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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 November 2013: Lot 65 

Lot 65

Lot 65
Treasury 2, no. 258 (‘The Zhirou Zhai Western Agate’)

Agate; extremely well hollowed, with a concave lip and concave foot surrounded by a tiny rounded footrim
Official School, perhaps palace workshops, Beijing, 1730–1840
Height: 5.32 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.72/1.94 and 1.88 cm (oval)
Stopper: glass; vinyl collar     

Zhirou Zhai Collection
Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1993)

Kleiner 1995, no. 258
Treasury 2, no. 258

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

Research related to the Bloch collection has convinced us that this large school of hardstone bottles carved with subjects that were relevant to the values and aspirations of officials is strongly connected with the court. (These bottles should be distinguished from other groups of chalcedony bottles already well established and recognized as imperial.) Although we believe that the impetus for the group as a whole was imperial and that the bottles were produced in large quantities as gifts to aspiring officials, the school cannot have failed to elicit a response from other workshops; it is unlikely that everything that appears to be from the group will prove to be imperial in source or even official in audience. It is also likely that they were produced in several different workshops, some of them private. This makes attribution particularly difficult. We have designated bottles from this school as imperial and attributed them to particular workshops only where there is supplementary evidence for doing so.

In our attempts to unravel this broad group, subject matter and form are our main guides, although not always reliable ones. For more on the form, see Sale 5, lot 163. By the mid-nineteenth century this characteristic shape had been adopted for ceramic bottles made in at Jingdezhen (see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 241), another possible indication that it was originally a palace form, since Jingdezhen frequently produced porcelain bottles for the court based on imperial bottles in other materials, and imperial designers preparing orders for the imperial kilns would have been inspired by existing palace shapes.

The hollowing is exceptional in this case, another possible indication of imperial production. It seems that super-hollowing, sometimes verging on the miraculous, began during the mid-Qing period, perhaps in the late Qianlong era and continued to be popular well into the nineteenth century. It cannot have remained a feature exclusive to the court. Knowing it was popular at court is still useful, however, particularly in conjunction with other technical, formal, and symbolic features.

The cloud-like markings of this bottle are a common feature on a range of well-hollowed chalcedony bottles, often of this pale honey-beige colour range (see, for instance, Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, nos. 133, 136, and 149). The effect is brought out by excellent hollowing, but is not solely a function of it, which is a common misconception. The effect is nearly always intriguing and is frequently left to stand alongside material and form as a principal language of the work of art, as here. We believe that this effect must be what Zhou Jixu referred to in his commentary to Zhao Zhiqian’s Yonglu xianjie (cf. Richard John Lynn’s translation, JICSBS, Summer 1995, p. 8).When Zhao writes that ‘There are extremely few true ‘Western agate’ (yang ma’nao) bottles, Zhou adds, ‘The inside of the true [Western agate] resemble fish scales standing erect’. He must surely mean this effect, raising the question of how accurate his observations were and whether this effect does, in fact, mean that the material was imported from the West, as we know a great deal of material was. Much earlier, Shen Defu (1578 – 1642) had written that the best agate came from the West, although he mentions good agate from a particular prefecture in Yunnan (Feifu yulüe) and large pieces from Liaodong. Although Shen does not describe the unique features of Western agate, his observations support the idea that the material was in fact imported.


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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