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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VI  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 27 May 2013: Lot 199 

Lot 199

Lot 199
Treasury 3, no. 394 (‘The Imperial Encomium Inkstone’)
HK$47,500

Shale; reasonably well hollowed, with a flat lip and a recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; carved on one side with two four-clawed dragons in clouds and on the other with a couplet in regular script ‘Duan creek is the birthplace of an excellent material; warm and lustrous, it is like fine jade. Made by imperial command’; the narrow sides with mask-and-ring handles
1736–1830
Height: 5.62 cm
Mouth/lip 0.48/1.50 cm
Stopper: coral; gilt-bronze collar, chased with a formalized floral design

Provenance:
Hugh M. Moss Ltd (1978)
Gerd Lester (1986)

Published:
Kleiner 1995, no. 288
Treasury 3, no. 394

Exhibited:
British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997

The poem here is the famous encomium, presumably by the Qianlong emperor, although this is not specified on any of the bottles, which appears on many Duanstone snuff bottles, often as the main decoration. It is customarily followed by the characters yuzhi, usually translated as ‘by imperial command,’ but in fact meaning ‘imperially made,’ leaving open the possibility that it may refer to the poem or possibly even to the first object upon which it was inscribed and, presumably, for which it was composed. There is a general assumption that each bottle inscribed with this couplet is necessarily imperial, which is probably true, but is not demonstrated beyond a doubt by the inscription itself, which may indicate only that the couplet was imperial. Although it is more likely that the one indication that this group was a popular imperial one, ordered in quantities on perhaps several different occasions during the Qianlong period, even possibly thereafter, to be distributed by the court as gifts, is that this couplet does not appear on wares other than the snuff bottles. This seems to suggest that these bottles, and only these bottles, were specifically ordered to bear it. If it had been adopted by Duan carvers in general as a sort of imperial warrant, it would have appeared equally on other wares, since the poem refers to the material, not to any specific object.

The dragons on the other side appear to be a local, Guangdong provincial style of dragon carving. As Kleiner has pointed out, although many of these dragon bottles exist, all with the dragons in this same distinctive style, the composition is varied each time. The artists involved are clearly not working from a pattern book, or a single original version of the subject. This seems to be further evidence that the style is a local one and was not instigated in Beijing. If a design had been sent from the court it, would presumably have appeared more often in the same composition, whereas constantly changing compositions of the same style suggest a local style being applied. This was probably the broad-brush instructions of a ruler who needed to do no more because he knew that his bureaucracy would take care of the details, provide specific designs, and perhaps run them by him again for approval before the order was placed. But as yet we cannot be certain of this, and it is possible that an order went out to the Guangdong workshop to decorate their bottles with dragons, some perhaps with a specific number of claws, and the group we see today is the result.

It is also possible that this type of bottle represented regular tribute from officials at Guangzhou, sent in batches on more than one occasion. Duanzhou is not far from Guangzhou, the capital of the province and a major centre for court production. Such tribute was common on the emperor’s birthday and, from the Qianlong period onwards, on the empress’s birthday as well, and on the major festivals. Duan inkstones were a regular part of Guangzhou tribute to the court during the Qianlong period and the earliest record so far published of such tribute shows Duan inkstones being sent in the eleventh year of the Yongzheng period (1733; see Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court, p. 42), although the earlier records are far from complete.

The main decoration here is still in relatively mint condition, although the lip has a few minor chips ground off. With a delicate material, the lip and footrim are always vulnerable, and it is common for small chips to occur on either. In most cases with a stone bottle, these chips can be removed without altering the appeal of the work of art, but because they are both expected and minor, they are often left as they are, as is the case here. It is entirely a matter of personal choice, of course, and some people are more concerned about absolute perfection than others. Our view is that the higher the art, the less important minor problems of condition, and as long as any unsightly damage can be repaired so that it does not interfere with the original artistic conception, then it becomes relatively irrelevant.

 

This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s

 

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