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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 November 2013: Lot 56 

Lot 56

Lot 56
Treasury 1, no. 56 (‘Black Jade Goldfish’)

Nephrite; in the form of a fan-tailed goldfish; carved with long leaves emerging from its mouth and running down each side of its body and with a frog and aquatic plants beneath its belly
Attributable to Suzhou, 1720–1850
Length: 6.55 cm
Mouth: 0.55 cm
Stopper: coral, carved as a flame; vinyl collar

Sotheby’s, New York, 27 June 1986, lot 91
Arts of China (Hong Kong, 1988)

Treasury 1, no. 56
Chinese Snuff Bottles. A Miniature Art, no. 51

Hong Kong Museum of Art, 1994. National Museum, Singapore, 1994/5

This bottle is very closely related to the similar design from the J & J Collection (see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 6, where the reasons for a Suzhou attribution are given). Both are of fan-tailed goldfish of similar material, using a paler streak in the material as a horizontal band (here carved as long leaves flowing in the water from the fish’s mouth) and both have pale grey-white material beneath the fish carved into relief detail, in this case a frog but with aquatic plants similar to those that accompany the crab apple on the other J & J example. It seems highly likely that it is from the same hand, or at the very least the same workshop, and probably from the same period.

Jade-carvers who used coloured pebbles were often restricted by the distinctive shape and colouring of individual pieces of material, which probably accounts for the quite different sculptural qualities of the two bottles. The J & J example is of a more generous form, the fat fish quite uninhibited by the size of the available material, whereas the form of this one seems to be dictated more by the shape of the stone. It is thinner, and the tail is closer to the body, losing the three-dimensionality and free-standing appearance of the other. Apart from these formal differences, however, the carving is of equal quality and the style almost identical.

The material here is darker, the grey nephrite being closer to black. The very lively frog on the fish’s belly also adds a degree of personality to the overall sculpture, which is quite different from the other example, recreating the dynamism that is lost to some extent by the constrictions of the stone in the sculpting of the fish itself, a lovely touch that could only have been intentional from the hand of a master sculptor. Carved out of a paler material with a hint of brown colouring suggesting that it may have been close to the surface of the pebble, the frog has one leg extended and one tucked into its body, as if swimming through obstacles, and its hind legs are, indeed, constrained by the floating plants behind it. It stretches forward, apparently to grasp the fin of the swimming fish, before it moves beyond its grasp. This movement of the entire group is suggested powerfully by the streaming leaves in the goldfish’s mouth.
The configuration of the material has dictated that the streaks of paler material that have been carved as streaming leaves are not horizontal to the line of the fish, one side being higher than the other. This was presumably dictated by the shape of the pebble and the need to use as much of it as possible in creating the fish. Any ordinary sculptor would simply have left the two streaks uneven and made the rest of the fish even, and had he done so, no one would have noticed any lack of grace with carving of this quality. Quality alone, however, never made for high art and it is in touches of inspirational genius that high art transcends mere technique. Here the genius of this particular master comes across in the fact that he has made one eye slightly higher than the other, curved the line of the back unevenly to one side as it sweeps down to the mouth, and offset the opening for the mouth of the bottle to the other side. This adjusts for the imbalance of the streaks and adds immense personality to the fish when viewed from the front. It is the sort of touch one would expect of a Suzhou master capable of such complete control of the medium, but one that might not be noticed under normal circumstances.

This bottle was probably intended to be enjoyed solely in the hand, since it does not stand, and the only passably comfortable position in which to set it down on a flat surface is on one side with the frog facing upwards, which is, of course, at odds with the sculptural form. The fish is quite clearly meant to be swimming, although the water around it is left to the imagination, and the only sensible orientation is to have the frog at the bottom of the sculpture and the fish in its natural position in the water.


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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