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INSIDE EVERY YIXING TEAPOT: THE COLOR PURPLE

A Yixing gold-leaf calligraphy teapot featuring a Jiaqing-Daoguang mark achieved $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021. Image courtesy Robert Slawinski Auctioneers, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Tea has played a major role in Chinese life and culture for millennia. By the year 1000, it was prepared by crumbling the tea shrub’s fragrant leaves, mixing them with hot water, then sipping the brew from bowls. Yixing teapots developed soon after this technique arose, and continued through the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 through 1911).

The pots were fashioned from exceptionally hard purple zisha clay, which is unique to the region of Yixing, China. Alhough it is known as “five-color clay,” added metal oxides, along with variations in firing temperatures and kiln environments, created vessels in shades ranging from black and brown to yellowish-brown, buff and ivory.

Creating tiny Yixing teapots, initially favored by scholars and merchants, required great artistry and skill. Once the clay was readied for use and pounded into thin sheets, it was cut into rectangular and round segments. Many were then press-molded into standard teapot components bodies, handles, lids, and spouts then assembled by hand.

A Yixing Teapot by Gu Jingzhou rose to NT$1,700,000 (roughly $61,000) plus the buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of JSL Auction Co., Taiwan, and LiveAuctioneers

Alternatively, master potters created pots by hand from start to finish. First, they patiently paddled and smoothed their clay segments into desired angles and curves. After forming them into bodies, they carefully cut top openings and created lids. Then they added pre-made handles, spouts, and finials. Firing followed.

Because Yixing teapots evolved over many generations, their forms vary greatly. Scores resemble pyramids, squares, curved-squares, rectangles, or curved-rectangles. Others are conical or globular, or mimic the shapes of melons, peaches, or pears. Still others simulate gracefully draped cloth. Another notable style features exquisite double-walled reticulated designs against grounds of clay in contrasting shades.

This Chinese reticulated double-walled Yixing stoneware bamboo-shaped teapot and cover realized €3,400 (roughly $4,500) plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Rob Michiels Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Yixing teapot designs vary from simple to sumptuous. The smooth, unglazed, unadorned forms, favored by many embody the subtle beauty associated with Chinese aesthetics. So, too, do those displaying Chinese proverbs or poems inscribed in gilt-incised calligraphy, and those graced with delicate gilded dragons, blossoms, or landscapes.

This plum blossom poem-pattern tube teapot was bid to CA$20,000 (about $16,000) plus the buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Leaderbon Arts Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Themed Yixing pots often feature charming details such as mushroom-shaped lids, gourd-shaped spouts, scaly dragon-tail handles, molded fruit or flower appliques, and auspicious three-legged turtle finials. Others are lacquered, enameled, or encased in pewter. Many of these pots also incorporate incised character seal marks or artist signatures, as well as names of ruling emperors, into their designs.

An antique Zisha Yixing teapot with famille rose polychrome enameling and calligraphy sold for $1,200 plus the buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy Madison Square Gallery, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Yixing teapots are treasured not only as works of art, but also because they brew exceptional cups of tea. These cups are traditionally prepared according to gongfu, an elaborate Chinese ritual expressly suited to small pots.

After rinsing a teapot with hot, mineral-rich spring water, then emptying it, the host lines its bottom with tea leaves. She closes its lid, waits several seconds, opens the lid and inhales its aroma, sharing it with her guests. Next, she refills the pot, covers it, and empties it — a process that allows the leaves to expand. At that point, she adds boiling water, steeps the tea for 20 to 30 seconds, pours it into a serving pitcher, and samples it, noting its texture, taste and aftertaste. Finally, she serves it in very small cups. When the brew has been depleted, she briefly steeps the leaves again, ensuring that each cup of tea will remain hot.

An 18th-century Yixing teapot and cover sold for $750 plus the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Eddie’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Through the years, aficionados noticed that the more they brewed tea in their Yixing pot, the better the tea tasted. This is because when mineral-rich clay is fired, it creates a characteristic granular, porous surface. The enhanced permeability allows Yixing teapots to adapt to changes in temperature and “breathe,” which enhances its flavor and aroma. Yixing pots also absorb delicate oils and trace minerals that tea leaves leave behind at each brewing. In fact, some claim, only half-joking, that adding boiling water alone to an antique, well-seasoned Yixing pot will produce full-flavored tea.

No wonder hardcore tea-drinkers eschew the mundane “muddying of the waters” in favor of steeping a favorite type of tea in the traditional manner reserved for a Yixing teapot.

Treasures for the dead: Tang dynasty terra cotta figures

This elegant, hollow-molded Tang dynasty terra cotta horse realized £7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.
Image courtesy Pax Romana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The Tang dynasty (618-907), considered a Chinese golden age, was famed for its flourishing trade, cosmopolitan culture, and artistic achievements. Terra cotta production, in particular, thrived.

In addition to inventing underglaze decorative techniques, perfecting monochrome glazes, and creating utilitarian wares, Tang potters created scores of hollow, molded sculptures, intended solely for burial in noble and imperial tombs. These so-called ‘spirit goods,’ known as mingqi, reflect fascinating aspects of Tang customs, values, and beliefs.

This Tang dynasty ceramic dancer with outstretched arms realized £1,900 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020.
Image courtesy TimeLine Auctions Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

Mingqi were created to attend the dead, fulfilling their needs and offering comfort in the afterlife. Because music was highly appreciated in the Tang court, elite burial chambers often featured troupes of elegant mingqi dancing girls, accompanied by sculpted musicians tooting flutes, plucking lutes, tinkling bells, and tolling chimes. Court officials and plump courtesans, fluttering fans, looked on.

Twelve Tang dynasty animal figures representing the Chinese zodiac, which sold for £32,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.
Image courtesy of Pax Romana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Lunar-based zodiacs, featuring a specific animal for each year, were customarily consulted to determine destinies. For this reason, zodiac mingqisets of 12 imaginary animals finely modeled in official robes were especially desirable. These Tang dynasty terra cotta figures may have indicated personal piety or gratitude for prosperity.

Bactrian camels first appeared in Chinese art during this era, when many made fortunes trading along the Silk Road, according to Dr. Ivan Bonchev, Director at Pax Romana Ltd, a specialist gallery and auction house. These humble, two-humped beasts of burden represented economic opportunity and riches. Naturally, aristocrats and merchants alike commissioned camel mingqi for their tombs.

Tang dynasty ceramic Bactrian camel with rider sold for £5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.
Image courtesy Pax Romana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many of these Tang dynasty terra cotta figures realistically arch their necks or toss their heads back. Some kneel, saddled and ready for loading, with hind legs up, forelegs tucked beneath, head aloft, and mouth open, as if braying. Others bear Persian riders, identified by thick beards and non-Asiatic features. These camel mingqi indicate not only the personal wealth, prestige, and cosmopolitan nature of the deceased; they also represent the cultural, artistic, and religious links between China, Central Asia, and Arabia.

Horses, an important symbol in Chinese culture and art since the Neolithic period, also represented Tang status and nobility. It is said that Emperor Xuanzong, who reigned from 685-762, graced his herd of 100 with exquisitely embroidered finery, gold and silver halters, and ornamental jade and pearls. Zhang Yue, a poet of the day, claims the empero had them taught to dance.

The emperor’s dragon-colts are well-trained.

These celestial thoroughbreds are amazing.

Nimbly prancing, they keep in step with the music.

High-spirited, they step together, never deviating.

Horse mingqi, like camels, were often fashioned in charming, lifelike poses. Many are shown lifting forelegs, flaring nostrils, perking up ears, or twisting as they stand, strut, rear, trot, or leap. Scores feature only elaborate empty saddles. Others bear riders grasping reins, leaning forward, or bracing backward.

Pair of ceramic Tang dynasty female polo players depicted mid-match, without stands, which sold for £8,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2021.
Image courtesy Pax Romana Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Love of horses spurred the popularity of polo, an exciting Persian mounted team sport. Not only emperors, noblemen, government officials, and aristocrats playedso did well-off women. Polo player mingqi imitate life. Some, depicted at full gallop, rise up in their saddles, their mallets outstretched. Others are shown angling mallets aside to protect equine flanks. Yet sets of two carefully coiffed, heavily rouged women, competing mid-match, are the most dynamic of all.

Simple Tang dynasty terra cotta figures, such as servants and farm animals, were often left unglazed or brushed with simple white, buff, or straw-colored slip. More impressive ones were partially or fully glazed in sancai, an earthy mix of yellow, green, and creamy-white pigments reserved for members of the Tang aristocracy. Choice mingqi, however, boast bits of cobalt blue, a hue more treasured than gold.

Tang descendants, in their hour of need, traditionally beseeched ancestors for heavenly help. Mourners, with an eye toward the future, furnished family burial chambers not only with arrays of attendant mingqi, but also powerful protectors.

Matched pair of terra cotta sanca-glazed Lokapala figures, which sold for $82,500 plus the buyer’s premium in 2014.
Image courtesy of Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Fantastical beings called ‘earth spirits,’ for instance, repelled any malevolent beasts that might intrude. Fierce, armor-clad Lokapalas, also known as the Four Heavenly King guards, kept dead spirits safe and also kept them from roaming.

The number of mingqi in a Tang dynasty burial chamber varied according to the rank of its deceased. A government official might, for example, be limited to 90, while an imperial family member might merit hundreds.

Tang dynasty terra cotta figures were traditionally displayed in ritual burial processions. Then all were placed along what was called the “spirit road,” which sloped toward an underground chamber. Once the casket was in place, the soft, low-fired, mingqi were arranged within, creating a personalized paradise.

None were meant to be seen again.

CHINESE GINGER JARS ADD SPICE TO DECOR

Kangxi period ginger jar depicting a gathering of Chinese figures, which realized €11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy Veilinghuis de Jager and LiveAuctioneers

Ginger jars Chinese high-shouldered, ovoid, lidded, utilitarian porcelain vessels were long used to store and transport oil, wine, salt, and spices. Decorative ones, however, date from the Ming Dynasty era (1368–1644). Created in mineral-rich Jingdezhen-area kilns, such jars were produced for domestic use, bestowed at festive ceremonies, or destined for the Chinese Imperial court. Large quantities of ginger jars were also exported to Europe.

Ming porcelain ginger jar featuring eight Immortals against a landscape, which sold for $2,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Sofe Design Auctions, LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Many ginger jars feature underglaze cobalt blue images of scrolling foliage, warriors, phoenix birds, or sinuous dragons set against milk-white grounds. Others, known as “three-color,” or sancai jars, display deep violet, yellow, and turquoise floral motifs defined by cloisonne-like raised lines. Eye-catching five-color wucai jars have underglaze blue designs enhanced with bold, overglazed yellow, green, and red enamel detail.

During the decline of the Ming Dynasty, the Jingdezhen kilns not only lost Imperial support, but were largely destroyed. However, they and other private kilns regained artistic and technical distinction under the auspices of Kangxi (1661-1722), an early Qing Dynasty emperor. As the demand for porcelains increased, production evolved into specialized, more efficient subsets – e.g., mining, mixing, and shaping. Firing at extremely high temperatures created pieces that were glossier and brighter than those of the Ming era.

Imari export glazed ginger jar, which realized $2,200 plus the buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

With the expansion of Chinese maritime trade, merchants protected delicate exports, such as silks and tea leaves, by lining ship holds with rows of sturdy, waterproof porcelain jars. These commonly held precious spices, including ginger, a staple of Chinese medicine and cuisine. Because the British associated these vessels with treats such as ginger beer, ginger biscuits and gingerbread, they commonly called them “ginger jars.” Due to the fact that they were obviously finer than locally produced porcelain, they became valued more for their beauty than their contents.

Once ginger jars had become coveted decorative items, Chinese potteries exported them by the millions. Those depicting traditional blue-and-white figures, florals, or landscapes are not only most common, but remain the most desirable—especially if they still have their original lids.

Chinese famille rose foliage ginger jar, which sold for $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Bernards Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Antique ginger jars are often classified according to their dominant color palette. Those featuring vibrant shades of green, a type that emerged during the Ming dynasty, are known as famille verte. Ginger jars featuring famille verte elements against a ground of yellow, a hue reserved for high-ranking Qing officials, are known as famille jaune. Famille rose, another ornamental jar type, features motifs such as birds, peonies, prunus, or chrysanthemums in pale pink to ruby-red tones.

Chinese export famille verte ginger jar depicting warriors in a garden, which sold for $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers

From the mid-1700s, China began flooding the European market with their lucrative ginger jars – dubbed “Chinese Imari” vessels – which were inspired by exceptionally fine porcelain items that had long been popular in Japan. These highly glazed pieces typically feature blue underglaze oriental motifs adorned with overglaze fauna, flora, and figures in vivid shades of green, yellow, red, and black.

Because porcelain ginger jars associated with particular historical eras frequently were copied by subsequent generations of ceramicists, they may prove difficult to date. Some bearing Kangxi reign marks, for instance, were actually produced centuries later to honor that vibrant artistic era.

Carved cinnabar covered ginger jar with figures against landscape, which garnered $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy Midwest Auction Galleries, Inc. and Live Auctioneers

Following an ages-old tradition, Chinese craftsmen also decorated ginger jars with highly detailed three-dimensional designs carved in red-orange cinnabar, a sap derived from the Chinese lacquer tree. Numerous examples depict opulent peony blossoms amid scrolling leaves, vines, or bamboo branches. Others portray charming images of villagers in popular pursuits set against lush Chinese landscapes. But those featuring auspicious five-clawed dragons or raised bat motifs against finely wrought so-called “diaper” or geometric latticework grounds may be most desirable of all.

Today, antique ginger jars, whatever their style, are not restricted to private collections and museums. Whether gracing entrance halls and mantelpieces or repurposed as vases or centerpieces, they lend an air of classic Chinese elegance to any interior design.

Large Burmese Buddha graces Asian art auction Dec. 26

Jasper52 will conduct a finely curated Asian antiques and antiquities auction on Thursday, Dec. 26, bringing together ancient Chinese artifacts, impressive Buddha statues and much more, creating a comprehensive representation of the Far East tradition.

Shan Buddha, Burma,18th century, wood with lacquer, 24in with mount. Estimate: $3,500-$4,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Jade: why some buyers are obsessed

NEW YORK – Jade is at the center of a story of money and magic that goes back over 8,000 years. In China, its use dates back to the Neolithic period, between 6000 and 5000 B.C. The mysterious bi discs and cong vessels found in burials of this period testify to its ritual significance.

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) said, “The wise have likened jade to virtue,” and went on to link its various strengths to human qualities. Difficult to find, almost impossible to work with tools, the mineral’s pull on the heartstrings began early. Then and now, jade displayed the owner’s wealth and also served as a protective talisman to ensure longevity and good fortune.

This very fine pure white Hetian jade representation of Lingzhi, a naturally occurring fungus that is said to ensure longevity, brought $54,450 at a Gianguan Auction. The 15½-inch-long Qing Dynasty sculpture includes a small dragon and other long-life symbols. Courtesy: Gianguan Auctions

After well over a decade of headline-grabbing prices, the market for Chinese jade – both objects and jewelry – remains complex and difficult to navigate. Buyers who appear discriminating and highly selective at one moment can be maddeningly capricious at others. Museum criteria are not always valid. Neither age nor appearance nor history guarantees a sale. Emotion may trump reason on the auction floor. When a particular object speaks to more than one bidder – when they must have it in their life – rational estimates are left far behind.

Beginning in the 17th century and continuing into the 20th, Europeans, and later Americans, formed collections of Chinese art, including jade. Much of what they gathered entered the permanent collections of museums. As part of the centennial celebration of their Asian Art department, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized “A Passion for Jade: The Heber Bishop Collection,” a 2015-2016 exhibition of a hundred examples. When the patron of the arts donated his jades to the museum in 1902, it was considered so important that the Metropolitan re-created Heber’s ornate ballroom as a gallery to display the collection.

In the late 20th and early 21st century, Asian collectors began competing in the international market to buy back jade objects that emerged from Western private collections, a trend that has driven up values. In March 2015 in the New York Asian sales, Christie’s presented the collection of noted American dealer/collector/scholar Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in multiple parts with a separate catalog devoted to Qing Dynasty ceramics, glass and jade carvings. Among the “top ten” were a diminutive green and russet jade seal, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that sold for $221,000 (est. $4,000-$6,000), three strands of archaic jade beads, $209,000 (est. $6,000-$8,000), and a jade cong, Eastern Zhou Dynasty, 7th-6th century B.C., for $161,000 (est. $30,000-$50,000).

This Imperial Chinese whitish-celadon jade mountain, early 18th century, sold for $195,200 at I.M. Chait. The scene of two sages on a pathway near plum blossom trees beneath an incised and gilt poem would have been an object of contemplation in a scholar’s study. Courtesy: I.M. Chait

At one time, Chinese buyers were cut off from the market, but over the past 15 years, they have been very active buyers, not only of jade, but also luxury goods of all types.  . The whole market changed. Because of the Ellsworth name, a thousand Chinese from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou flew in on private jets just to vie for pieces from the fabled collection.

Before buying jade, it is advisable to study the origin, history, varieties and styles of jade production. There are two important varieties of jade: nephrite, found in China and Central Asia, which was used for most of the archaeological, historic, and antique jade objects made in China; and jadeite, imported from Burma beginning in the late 18th century, which is a precious stone used principally for fine jewelry. The Chinese word for jade – yu – is vague and refers to either material, as well as several other hard stones.

A more technical analysis is provided by the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin: “Jadeite is a sodium-rich aluminous pyroxene; nephrite is a fine-grained, calcium-rich, magnesium, iron, aluminous amphibole. All jade is composed of fine-grained, highly intergrown, interlocking … crystals of one of both of these minerals. Though neither mineral is very hard (6-7), jade is one of the toughest gem minerals known because of the intergrown nature of the individual crystals.”

A small amount of Cr [chromium] in jadeite accounts for the translucent color known as imperial jade. This article deals principally with antique nephrite artifacts, because the jadeite jewelry market hinges on the quality of the individual precious stones, regardless of age. In 2014, a string of exceptionally large, perfectly matched jadeite beads with a ruby and diamond Cartier clasp, once the property of American heiress Barbara Hutton, sold for $27.44 million in Hong Kong [at Sotheby’s], more than doubling its estimate.

Variations in color on a piece of nephrite jade often inspired craftsmen; this unusual stone became light and dark cats playing while a rust-colored bat flutters at one end. The Qing dynasty sculpture is one example from a large collection formed by Avery Brundage (1887-1975), which became the foundation of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Courtesy: Asian Art Museum

Great American museum collections of jade are a source of scholarly research illustrated with important examples. Industrialist Avery Brundage (1887-1975) was president of the International Olympic Committee for 20 years and a determined collector of jade objects. When he gave his collection to the City of San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum was created to display it. The unique properties of jade, cited in the geological analysis above, directly influence how jade objects are created.

Although market descriptions often refer to jade “carvings,” the Asian Art Museum provides the following “how it was done” information for visitors: “Jade cannot be carved. Because of its hardness, it can rarely be shaped by chiseling or chipping but must be worn away by abrasion with tools and hard sand pastes. This is a process that requires immense patience – even with modern machinery…. Because the process was so labor-intensive and time-consuming, jades reflected the ability of a ruling elite to command resources, and therefore came to symbolize power, status, and prestige.” The difficulty of working jade makes the results achieved by craftsmen even more remarkable.

Collectors interested in exploring the museum’s collection further can turn to Later Chinese Jades: Ming Dynasty to Early Twentieth Century (2007) by Terese Tse Bartholomew, Michael Knight and He Li, which contains 400 individual object entries. The volume focuses on a particular period: “Nearly a decade in the making, this will become the definitive guide to Chinese jades from the Ming dynasty through the early twentieth century. This was a particularly rich period in jade production. As this book reveals—based on the most current scholarship—many jade objects previously thought to be of ancient manufacture were actually produced in these later periods.” For example, the museum owns a very pale green nephrite vessel with handle, made in the 19th century during the Qing Dynasty, which copies a bronze jia wine vessel from the much older Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.).

An essential accessory for a scholar’s desk, this brush pot of brilliant green spinach jade, a type of nephrite, is decorated with a mountain forest scene featuring scholars playing chess. The large pot, with a earlier Spink & Son Ltd. label on base, sold for $75,000 at an I.M. Chait auction. Courtesy: I.M. Chait

Although “jade green” is a common description, both minerals come in a range of colors, which occur because of the presence of trace elements. Nephrite can be pure white, soft yellow, pale to bright green, deep spinach green, violet, or brown with varied mottling and mixtures. Coloration often suggested subject matter to craftsmen; the light and dark cats illustrated emerged from a particularly interesting piece of stone. Bright green, transparent or translucent jadeite has always been in demand for jewelry, but the mineral also comes in other colors including white, violet, and orange. Unfortunately, jade colors can be enhanced with dyes. Auction houses will often require that jade consignments be submitted to GIA – Gemological Institute of America – for testing to rule out tampering. Just as later Chinese artists copied earlier jade styles, clever artisans today make reproductions of popular styles and periods, so it makes sense to buy only from reputable specialists.

Asian treasures abound in Jasper52 auction Oct. 2

Seventy-one lots of outstanding Asian antiques are presented in an online auction to be conducted by Jasper52 on Wednesday, Oct. 2. Among this diverse offering are hand-painted Chinese ceramics, Ming Dynasty tomb figures, carved netsuke, Japanese weaponry and more, creating a comprehensive representation of the Asian tradition.

A lifesize Sino-Tibetan bronze or copper model of a skull, later 19th-20th century, about 9½in long x about 7½in high. Estimate: $3,500-$4,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Satsuma: how the West was won over

NEW YORK – Satsuma earthenware dates to the 1590s, when master Korean potters established kilns in Kyushu, in southern Japan. Initially, they crafted small, simple water jars, incense boxes, and tea ceremony components from dark clay. After the discovery of local cream-colored clay, however, these pieces featured floral or geometric designs with soft yellow glazing.

Globular, gilded, enameled Satsuma jar featuring a continuous scene of carriage in a garden against a foliate base, Meiji Period, signed, early 20th century. Sold for $13,000 in 2005. Image courtesy of Doyle New York and LiveAuctioneers

From the late 1700s, these potters, influenced by the rising popularity of Imari porcelain, produced overglaze vessels featuring delicate, hand-painted, multicolor enamel brocade and floral patterns embellished with liquid gold. Final firings, resulting in differing cooling rates between their bodies and glazes, created their characteristic mellow yellow, minutely crackled glaze. The most decorative teasets, vases, trays, brush pots, and incense burners were likely reserved for daimyōs and other high-ranking dignitaries.

Squat vase with elongated neck decorated in polychrome enamels and gilt on a clear crackle glaze depicting daimyo procession, signed with gilt seal, Yabu Meizan, 5.25 inches tall, realized $7,000 in 2014. Image courtesy of A.B. Levy’s Palm Beach and Liveauctioneers

After centuries of self-imposed isolation, the “Enlightened” Meiji emperor not only embraced modernization, but also promoted exports by showcasing Japanese arts at European international exhibitions. After introducing exquisitely detailed Satsuma bowls and massive vases at the Paris International Exhibition of 1867, their wares were displayed worldwide, from Vienna and Hamburg to St. Petersburg and Chicago. Their exotic charm and beauty created a sensation.

As the Satsuma craze spread, Japanese artists worked feverishly to create pieces expressly for export. To encourage sales further, they followed their perception of Western tastes. So instead of realistic scenes, their gilded tea caddies, plates, bowls and incense burners bear stylized pagodas, courtesans, demons and dragons against dense bird-and-flower grounds.

Pairs of towering vases were especially popular. Scores depict continuous, go-round images like daimyō processions or crowds entering kabuki theaters. Others, divided into decorative panels, feature contrasting scenarios. Samurai archers oppose bucolic scenes of nature, for instance, and children at play face plump, perching partridges. However, because these earthenware vases were fired at lower temperatures than porcelain, they—and indeed all Satsuma, are purely decorative.

A Satsuma plate featuring festively clad courtesans and children, Kinkozan, realized $3,000 in 2011. Image courtesy of Artingstall Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Satsuma-style workshops, employing numerous potters and painters under the auspices of kiln masters, soon spread from Kyushu to Osaka, Kyoto, Yokohama and Tokyo. Their varied clays, pigments, glazes and methods resulted in a wide range of colors and crackles. Moreover, many craftsmen hastily painted designs on blank, glazed stoneware. Yet to Westerners, all “Satsuma,” whatever their origins, evoked the romance and splendor of the East.

Unfortunately, as production increased, previously consistent standards of quality gave way to shoddy workmanship, overly ornate designs, and lack of artistic creativity. By the mid-1880s, sales of such mass-produced Satsuma had diminished.

All the while, select kiln masters continued creating traditional Satsuma – hand-painted masterpieces featuring restrained, well balanced designs and time-honored themes edged by rich, repetitive borders.

Satsuma gold and polychrome decorated incense burner (koro), Kinkozan, 7 inches x 6.5 inches, realized $1,000 in 2017. Image courtesy of The Popular Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Many examples, reflecting the national love of nature, depict harmonious landscapes embellished with beloved crane, butterfly, cherry blossom, peony, or chrysanthemum motifs. Others, depicting festivals and processions, feature geishas with parasols, scholars studying scrolls, children flying kites, or musicians performing. Though these were portrayed with minute brushstrokes— perhaps even slender rats’ hairs, their facial expressions, amazingly, reflect the full range of human emotions. In fact, say historians, some resemble notables of the time.

A number of master painters, likely courting fame or fortune, signed their creations. Others cleverly worked their names, or the names of their studios, into elements of their artwork. In this way, Hozan, Seikozan, Kikozan and Ryozan, for example, became known for their characteristic techniques, subject manner, styles, and harmony between form and design.

Finely decorated Satsuma bowl, interior with butterflies, exterior with wisteria vines above chrysanthemums and other flowers, base with gilt two-character mark within a brown cartouche on a chrysanthemum ground, 4 inches x 4.5 inches, realized $3,200 in 2009. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Serious Satsuma collectors often seek work by Yabu Meizan, whose masterpieces earned extensive recognition at international ceramic exhibitions and world fairs. Many feature exquisitely detailed images of everyday activities like potters, swordsmiths, fan makers and paper makers at work. Scores depict natural motifs, like maple branches or dragonflies darting among morning glories, against simple, creamy grounds.

Other enthusiasts pursue small, rare works by Nakamura Baikei. These embody not only a skillful use of color, but also expressive brushwork and motifs ranging from amusing to martial. They also feature expansive inscriptions extolling his own incomparable artistic skills.

Rare Satsuma, reflecting superior artwork and detail, pleasing proportions, and unusual subject matter as executed by master craftsmen, are the most desirable of all. In addition to their characteristic fine-crackled glaze, these splendors often incorporate delicate dots and strands of liquid gold applied with the tiniest tips of tiniest brushes. Amid the tasteful elegance, they shimmer.

Prized Asian antiques bound for Jasper52 auction Oct. 2

Jasper52 will present an online auction of premier Asian antiques on Tuesday, Oct. 2. This finely curated sale brings together ancient Chinese pottery, impressive bronze Buddhas and much more, creating a comprehensive representation of the Asian tradition.

Iron helmet covered with black lacquer inlaid with mother of pearl, Meiji period (1868-1912). Estimate: $1,500-$2,000. Jasper52 image

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Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Prized antique Korean earthenware to be auctioned Sept. 11

While Chinese and Japanese porcelain wares are revered and collected worldwide, Korean celadon earthenware is a lesser-known category within the Asian decorative art genre that is rapidly capturing the attention of collectors, who admire its simple elegance. An opportunity to purchase fine antique Korean earthenware awaits bidders on September 11 as Jasper52 presents a boutique auction of 47 premium-quality lots.

Crackled celadon-glazed tripod censer, Joseon Dunasty, Korea, 18th-19th century, embedded with white, black and copper-reds slip, key-fret patterns, beast knob, two upright handles. Est. $900-$1,100

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Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Treasures abound in Aug. 28 boutique auction of Asian art, antiques

With its tradition of elegant simplicity, Asian decorative art is universal in its appeal, transcending borders and influencing cultures on nearly every continent. For centuries, the Western world has embraced the rich legacy of paintings, ceramics and metal statuary of China, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Korea and other nations. Jasper52 will pay tribute to the art and antiques of Asia with an August 28 auction featuring 74 high-quality lots. Absentee and live-online bidding is available through LiveAuctioneers.

Golden copper sculpture of the Buddha Sakyamuni, 18th century, 74cm high. Est. $12,000-$13,000

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Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.