Known as a tianqiuping or ‘Celestial Sphere vase’, this extraordinary example of Qing porcelain, commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799), is the highlight of the Christie’s Hong Kong spring 2018 season. It will be offered in a special one-lot auction, Celestial Immortals — The Taber Family Tianqiuping from Philbrook Museum of Art on 30 May.
‘The piece is also referred to as the Anbaxian vase, which literally translates as ‘‘eight secret emblems”,’ explains Chi Fan Tsang, Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at Christie’s in Hong Kong. ‘This refers to the symbols depicted on the vase, the attributes associated with the Daoist immortals.’
Traditionally Chinese decorative arts would represent Buddhist motifs, but this vase reveals the dual nature of religion during the Qing dynasty. ‘Qianlong was a devout Buddhist,’ explains Tsang, ‘but he was also a follower of Daoism, which is all to do with longevity and the wish to find the elixir of long life.’
In addition to Buddhist motifs on the neck across the vase, we can see an emblem for each of the eight immortals associated with Daoism — including a fan, a gourd, a sword and a lotus flower — on the vase’s body.
‘Most emperors were obsessed with living a long life and Qianlong was no exception,’ says the specialist. ‘These were considered to be auspicious emblems, and associated the emperor in turn with peace, longevity, good fortune, an abundant harvest and plentiful offspring. In fact, Qianlong had many children and turned out to be one of the two longest reigning emperors in the Qing dynasty, living to the ripe old age of 84 when he retired in 1795.’
The symbolism of the vase is evident in its size and shape as well, continues Tsang. ‘It is so vast and so round because it actually represents heaven. The ancient Chinese believed the Earth was flat and that China was the middle kingdom, making the emperor an intermediary between heaven and Earth.’
Earlier examples from the Qing dynasty tend to have a tapered neck, but this vase is a technical innovation. ‘The neck is quite cylindrical and it sits on a very round body, so the angle between the neck and the body is sharp. This is quite a feat because it means its propensity to sink while being shaped is high. That they were able to actually keep the neck straight, in a vase of this size, is quite remarkable.’
More than 200 years after it was made the vase joined the collection of oil executive George Hathaway Taber Jr., a prolific collector of Chinese ceramics and jades. ‘In the early 20th century there was a lot of interest in China,’ explains Tsang. ‘American engineers had been called in to help with building railroads, which in turn led to many wealthy European and American visitors arriving in the country.’
It is thought that Taber bought the vase prior to 1925, when it is first recorded in his collection. It remained in his family until his daughter Francis Keally donated it to The Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa in 1960.
Today the vase is estimated at HK$70-90 million (around $9-11 million), which will enable the museum to broaden its extensive collection of American art. ‘It’s such a fabulous museum,’ says Tsang, ‘and to help it raise money for its acquisition fund is a wonderful thing to be a part of.’