Chinese export elephant form tureens
A pair of Chinese export elephant form tureens and stands sold for $140,000 (£108,000) at Sotheby’s New York.

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However, this pair of 6½in (16cm) elephant-form tureens, shown above, are modelled as recumbent elephants – symbols of the exotic East to Westerners – are among the scarcest of all Chinese porcelain forms made for the Western market.

Many 18th century Chinese export tureens were modelled after European originals made by factories such as Höchst, Chelsea, and Meissen.

Chinese art inspiration

These examples appear to have taken their inspiration from an entirely different source: the jade carvings, bronzes and porcelain of Chinese art.

Even the scene painted to the lobed oval stands, showing Westerners holding a whip sat beside a mighty pachyderm, could be a composite, taking inspiration from both Chinese and European sources.

The production period of these tureens was short and they probably all originated from one single enamelling studio.

This pair of tureens, offered by Sotheby’s New York during American Week on January 22, was formerly in the Fermor-Hesketh collection of Easton Neston fame. Sold at Christie’s Monaco in 1988, they were acquired by the vendor (‘an important Midwestern collection’) from A&J Speelman in London in 1993.

The finials to this pair make them particularly rare: most surviving examples are topped by a spotted dog. Instead, these take the form of a European man in purple frock coat and tricorn hat. The only other piece to share the figural finial was a tureen and cover sold at Sotheby’s as part of the Dorothy and Wendell Cherry collection in March 2012 for $15,000.

Other examples on the market (with dog finials) include a single tureen with two stands illustrated in Michael Cohen and William Motley’s Mandarin and Menagerie (2008) later sold at Christie’s New York in 2016 for $40,000 (including buyer’s premium) and a pair of tureens (without stands) on ormolu stands sold at Sotheby’s New York as part of the Lily and Edmund Safra collection in 2005 for $47,500.

The pair offered at Sotheby’s last month had both received some minor restoration to chips and both finials had been broken and restuck. However, estimated at $70,000-100,000, they sold at $140,000/£108,000 (plus fees).