Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia:
Collections in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

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Figure of Indra's three-headed elephant

  • Stoneware with iron and white glazes
  • 35.2 x 21.8 x 27.8 cm
  • Sawankhalok ware
  • mid 20th century, Modern period
  • Origin: Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai province, Thailand
  • Provenance: Probably Indonesia
  • Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment
  • F1992.53

Curatorial Remarks

1. (Louise Cort, 5 June 2000) An elephant figure in the Seattle Art Museum (acc. no. 92.82.91) is painted with brown and white glazes and stands on a thick base (about 2.5 cm).

2. (Louise Cort, 2 June 2008) According to Don Hein, in Washington to deliver the Pope Memorial Lecture, this figure is too heavy to be genuine. A lot is wrong with the glaze, which is excessively degraded—is it even fired glaze? The air hole is slightly conical, whereas the hole was usually made with a cylindrical stick. Circular stamps were used on the tops of the elephant heads, whereas the potters at the Pa Yang kilns (where such figures were made) decorated entirely by hand.

3. (Louise Cort, 30 Sept 2009) In the course of conducting research on this piece, I became increasingly uneasy about it and requested a TL test to be conducted. The results of the test (Oxford Authentication Ltd., Sample No. P100t93, 27 July 2000) showed that the piece was last fired less than 150 years ago.

Changed Period from Ayutthaya period to Modern. Changed Date from 14th-15th century to mid 20th century. (The original dating had not been updated; the more likely date for an authentic piece would be late 15th-16th century.) Changed title from Figure of a heavenly elephant to Figure of Indra's three-headed elephant.

4. (Louise Cort, 3 April 2012) An elephant figure of this type, with medium brown and white glazes, is in the collection of the Detroit Institutue of Arts, 72.38, gift of the Hon. and Mrs. G. Mennen Williams. The Williams collection of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai ceramics donated to the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology was acquired principally in the Philippines, along with purchases from Thailand and Jakarta.

5. (Louise Cort, 20 May 2015) I copied the following information from a letter from Dean Frasche to curator Martie Young, Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, dated 11 December 1972, kept in the Frasche folder: The ambassador from Malaysia to the U.N., Miss Lim, owns three "large brown Thai Forgeries." One was an elephant with several mahouts, retainers, and three garudas. "Elephant has 3 heads (I have never seen one before in or out of Thailand) and as for the garudas, well, they too are modern innovation as far as I am concerned."

6. (Louise Cort, 6 May 2016) Guy illustrates two elephant figures associated with Kalimantan (Borneo) (Guy 1993: 13). An intact "war elephant" (fig. 12) was retrieved from the Pari river in southeastern Kalimantan and now belongs to the National Museum in Jakarta (No. 3655). A mahout rides behind the elephant's head while a second figure sits behind the howdah, which appears to carry a large bowl. (This may be an opening of a neck.) A warrior holding a shield stands by each leg of the elephant. It is dated 15th-16th century, uses a combination of brown and opaque white glazes, and probably was made within the Pa Yang kiln group at Si Satchanalai, which specialized in figures and used such glazes. A fragment of the leg of another war elephant with attendant warrior figure was found at Long Apari, at the headwaters of the Mahakam River in eastern Kalimantan (fig. 11). Guy comments that this type of figure is well known in Thailand, where it is assumed to have been used as architectural ornament (ibid.: 12).

Guy, John. 1993. "Thai Ceramics in South-East Asian Trade." In Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Thai Ceramics: The James and Elaine Connell Collection, pp. 8-13. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.


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