On 9 June 1883, Mrs J. Watson Williams, a wealthy American widow, collector and philanthropist from Utica, New York State, was at the American Art Galleries in New York City, browsing American paintings and Asian ceramics, when a large Chinese vase, decorated with stylised lotus blossoms and flanked by handles formed as chilong, caught her eye.
Born Helen Elizabeth Munson in 1824, Mrs Williams was a shrewd investor who had increased the fortune she had inherited from her industrialist father, Alfred Munson. As she approached her 60th birthday, she spent much of her time travelling with her daughters Rachel and Maria, spending lavishly on dresses, jewellery and furniture, and the fine and decorative art that would form the nucleus of the family’s collection.
This vase looked particularly special. Not only was it large, 52.7 cm from base to lip, it was decorated using the difficult and costly doucai technique, which involved painting fine underglaze outlines in cobalt-blue onto porous, unfired clay, allowing no room for error.
The striking design of lotus blossoms and leafy scrolls also incorporated a number of auspicious symbols, including a band of stylised bats above clouds on the shoulder, four gilt wan on the body, and a series of ruyi motifs based on the form of a lingzhi fungus.
Mrs Williams was clearly taken with this beautiful vessel. Purchasing it without hesitation, she took it back to Fountain Elms, the Italianate mansion her parents had built in Utica, which now served as the backdrop to her growing collection of American landscapes, Barbizon School portraits and Chinese and Japanese ceramics.
The original receipt for the vase still exists, along with an inventory from 3 March 1888 and a photograph, both of which place the vase on a pedestal in Mrs Williams’s parlour.
By this time, the collector knew just how special the vase was. On 27 November 1883, she had received a letter from the gallery, informing her that it dated from circa 1736-1750, during the Qianlong period, and was extremely rare: the gallery knew of ‘only one that [would] compare favourably’: a vase ‘of Pilgrim-bottle shape’ in the collection of Mr W.T. Walters of Baltimore, ‘who [had] the finest collection of Oriental Art in the country’.
Both vessels would follow similar trajectories. While the W.T. Walters moon flask was bequeathed to the future Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the vase became a key piece in the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, which opened in 1936 in the presence of Mrs Williams’s daughter Maria, Maria’s husband Thomas Proctor, and Rachel’s widower (and Thomas’s half-brother) Frederick Proctor.
In 1960, a new International-style building by Philip Johnson was built alongside the existing Fountain Elms house to create what is now a leading arts institute with more than 13,000 works of art, an art school, a performing arts programme and an education wing.
It’s from here that the vase is offered at auction, with all proceeds going to the Helen Munson Williams Acquisition Fund.
The vase has several features in common with the Walters flask, not least its impressive size, which makes the doucai technique used in its decoration doubly impressive, says Marco Almeida, Christie’s Head of Department for Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art.
‘After the underglaze outlines in cobalt-blue had been applied, the vessel was given a transparent porcelain glaze and fired. After the fired piece had cooled, overglaze enamel colours were carefully applied within the underglaze blue outlines and the piece was fired again at a lower temperature.
‘As each firing would have produced some failures, and large vessels tended to be more susceptible to warping and splitting, it would have been expensive to create large doucai vessels which met the high imperial standards.’
This explains why large doucai vases are so rare. In fact, the Palace Museum in Beijing appears to have published only one Qianlong doucai vase that is taller, at 71.5 cm. Only the famous Qianlong doucai flask with a design of a farmer ploughing his fields in the collection of the Tianjin Museum, and the Taber Family Tianqiuping from the Philbrook Museum of Art, sold in 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong, are of a comparable size.
Almeida also throws light on the vase’s symbolism. ‘The wan motif is a Buddhist symbol that in AD 693 was declared the source of all auspiciousness by Empress Wu and later became a popular symbol of good luck,’ he explains.
As for the ruyi heads around the lip of the vase and at the junction between neck and shoulder, ‘they represent a wish for “everything that you desire”’.
The combination of the ruyi and the wan symbols supports the likelihood that this magnificent vase was produced for an imperial birthday,’ concludes Almeida. ‘Add to this the wonderfully documented provenance from the late-19th century and the vase should prove a sensation at auction.’