Ming period Chinese box stuns in sale

An exceptionally rare Chinese cloisonné ‘pomegranate’ box and cover from the Ming period discovered in a dust-filled cabinet in the attic of a family home, has sold for a staggering £288,000 at auction against a pre-sale estimate of £6,000-£10,000.

The box, which was offered for sale for the first time in 77 years, was owned by a Major Edward Copleston Radcliffe (1898-1967) and was stored amongst other less valuable pieces in his collection – hence going unnoticed and untouched since his death in 1967. It was only when his family sent the collection to Dreweatts auction specialists with the other pieces, that Mark Newstead and Yingwen Tao recognised it as one of a lost group of important pieces made for Xuande, the fifth Emperor of the Ming dynasty (1426-1435).

Major Radcliffe had purchased the box for £19.00 at Sotheby’s in London in 1946. It was later loaned out to the National Gallery of South Africa for their Chinese Exhibition in Cape Town in 1953. The box was considered lost and is one of only four other known examples, including one in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Three are in museum or institutional collections and only this box and one other remain in private hands. All examples are doubly marked with an incised Xuande six-character reign mark on their underside.

There was strong competition for the box in the auction, with lively bidding from around the world on nine telephone lines. It was so highly sought after that the price soared and eventually it was won by a private collector in Asia.

Commenting on the sale of this special piece Mark Newstead, Director of Asian Ceramics and Works of Art at Dreweatts, said: “We are delighted with the result of this exceptionally rare Chinese cloisonné ‘pomegranate’ box, made for of Xuande, the fifth Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Cloisonné enamel pieces from the early Ming period are exceptionally rare as production was strictly regulated by the Imperial Palace eunuchs.  The fact that it was discovered in a dust-filled cabinet in the attic of a family home amongst other less valuable pieces, where it had sat since its’ owner’s death in 1967 is extraordinary and we knew it would attract world-wide attention. There was very strong bidding between nine telephone bidders, with a private collector in Asia finally winning out, thus showing the strength of the market.”

The decorative box is circular in shape and features two ripe pomegranates with gnarled gold branches, blossoms, smaller fruit and lotus scrolls. Pomegranates were an emblem of fertility and prosperity in the 15th century. As mentioned above, it bears the incised six-character marks of Xuande, the fifth Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1426-1435) on its base and interior.