Qing dynasty's Taoist alchemy manual fetched 75 times its low estimate at US$771k

On 6 July, Christie’s presented an Art d’Asie Sale in Paris, featuring a wide array of Asian art – from imperial porcelains to Tibetan thangka. Surprisingly, it was a Taoist alchemy album from early Qing dynasty (1644-1911) which achieved the highest price and stole the show.

The 48-page Taoist alchemy album – illustrated with colourful pictures, diagrams and detailed essays – is an ancient Chinese guide to produce a Golden Elixir for immortality.

Rarely seen at auctions, it was hammered down at €600,000 – far exceeding the pre-sale low estimate of €10,000 by 60 times. After fees, it was sold for €756,000 (around US$771,000) to take the crown of the sale.

Lot 71 | An album of forty-eight paintings and calligraphies depicting the Taoist alchemy with zitan covers, Ink and colour on silk
China, Early Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
24.5 x 22.5 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Property from the R. J. S. Collection

Estimate: €10,000 - 15,000
Hammer Price: €600,000
Sold: €756,000 (around US$771,000)

While Western alchemists sought the Philosopher’s Stone – a mysterious substance that turn base metals into gold, Chinese alchemists were after the secret to eternal youth, often achieved by a Golden Elixir.

Chinese alchemy is largely associated with Taoism, an indigenous religion in China which stresses on the harmony between humanity and nature. In the course of its 2000-year-long history, Chinese alchemy developed two major forms of practices: External Alchemy and Internal Alchemy.

External Alchemy, arose at least from the 2nd century BCE, focuses on compounding the Golden Elixir by manipulating and heating natural substances – primarily minerals and metals – in a luted crucible. As they studied in the laboratories and recorded their observations, these alchemists were some of the first to employ what we now know as the scientific process.

Whereas Internal Alchemy aims to produce the elixir within the alchemist’s body, where they work on themselves without the use of chemicals. They treat human body as the laboratory and would involve physical, mental, and spiritual practices – somewhat close to yoga or martial arts.

In whichever form, all Chinese alchemical practices were framed by doctrinal principles concerning ancient Chinese cosmology and its interaction with human being.

As early as Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 BCE), Taoist practitioners believed that Zhouyi, or Book of Changes, one of the major sources for Taoist philosophy, had much to do with alchemy. Arguably the first among Chinese classics, Book of Changes is an all-encompassing philosophical treatise of the universe, and also a divinatory guidance book.

In Books of Changes, the intricate cosmic patterns are discussed through the use of 64 hexagrams and 8 trigrams – each composed of three stacked lines, either broken or solid, reflecting the yin and yang, the duality which drives the universe.

Such a classic had provided Chinese alchemy with textual authority. A famous alchemist of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Wei Boyang believed Book of Changes was created for the production of the Golden Elixir and hence wrote an alchemist sutra: Zhouyi cantong qi (Token of the Agreement of the Three According to the Book of Changes).

The three refers to Cosmology, Taoism and Alchemy. In his book, he adopted the concept from Book of Changes to explain the principle of alchemy; providing a basis of how the Golden Elixir would lead to immortality. It also devised a blueprint for alchemical practice that allows each stage of elixir compounding to be associated with a cosmic stage.

Therefore, the three stacked lines and symbols of sun and moon are illustrated here and there throughout this Taoist alchemist album.

In ancient China, followers of the Taoist alchemy were chiefly the elite and upper class. And emperor, the Son of Heaven with supreme authority and power, would of course welcome the idea of being eternally young.

Paradoxically, the Golden Elixir that claimed to bring immortality would often lead to death. Although it once appeared captivating, we now know that it was made of poisonous substances such as mercury and lead. Since the early 3rd century AD, many emperors were died of poisoning – a result of taking elixirs.

One example was Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty (1678-1735). A devout believer in Taoism, he set up ritual objects all over the palace; and he was so interested and familiar with elixirs that he even composed poems dedicated to the alchemical process. In the end, as speculated by experts, his death was directly related to an overdose of the elixirs formulated by Taoist priests he patronized.

A scroll painting depicting Yongzhen Emperor dressed in Taoist clothing, now kept in the Palace Museum

The present lot is from the collection of R.J.S.. While not much is known about him, he should be over 65 years old now as he mentioned having graduated from the university in 1975.

According to him, he developed his interest in Chinese art owing to his Asian friends. He would make regular visits to the Musee Guimet in Paris to familiarise himself with Asian arts. In the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese artworks were often overlooked in the West, thus offering him an opportunity to acquire them with affordable prices.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 131 | A pair of bronze 'deer' censers
Qing dynasty, incised qianlong six-character marks within rectangles and of the period (1736-1795)
Height: 129 cm

  • Acquired in France by the grandfather of the present owner before 1930, thence by descent in the family

Estimate: €250,000 - 350,000
Hammer Price: €420,000
Sold: €529,200 

Lot 174 | A green-ground famille rose vase
China, Qing dynasty, Daoguang six-character seal mark in iron-red and of the period (1821-1850)
Height: 52 cm

  • Previously in the collection of Rafael Desmaissieres Farina, count of Torralva (1853-1932), thence by descent in the family

Estimate: €80,000 - 120,000
Hammer Price: €400,000
Sold: €504,000 

Lot 29 | A turquoise-ground yangcai imitation cloisonne dish
China, Qing dynasty, Qianlong gilt six-character seal mark and of the period (1736-1795)
Diameter: 38.7 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Acquired on the French art market, 5 April 1998
  • Property from the R.J.S. Collection

Estimate: €150,000 - 200,000
Hammer Price: €330,000
Sold: €415,800 

Lot 15 | An imperial cinnabar and ochre lacquer circular 'dragon' box and cover
China, Ming dynasty, Yongle-Xuande period (1403-1435)
Diameter: 18.2 cm

  • Swiss private collection, acquired by the present owner in Gex in the late 1980s.

Estimate: €20,000 – 30,000
Hammer Price: €300,000
Sold: €378,000

Lot 221 | A gilt-bronze figure of tara
China, Yongle-style
Height: 15 cm

  • Property from a European private collection

Estimate: €5,000 - 10,000
Hammer Price: €200,000
Sold: €252,000 

Lot 220 | A bronze figure of Raktayamari
Tibet, circa 15th century
Height: 27.5 cm
From the collection of Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza
Estimate: €8,000 - 12,000
Hammer Price: €110,000
Sold: €138,600

Lot 23 | A blue and white rouleau vase
China, Ming dynasty, Chongzhen period, 1643
Height: 46 cm
Provenance (Amened by The Value):

  • Acquired on the French art market, 3 September 1997
  • Property from the R.J.S. collection

Estimate: €8,000 - 12,000
Hammer Price: €55,000
Sold: €69,300

Lot 40 | A pair of yellow-ground famille rose dishes
China, Qing dynasty, shen de tang zhi four-chracter mark in iron-red and daoguang period (1821-1850)
Diameter: 16 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Acquired on the art market, Monaco, 26 November 1993
  • Property from the R.J.S. collection

Estimate: €8,000 - 12,000
Hammer Price: €70,000
Sold: €88,200

Lot 56 | A jade-inlaid black and gilt lacquer box and cover with integrated mercury mechanism
Japan, Edo period (1603-1868)
6.9 x 31.5 x 25 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

Acquired on the French art market, 25 November 1997
Property from the R.J.S. collection
Estimate: €10,000 - 15,000
Hammer Price: €65,000
Sold: €81,900 


Auction Details:
Auction House: Christie's Paris
Sale: Art d'Asie
Date: 6 June 2022
Number of lots: 235
Sold: 177
Unsold: 58 
Sale Rate: 75%
Sale Total: €9,506,826 (around US$9.7 million)