HONG KONG - Sotheby’s Hong Kong will hold an unprecedented sale of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, titled Legacies of Imperial Power. A group of masterpieces reflecting the Emperor’s power and legitimacy has been gathered for an exceptional sale, which will include massive Imperial seals, large Imperial handscrolls, as well as objects of military authority. This extraordinary sale will be held on 8th October 2008 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, offering approximately 35 lots estimated at HK$430 million.
Mr. Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’ International Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, commented “This season, we are privileged to have been entrusted with the sale of the Imperial seals from the estate of Émile Guimet and it is the first time that objects from this most celebrated collection come on to the market. The seals represent an extraordinary counterpoint to the two Qianlong Imperial scrolls that we will offer for sale, which symbolise respectively the Emperor’s military might and his supreme cultural achievements, and are both unrivalled masterpieces in the field. Together, the seals and the scrolls represent the most tangible legacies of this Emperor’s power.”
The sale will be composed of three parts:
(I) Qianlong Imperial Seals from the Estate of Émile Guimet
The great humanist, philanthropist and visionary French collector Émile Guimet (1836-1918) has left a significant mark in the world of Asian art with the establishment in 1889 of the Guimet Museum in Paris, which remains one of the world’s greatest Asian art museums. Guimet also collected works of art privately and the collection of Qianlong Imperial seals to be sold for the first time has been passed down among his descendants.
Hubert Guimet, Émile Guimet’s great-grandson, recalled, “It is through our father that we learnt about our great-grandfather, but also through his letters and his numerous travel accounts. We have always lived in the family home at Fleurieu. Our collection of seals was always kept in the family dining room where we ate our meals. They were carefully placed in a fine 18th century Dutch cabinet, instead of porcelain which is kept there today. One could say that they were part of our daily lives. Our research has made us love them, first of all for their aesthetics, for the fine sculpture and the quality of the jade material, and then for their strangeness, which were most often dragon heads, and now for the tremendous Imperial history that they represent, and for the great influence of the Emperor Qianlong.”
Imperial seals crystallise the authority of an Emperor and legitimise his word. The massive seal carved out of a large, utterly flawless piece of white jade with two intertwined dragons - An Important and Superb Imperial White Jade 'Dragon' Seal (expected to fetch in excess of HK$50 million), is the masterpiece in the collection. Stylistically, this seal relates closely to two solid gold seals in the Palace Museum Beijing that bear the mark of the Kangxi Emperor. His grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, for whom Kangxi had always been the mentor and role model, must have greatly admired it and had the seal face ground down and recarved during his reign sometime in the mid-18th century. The four characters on the face read Qianlong yubi (in the Imperial hand of Qianlong), and were impressed on monumental calligraphies of the Emperor to be hung in the palace halls of the Forbidden City. Although there are other seals in the Palace Museum Beijing carved with the characters Qianlong yubi, according to the imperial archives the present seal is the largest one of its type.
Another noteworthy seal, the Massive Important Imperial Khotan –Green Jade 'Dragon' Seal (expected to fetch in excess of HK$20 million) is carved out of a massive piece of Khotan green jade with the characters Tian’en Baxun Zhibao (Treasure of the Emperor at Eighty Thanks to Heaven’s Blessing), and was produced to celebrate his eightieth birthday. Qianlong himself commented “I have been particularly blessed by Heaven, which is why I had the Tian’En Baxun Zhibao seal carved to express my gratitude to Heaven”. On 5th December, 1789, the Emperor sent an order for a large Khotan green jade seal to be sent to Suzhou to be carved with this inscription, and this very seal was delivered back to the Emperor in the Forbidden City on 28th January, 1790.
(II) Two Exceptional Qianlong scrolls
The Dayue Tu, Emperor Qianlong’s Review of the Grand Parade of Troops; expected to fetch in excess of HK$80 million), ranks among the most ambitious and impressive works of Imperial propaganda ever produced and all the resources of the Imperial painting workshops were mobilised in view of its production. In the 4th year of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign (1739), the Emperor chose to review his troops in Nanyuan (South Park) in a gigantic and meticulously choreographed display of Imperial power, which involved 20,000 troops, of which the massive scroll (68cm by 15.5m) manages to capture to near cinematic precision some 16,000 of them. The order to paint and record this event came seven years later in 1746 when Jin Kun was appointed to lead a team of ten court painters in the production of four handscrolls, of which only two are extant – the present scroll, the third of the series, and the second which remains in the Palace Museum Beijing. Dressed in full military regalia riding dignified on a white horse, the Emperor is without doubt the highlight of the present scroll. Although on this monumental piece he fills an area barely the size of the palm of a newborn, the portrait is so filled with detail and realism that his features are unmistakable, so are those of his favourite white stallion, Wanjixiang. The realism and attention to detail are attributable to the hand of Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who in his lifetime was the sole painter entrusted with the portraits of the Emperor.
Military might certainly forms a key part in establishing the political legitimacy of an emperor, but possessing the culture and history of the country follows closely, particularly for an Emperor of foreign descent. The Lantingtu tie is a testament to one of Emperor Qianlong’s most ambitious cultural enterprises – the exhaustive search for all remaining versions of Wang Xizhi’s seminal Lanting Xu (Preface to the Poems of the Orchid Pavilion) calligraphy. The Outstanding Compilation of the Lanting Xu Imperial Collection of Documents Woven in Kesi (detail pictured above), remains at more than 17-metre long which is the largest and finest 18th century kesi (‘cut silk’ tapestry weave) extant and is expected to fetch in excess of HK$60 million.
(III) Treasures from the Imperial Collection
Highlights in this sale include An Exceptional Imperial Jade-hilted Ceremonial Sabre and Scabbard (expected to fetch in excess of HK$40 million) which, along with other arms ordered by the Qianlong Emperor, served as a reminder of his Manchu ancestors’ hard-fought battles to conquer China. The sabre is mounted with a jade hilt carved in Moghul style and is superbly inlaid on the steel blade with yellow gold, copper and silver wire with Qianlong’s reign mark, a series number, as well as a poetic name, ‘Bao Teng’ (The Soaring Precious), echoed in the panel on the reverse which depicts a dragon rising among clouds.
The other important lot in this sale is an extraordinarily rare painting, Ten Chrysanthemums (expected to fetch in excess of HK$40 million) by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), which is carefully documented by the artist and its provenance richly recorded in colophons and in collectors’ seals and catalogues from the artist’s lifetime down to the present. Zhao Mengfu has carefully depicted ten varieties of chrysanthemums, all presented as cut branches, probably painting from life. Zhao’s extant work suggests that he rarely chose to paint flowers, although there is one other extant flower painting, the well-known album of sunflowers in the Palace Museum, Beijing. The Yuan scholar Pan Di was the first recorded owner, but the most illustrious owners were Liang Qingbiao (1620-1691) and An Qi (1683-1742), who then passed it to the Qing court during the reign of Emperor Qianlong and the piece is indeed recorded in detail in the catalogue of the Qianlong collection, Shiqubaoji Xubian.