, however it was during the Ming era that they flourished, appearing in this highly elaborate porcelain form. Wucai and doucai vessels such as these demonstrate the mastery of Ming-era artists both in their ability to create from clay, and to communicate through imagery.

vase

A rare large wucai beaker vase, 1573-1620. 15⅞ in (40.4 cm) high. Estimate: $300,000-400,000. Offered in Marchant: Eight Treasures for the Wanli Emperor on 21 September 2023 at Christie’s in New York

Likewise the offered wucai beaker jar is nearly identical to a work held in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Both feature iron-red dragons descending and pursuing flaming pearls, and alternative blue and green dragons ascending against cloud motifs.

This selection of eight ceramic works demonstrates the Marchant’s unparalleled collecting expertise and the beauty of porcelains from Wanli’s reign. Their colours, from deep cobalt blues to iron-oxide reds, inspire the same awe as they did 450 years ago.

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