Contributed by Alvin Chia, SEACS President (2008-2011)
In 1989, a friend passed me a Sotheby’s catalogue of the autumn sale in Hong Kong. One of the items caught my eye–a rare Ming imperial yellow bowl with a Jiajing (1522-1566) mark and of the period.
The description read: “the rounded sides with lipped rim, covered both inside and out with a canary-yellow glaze, the foot rim of thin wedged –shaped section, the convex base with a bluish-green glaze, 16.3cm , 6ith inch. From the collection of the T.Y. Chao Family Trust.”
It was originally sold in London in 1974 and later resold in 1987. In between the two sales, it was exhibited in 1978 at the Hong Kong Museum of art. In the exhibition catalogue, it was noted that “Ming wares with a glaze [are] known to Western collectors as ‘Imperial yellow’ and to Chinese collectors as ‘chicken fat yellow’….“
That catalogue whet my interest in fine Chinese ceramics and in the ensuing years, I followed almost all of the auction previews of Christie’s and Sotheby‘s in the 1990s and 2000s. Sometime later, I was in an antique shop on River Valley Road in Singapore, and chanced upon a bowl matching all the descriptions mentioned in the 1989 Sotheby’s auction catalogue. On the base of the bowl was also the reign mark of the Jiajing Emperor. I was ecstatic over this discovery!
On closer examination, this bowl was even more special in that it had imperial dragons on the outer surface etched out in fine and delicate scraffiatto. How was I to afford the bowl? In the auction catalogue, the estimate was a cool HK$120,000-$150,000.
But I so wanted to own the rare ‘chicken fat yellow’ Ming bowl. Finally, I plucked up the courage (being young then) to ask the proprietor the price. To my pleasant surprise, he quoted a figure which I could well afford. That day I took home a beautiful Ming bowl. It has since been my study piece for Ming wares, never mind that it was a fine reproduction!