Rhinoceros Horn Carvings Collection for Christie’s Auction

Christie’s Hong Kong will offer 30 magnificent rhinoceros horn carvings from Part II from the Songzhutang collection, (Part I sold in May 2008,) ‘The Pine and Bamboo Studio’, on Monday, 31 May 2010. One of the finest known private collections, passionately assembled by a connoisseur over 30 years, this auction provides institutions and private collectors with a historic opportunity to obtain exceedingly fine, museum-quality, examples of this treasured and honoured art form. Unique in their designs and execution, the works illustrates a range of forms, motifs and techniques.

The rich variety of subjects depicted comprise landscapes and figures, plants and insects, fish and birds, as well as scenes from daily life, plays on auspicious subjects, and themes taken from literary works of the time. Spanning the 16th, 17th and 18th century, with estimates ranging from HK$50,000/US$6,500 to HK$4,000,000/US$520,000, the collection is expected to realise in excess of HK$30,000,000/US$3,900,000.

For centuries, rhinoceros horn carvings have been considered among the most valued of ancient Chinese works of art; combining great rarity, skill and beauty with socio-cultural and historic significance. Highly prized for medicinal and mystical powers, the horn material was extremely precious and expensive to obtain, making carvings such as the present examples very difficult to acquire and commissions rare. Native Chinese rhinoceroses were extinct by 500BC and the majority of surviving horns were special imports, brought as exotic gifts from Africa, India, Java and Malaya and fashioned by Chinese craftsmen for emperors and the social elite. Today, surviving examples are scarce and highly sought-after, with a maximum of 4,000 works believed to exist. Christie’s are pleased to provide this collection with an international sale platform that enables a wide audience to witness the beauty of this art form and to learn about its place in the history of China.

Leading highlights from the collection include themes which are seldom seen on rhinoceros horn carvings, such as an exceptionally rare, crisply carved, ‘Hundred Boys’ libation cup, depicting boys occupied with various playful pursuits in a landscape scene (estimate: HK$3,500,000-4,000,000/US$450,000-520,000), dated to the late Ming dynasty, early 17th century. As early as the Southern Song dynasty, the imagery of boys at play, set in a garden scene, became a favoured theme in paintings popularised by the Southern Song court artist, Su Hanchen, who was active during early 12th century. An example of Su Hanchen’s painting is in the National Palace Museum collection, Taipei, entitled ‘Boys at Play in an Autumn Garden.’ The theme of ‘a hundred boys’ became symbolic of progeny and fulfillment of Confucian ideals in education, and the advancement of sons. As such, this type of pictorial image was propagated on a wide range of decorative objects throughout the late Ming to early Qing dynasties, including porcelain, jade, textile and lacquerware. Once part of the Fowler Museum Collection, California, this cup highlights the fine provenance of works in the Songzhutang Collection.

A further example of such rare themes is an early Qing dynasty, late 17th century libation cup, exquisitely carved in high relief to depict ‘Eight Stallions’ roaming carefree in a landscape scene (estimate: HK$2,500,000-3,000,000/US$320,000-390,000). This theme was inspired by the eight legendary horses that once belonged to King Mu of the Western Zhou dynasty who gave each horse a fanciful name such as ‘Beyond Earth’ and ‘Rush by Night.’ In ancient times, horses were symbolic of status and military power. During the Tang dynasty, only the emperor and the nobility at court were able to ride on horses. Horse imagery was popularly portrayed in Chinese paintings from the Tang dynasty onwards but is not thought to have become fashionable as a decorative motif on works of art until the late Ming dynasty. This work, of attractive golden honey and warm walnut tones, has not been on the market for over a decade, when it was last sold in London.

Also of particular note is a late Ming dynasty, early 17th century, rare ‘Raft-form’ pouring vessel (estimate: HK$3,000,000-3,500,000/US$390,000-450,000). A highly evocative work, the fine carving shows an idealised depiction of the Han dynasty statesman Zhang Qian floating down the Yangzi River in a hollowed log with swirling waves; he holds a lotus stem and has a basket filled with flowers and peaches by his side. Zhang Qian’s travels were later embellished into legendary poems and were a popular theme during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. This subject features in a small number of about twenty other known rhinoceros horn carvings of this date. Executed in a variety of sizes and with different interpretations of the figure, they embody one of the most complex and interesting forms within the medium. Highly sought after, examples are prized works within the collections of renowned institutions such as The Palace Museum in Beijing; The Shanghai Museum; The Harvard University Art Museum; The National Palace Museum of Taipei; The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

Elsewhere in the collection is a large, yet elegantly proportioned, Ming dynasty, early 17th century ‘Archaistic Chilong’ libation cup (estimate: HK$2,500,000-3,000,000/US$320,000-390,000). Beautifully carved in dark amber rhinoceros horn, the mid-section of the cup depicts a band of stylized phoenix and dragons in shallow relief, with five sinuous chilong clambering up the Sshaped handle, peering over the rim, and two more at the front. This work was also originally part of the Fowler Museum Collection, California.

Other key works include a very fine Qing dynasty, 18th century ‘Three String’ vase, lai fu zun (estimate: HK$1,800,000-2,500,000/US$230,000-320,000). An elegant form with high-shoulders and a rounded body, the distinctive shape is best known in slightly larger porcelain ‘peachbloom-glazed’ examples from the Kangxi period of the mid 17th and early 18th century, known as san xian ping, ‘three string vases’ or lai fu zun, radish shaped vases. Together these rare vases form part of a group of vessels made for the scholar’s desk known as the ‘eight prescribed peachbloom shapes’ of the Kangxi period. It appears that such vase-shaped vessels were popular in the Qing dynasty. The warm honey tone of this horn, with darker walnut-brown striations, is very attractive and compliments the graceful line of the vase.

Raft-form rhinoceros horn pouring vessel Kangxi period (1662-1722), 7 1/2 in. (19 cm.) long. Estimate: US$390,000 – 450,000. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd 2010.