‘My highlight of 2016’ — A Ming Dynasty ‘Dragon’ jar

Marco Almeida, specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, selects an extraordinary ‘Dragon’ jar which served as an umbrella stand before selling for more than $20 million in Hong Kong at the end of May

‘To say that for years, the extraordinary importance of this magnificent and very rare large blue and white ‘Dragon’ jar went unappreciated would be putting it mildly,’ says Marco Almeida, a Christie’s specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art. The piece was thought by its owner to be ‘an 18th-century jar, a decorative object’, explains the specialist, and was used as an umbrella stand.

‘I had been given a very bad 1970s photo showing the vase in situ,’ Almeida continues. ‘I assumed that it was simply an 18th-century copy of a 15th-century vase. Anything else would be too good to be true.’ When the vase, which had no exhibition history, arrived in the London warehouse, it became clear that this was the exception that proved the rule.

‘When I first saw it, my gut reaction was that it was indeed a 15th-century vase,’ says the specialist. ‘But the more we studied it, the better it got.’ Examining the piece, Almeida and his colleagues began to realise that they were dealing with ‘a masterpiece of Ming porcelain’ from the Xuande period (1426-1435), generally considered to be the pinnacle of blue-and-white porcelain production.

The jar boasts several standout features. The dragon painted on it is particularly dynamic, and the fact that it looks backwards rather than forwards, as was more typical, makes it a rarity. Additional details, such as the spikes at the dragon’s elbows, had not previously been seen on Chinese porcelain. Xuande-era pieces were finished in a rich glaze, which made them especially striking, and particularly notable on this piece is the expert application of dark and light blue tones — generally seen on bowls or dishes of the time, but rare for larger pieces.

The addition of a four-character mark, and not the more common six-character mark, further underscores the jar’s uniqueness, indicating that it was created, perhaps as part of a set, for a special occasion.

As Almeida explains, the sheer size of the jar, the strength and power of the dragon, with its bulging eyes and strong jaw, and the quality of the cobalt used all combine to make this piece exceptional. ‘There isn’t another one like this in public collections,’ he says. 

The specialist, who was on the telephone to the consignor throughout the auction, was grateful for the trust placed in the team and its advice. Ultimately, this trust and the department’s hard work was amply rewarded in the Hong Kong saleroom, when the Dragon jar sold for HK$158,040,000 in 30 Years: The Sale. Which is not bad for a former umbrella stand.