Chinese three-fish stem cup to star in Hong Kong sale

A Chinese Xuande three-fish stem cup is valued at $3.8m-5.1m ahead on an Important Chinese Art auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on April 5.

The piece dates to the 15th century and was commissioned for the imperial court.

Fish cup Sothebys

Red copper glaze is a difficult material to work with 

At first glance, it’s difficult to understand where that estimate comes from.

The key is in the colour.

Red copper glaze had only recently been developed (after well over a century of experimentation) and was extremely difficult to work with.

This is because copper is volatile when combined with heat, so porcelain was easily ruined when it came to be fired.

Figurative painting, as seen on the present lot, was particularly hard. Eventually, the painters realised they could only paint in silhouette.

Even this was not easy.  

Vast numbers of unsuccessful attempts have been recovered from the sites of the various imperial kilns.

The present lot is a rare example that passed the inspectors’ exacting quality control.

It’s worth noting that the Xuande era was the only time the Chinese got the three fish design right. Later attempts all failed to match the transcendent beauty and simplicity of the present specimen.

This example last sold for $1.9m in 2006. Its latest estimate indicates the growing demand for high end antique Chinese ceramics.  

Another, very similar, Xuande three-fish stem cup achieved $5.6m at Sotheby’s in 2014.

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