Blanc de chine figures of Guanyin – the goddess of compassion, protector of mariners and bringer of sons – often carry the double gourd seal of the great 17th century ceramicist He Chaozong. Many are honorific pieces produced in late 19th to the early 20th century. Some are modern fakes.
But a small handful of these household devotional objects are indeed by the celebrated late Ming potter who worked at the Dehua kilns in Fujian province during the early 17th century. At the record $4.6m sale conducted by Thomaston Place Auction Galleries (20% buyer’s premium) in coastal Maine on August 25-26, bidders thought they had found one.
Estimated at $50,000-75,000, it sold at $650,000 (£500,000) to a Chinese buyer.
A revered potter
Although little is known of his life, He Chaozong is almost unique in Chinese ceramic history as a named artist in an industry characterised by anonymous and controlled large scale production. Over a century later, he was revered by the Gazetteer of Quanzhou Prefecture of 1763 as the finest maker of mainly Buddhist white porcelain statuary that were “transmitted and treasured everywhere under heaven”.
His designs, robustly press moulded and then finely finished by hand, were perhaps influenced by the Christian ivory carvings produced in the Philippines or Goa.
This particular figure, with Guanyin modelled seated in peaceful contemplation on a double lotus throne, stands 12½in (32cm) high with a rosewood lotus platform adding a further 2½in (7cm). It was in excellent condition save a small flake to the mantle. A much larger 20in (51cm) high He Chaozong model of Guanyin in a different pose was sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April 2016 for H$7.28m.
However, in terms of size and modelling, this unusual figure from a house in Cumberland, Maine shares more modelling characteristics with the figure of a seated Buddha sold for HK$8.92m as part of a sale titled Masterpieces of Buddhist Art held by Christie’s Hong Kong in December 2015.
Thomaston Place auctioneer and president Kaja Veilleux said the sale “exceeded all of our ingoing expectations”.
He had another lightly catalogued Chinese consignment from the same source to thank for a similar result. Attracting bids from close to a dozen phones and others on the saleroom floor was an 8in (20cm) gilt bronze censer of a bulbous beast set with appliqués of white jade, agate, lapis and carnelian. Pitched at $50,000-70,000, it took $550,000 (£423,000), again from China.
It was described as a qilin but (as it has a single horn and clawed rather than hooved feet) more probably depicts the luduan, a highly auspicious creature with the ability to detect the truth, travel great distances in a very short time and speak all the languages of the world. As they symbolised the emperor’s wisdom and virtue, luduan incense burners formed an important part of court paraphernalia, placed on either side of the imperial throne with fragrant smoke emanating from the open jaws.
Earlier examples from the Ming dynasty were made in bronze and jade, with more lavish and colourful models such as this one – missing some stone inlays but retaining a wood stand covered with fragmentary silk – produced at the zenith of the Qing dynasty in the Qianlong (1735-96) reign.
A related example formed part of the Special Exhibition of Incense Burners and Perfumers Throughout the Dynasties, held at the National Palace Museum, Taipei in 1994.
Some of the better lots in the sale came from the estate of Arthur and Ruth Sokoloff who lived in Coral Gables, Florida for over 60 years. A dentist by profession, Arthur Sokoloff (1924-2017) was also a serious student of oriental religion, art and philosophy, leading to a secondary career as an adjunct professor of Far Eastern studies at the University of Miami.
In addition to seven canvases purchased directly from Milton Avery (1885-1965) in the twilight of his career, together sold for over $400,000, was a Roman Cararra marble head of Diana. She is depicted turning to the left, wearing a laurel wreath and diadem with her hair curled in the Flavian style.
It was described as a qilin but probably depicts the luduan, a creature with the ability to detect the truth and speak all languages
Probably dating from the early Imperial period (c.50-100AD) and standing 21in (53cm) high on a later veined black marble turned plinth, it sailed past its estimate of $25,000- 35,000 to sell at $60,000 (£46,150) to the buyer from Ukraine.
The Sokoloff estate provided a monumental Japanese Meiji period cloisonné charger that took $35,000 (£26,900) from a UK buyer when just $1800-2400 had been suggested. Although unsigned, it was truly massive at 3ft (91cm) across and, dominated by a crane flying above the waves, a visually striking subject.
To the reverse was a series of double fan shaped panels containing floral motifs and a central cartouche depicting a crane falling into the waves under a blood red moon.
Sold at $26,000 (£20,000) was a 15th century egg tempera on panel painting by a Florentine artist known as The Master of Apollo and Daphne. The scene, Water for Jewels, depicting a man and woman by a well in a coastal landscape, is possibly an illustration for one of tales in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Recently discovered in Maine, the picture was cleaned and restored by the Boston Museum of Fine Art and came in an 18th century giltwood frame accompanied by a provenance detailing its history from 1925.
A large 2ft 4in x 4ft 4in oil on canvas depicting an English churchyard by Hudson River School artist Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900) sold to a New York buyer at its low estimate of $150,000 (£115,400). The subject is unusual, with the title Gray’s Elegy at Stokes Poges referencing the poem penned by Thomas Gray (1716-71) in Buckinghamshire in 1751. Signed and dated lower right, with title on an old handwritten label that bears the original price of $400, the painting is included in the artist’s recently-published two-volume catalogue raisonné.
Grasende Kuh II, a bronze by Ewald Matare (1887-1965), was one of a series of three bronzes on the theme of grazing cows conceived by the artist in 1930 before he was stripped by the Nazis of his professorship at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Similar works by Matare formed part of the infamous 1937 exhibition of shame and derision Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art).
Serendipity had it that another lifetime cast of the 12in (30cm) wide bronze Grasende Kuh II formed part of Christie’s Peggy and David Rockefeller sale in May this year, selling at $100,000. Few sales in the near future will be able to emulate Rockefeller prices and here the price, bid by a New Yorker and comfortably over estimate, was a more modest $54,000 (£41,500).
Exchange rate on day of sale: £1 = $1.30