For over a century, this splendid jar and cover has been admired in England as an outstanding example of one of the best-loved designs on Kangxi blue and white porcelain, the so-called 'hawthorn' pattern. To Chinese collectors, the design was auspicious, recording the vital moment of dawning Spring, when the Chinese plum tree, the first tree to blossom even before its leaves have unfolded, begins to shed blossom petals onto the frosty ground still covered in patches of ice beginning to thaw and crackle. The symbolism was doubtless familar to Victorian collectors; but they were less familiar than the Chinese with the spectacularly rich tones of cobalt blue that Kangxi-period potters at Jingdezhen were able to achieve. Contrasted with the brilliant white body under a lustrous glaze, blue and white 'hawthorn' jars were one of the most successful creations in early Qing Dynasty blue and white.
It was inevitable therefore that, when a wave of Orientalizing influence swept across Western Europe and east-coast America in the mid/late 19th Century, such jars should become regarded as highly prestigious products. Lacking access to, or old traditional Chinese knowledge about, the classic earlier blue and white ceramics of the Yongle, Xuande and Chenghua Emperors, Western collectors compared the finest extant Kangxi wares with any blue and white Western ceramics, and not surprisingly regarded vessels like 'hawthorn' jars as ceramic masterpieces. This view was sedulously encouraged by leading antique dealers of the period, who played an important role in shaping the emerging art tastes of east-coast American entrepreneurs turned proto-connoisseurs. From his bases in London and New York, the most influential of these professional taste-formers, Joseph Duveen, combined his personal Dutch traditional love of the finest Kangxi-period export porcelain, with a savvy awareness of what American plutocrats like Morgan, Frick and Carnegie perceived English country house taste to be. Hence the enormous vogue in the period 1880-1930 for the finest early Qing Dynasty export wares - the richest, boldest and largest famille verte, famille noire, blue and white, and early famille rose. Hence also the astonishing record price paid for the Huth jar, and the even more astonishing price of US$100,000 which H.C. Frick paid Duveen for a famille noire vase in about 1910. Both prices were to last as records for over a generation; indeed, as late as 1974, when Christie's reoffered it, it was suggested that the original price paid for the 'Huth' jar in 1905 was still the record in real terms for Kangxi blue and white, seventy years later.
The Huth jar is therefore a splendid and historical piece of Chinese porcelain on two levels. Firstly, it exhibits all the finest characteristics of late 17th Century Chinese blue and white export porcelain, which was to play a crucial role as design inspiration when emerging 18th Century European porcelain factories began to look for exemplars, in their hugely expensive efforts to compete commercially with relatively standard contemporaneous Chinese export porcelain. Secondly, it recaptures vividly and impressively a lost moment in Western taste: the time of Whistler painting watercolours of blue and white Chinese porcelain, of American millionaires hungrily filling their new Fifth Avenue mansions with the best of Kangxi wares; and of a great 'new' English lord, of American extraction, commissioning the most venerable of London dealers in important Chinese export porcelain, to outbid the world at Christie's with a record price for a pre-eminent jewel in the great collection of H. C. Huth.