This enchanting figure is one of the loveliest and rarest of Tang dynasty sancai ladies. She is particularly rare in that she still holds a beautifully modelled mandarin duck on a small cloth pad. A number of Tang sancai and 'cold' painted figures have their hands joined in front of them, sometimes simply with the hands hidden in flowing sleeves, and sometimes with a scar visible from where something has broken off. This figure, however, is intact and, remarkably, the duck appears to have survived in good condition. Mandarin ducks are symbols of marital happiness, and are often seen on gifts given to newly married couples. One wonders if the present figure with her grace, gentleness and dignity was made for a beloved wife or husband, as a permanent testament to their partner's devotion.
A slightly smaller figure, with the same stance and also the same face and coiffure in the Shaanxi Provincial Museum is illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji - 7 - Tang sancai, Shanghai, 1983, no. 55. This figure, which was excavated in 1959 from a tomb at Zhongbao village at Xi'an, differs from the current figure in that her shawl covers only one shoulder, and whatever she was holding has been broken off. The glaze colors are differently applied, but the faces of the two figures are virtually identical in terms of shape and 'cold' painted pigments. When the Zhongbao figure was exhibited in Singapore in 1991, the exhibition catalogue described her as: ..."one of the most beautiful pieces to be excavated from Tang tombs...She smiles demurely, yet confidently, as if admiring something at a distance". The Zhongbao figure was included in the exhibition, The Quest for Eternity, Los Angeles County Museum, London, 1987, pp. 86, 137-8, no. 78, where she and a companion figure were said in the exhibition catalogue to: "possess grace and femininity and are masterpieces of sancai sculpture". The same descriptions can be applied to the current figure. The Los Angeles catalogue also notes the similarity of the objects excavated from the Zhongbao tomb with those from the tomb of Xianyu Tinghai in the southern suburbs of Xi'an, which can be dated to AD 723. The current figure probably also dates to around this time. Traces of 'plum blossom flowers' are just visible on the Zhongbao figures. These were beauty marks applied with white powder, and were among several beauty marks applied in different colors that were fashionable among Tang ladies. The 'plum blossom flowers' in white and other beauty marks on the forehead in red can still clearly be seen on a standing figure with similar, but less well defined, coiffure, in the Yamato Bunkakan Museum, Nara. See Masahiko Sato and Gakuji Hasebe (eds.), Sekai toji zenshu - 11 - Sui, Tang, Tokyo, 1976, pp. 82-3, no. 64. Another figure excavated at Xi'an in 1959, and now in the Museum of Chinese History, also has a similar stance, coiffure and dress to the current figure, ibid. no. 66, but she too has her shawl over only one shoulder and does not appear to be holding anything.
A few Tang dynasty figures are known with a falcon held on an outstretched arm, as in the case of the 'cold'-painted figure in the Tenri Museum. See Sekai toji zenshu - 11 - Sui, Tang, op. cit., p. 224, pl. 182, and the sancai falconer in the Herzman collection, illustrated by S. G. Valenstein, The Herzman Collection of Chinese Ceramics, p. 31-2, no. 21. A small number are depicted holding dogs, like the well-known 'cold'-painted figure of a stout lady illustrated in the same volume, pp. 42-3, no. 29. However, no other examples seem to have survived with ducks, or indeed any other creature as well modelled and as painstakingly decorated as the mandarin duck held by the current figure.
The result of Oxford Authentication Ltd. thermoluminescence test no. C104h87 is consistent with the dating of this lot.