10th century Chinese string instrument fetches US$1.2 million

Last week, a string instrument was the most valuable lot among Chinese art sales at Bonhams Hong Kong.

A lacquered qin from circa 10th century was estimated between HK$5 and 8 million dollars. In the end, it was sold for HK$9.8 million (around US$1.2 million) dollars. The instrument belonged to a prominent 19th century Chinese musician called Li Zizhao.

Back in Europe, the 10th century was a period that saw the continuation of the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806 CE) and Byzantine Empire (395-1453 CE), as well as the Viking expansion of Northern Europe.  

Lot 79 | Lacquered fengshi-style jingtao qin

Created in the 10th century or earlier
Length: 121.6 cm

  • Li Zizhao (1856-1938) Collection
  • Hu Ruosi (1916-2004) Collection

Estimate: HK$5,000,000 – 8,000,000

Hammer Price: HK$7,880,000

Sold: HK$9,852,500 (around US$1.2 million)

The qin's body is gently tapered from the head to the tail with a multiple-recessed shoulder and waist – supported by two hardwood goose-feet (yanzu). The underside is fixed with seven hardwood tuning pegs (zhen), while the top is inlaid vertically with 13 yellow medal studs (hui); and terminated with hardwood string supporter (longyin).

This qin’s name is inscribed around the instrument’s central area. It is signed by a calligrapher, Huang Tingjian (1045-1105). Another long inscription is incised by 19th century musician, Li Zizhao (1856-1938) in 1919. Its lacquered surface is adorned with a network of fine snake and ice crackles.

A Sichuan native and former Daoist monk, Li spent his early life in the royal household during the 19th to 20th centuries. He served as a professional musician and teacher after he secularised from the Daoist temple.

Li quickly attracted the attention of the qin circle in Shanghai and Suzhou. He was known by local practitioners and patrons as a prominent qin musician among his contemporaries. His name was listed in first place in the Qinren zhengfanglu (List of Qin Practitioners), which was published in 1937.

This qin is probably one of two known instruments he owned. Another qin of his, Pili (Thunderbolt), was a piece produced during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Lot 20 | Large Imperial cloisonne enamel dish

Enamelled six-character mark of the Emperor Wanli (1572-1620)
Diameter: 57 cm

  • Sotheby’s London, 21 July 1969, Lot 91
  • Cornelius Ruxton Love Jr. (1904-1971) and Audrey B. Love (1903-2003), New York
  • Christie’s New York, The C. Ruxton and Audrey B. Love Collection, 20 October 2004, Lot 612

Estimate: HK$3,500,000 – 4,500,000

Hammer Price: HK$4,600,000

Sold: HK$5,752,500 (around US$740,000)

This dish belongs to a small group of cloisonne enamel wares bearing Emperor Wanli's (1572-1620) marks at the bottom. It is depicted within a rectangle at the centre and encircled by ruyi heads.

Cloisonne enamel is known for its vivid colours and elegant, jewel-like decoration. Its interior is brightly and boldly decorated in multi-coloured enamels with two five-clawed dragons. They are depicted within a field of scattered flower sprigs – encircled by a ruyi-head band and multi-coloured lotus scrolls with attendant buds.

The craftsmanship was introduced from Western Asia during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), and further developed by Emperors Yongle and Xuande – who ruled in early 15th century. Later, during the mid-15th century, the craftsmanship became refined and was prized by the Chinese court.

Lot 91 | Confucius-style pianqiu lacquered qin

Created in Southern Song dynasty (960-1279 CE)
Length: 121.8 cm

  • The Yanqinzhai Collection, Hong Kong

Estimate: HK$1,500,000 – 1,800,000

Hammer Price: HK$3,700,000

Sold: HK$4,627,500 (around US$590,000)

Originating from the 12th to 13th century, this Chinese qin was designed in a Confucius-style form – its shape was supposedly used and favoured by the Sage. 

Its domed body with two waisted section on both side, the black-lacquered surface finely crackled into small shefu lines. The top is inlaid with 13 mother-of-pearl studs (hui), the reserve above the longchi (dragon pool) incised and infilled with cinnabar lacquer with two-character name reading pianqiu (a leaf of the autumn). At the bottom, the qin is incised with Jiajing marks reading jiajing sishisannian bayue zao guxian.

(This qin) of guxian tone made in August 1564. It has a seal reading zhengfu zhibao (The Treasure of Princely House of Zheng), and is also made with seven pegs (zhen) and two geese feet (yanzu) of pale-celadon jade.

Auction Summary:

Auction House: Bonhams Hong Kong


  • Colour / Impact: Cloisonne Enamel in the Ming and Qing Dynasty
  • Elegant Gatherings
  • Fine Chinese Works of Art

Date: 2 December 2021