‘When I first saw these pieces, I thought the collector must have had a great sense of humour,’ says Camille de Foresta, Asian Art specialist at Christie’s in Paris. She is referring to two porcelain rouleau famille verte vases from Kangxi-era China (1662-1722), both of which are offered in our Art d’Asie sale in Paris on 13 December.
Rouleau vases generally feature narratives that unfold continuously around the whole piece, de Foresta explains. In each of these two examples, the stories they tell are ‘relatively unusual, and actually quite modern’.
The first vase depicts a legend that dates to 3rd-century China. The central figure, a young man called Pan’an, was ‘the man all the women in the neighbourhood were crazy for,’ de Foresta explains. ‘He was very elegant, very handsome, almost like a rock star. In this vase, he is richly dressed, with a fan and hair ornament. But his health was quite fragile, which is why he is being carried in a chariot.’
The poet Pan’an was ‘the man all the women in the neighbourhood were crazy for’, de Foresta explains
On the balcony and in the windows, de Foresta continues, ‘elegantly dressed women can be seen throwing fruit to him. At the end of his walk, according to the legend, his chariot would be full of fruit. You can find many representations of this story in the 18th century.’ That said, depictions on vases of Pan’an — who remains a famous character in China today — are relatively rare.
Closer inspection of the vase reveals some surprises in its production. Although the piece would have been fired many times, the gold and red tones were added at the very end, and were not glazed or fired.
In the scene on the second vase, a princess is looking for a husband. ‘A parade of well-dressed princes are lining up to give her presents,’ de Foresta explains. ‘At the back of the queue is one suitor who you can tell is poor because his clothes are torn. And we see that she is going to choose him. It’s the first time we’ve seen a story like this on a vase of the period.’
While these vases were made in China for the domestic market, the taste is quite Western. ‘They sit on the boundary between porcelain pieces created in China for the Chinese market and those created for export to Europe, where they were in high demand in the 18th century,’ the specialist explains. Specifically, many Western collectors were on the lookout for famille vert (‘green family’) vases like these, in which the green enamel dominates.
Both vases were acquired in Belgium in the 1950s by the father of the present owner. ‘We still have the original invoices, which is a real asset for collectors of Chinese porcelain who may be concerned about fakes,’ de Foresta says. And there’s another thing that should make collectors happy, the specialist points out: the value of the vases has increased considerably since Christie’s first came upon them nearly a decade ago.