Coinciding with the spring auction week in Hong Kong, over in Beijing last week, a 18-meter long Chinese imperial handscroll featuring over 8,000 characters was sold for a staggering RMB 414m (US$64.7m) at Poly Beijing, to become the third most valuable Chinese classical painting in auction history.
The coveted handscroll served as a pictorial record to commemorate one of Emperor Qianlong's victorious battles in present-day Xinjiang in the 18th century. It was also one of the artworks hand-picked by the Emperor to be documented in his personal art catalog, titled Shiqu Baoji (“The Shiqu Catalog of Imperial Collection of Painting and Calligraphy”).
Lot 1935 | Xu Yang, Emperor Qianlong’s Conquest of Xiyu (《平定西域獻俘禮圖手捲》), Qing dynasty (1644-1912)
Handscroll, ink and color on paper
Dimensions: 43 x 1,865 cm
Estimate upon request
Hammer price: RMB 360,000,000
Price realized: RMB 414,000,000
The bidding of the blockbuster work began at RMB 200m. The price climbed up steadily to RMB 290m in RMB 10m increments before the bidding increments were lowered to RMB 3m. The auctioneer finally brought his hammer down at RMB 360m, 44% higher than its unpublished estimate of RMB 250m. The painting was sold to the bidder with the paddle number 8585. After fees, the handscroll realized RMB 414m (US$64.7m), more than triple when it last changed hands at another Beijing auction in 2009, for RMB 134m (US$19.7m).
When it went under the hammer in 2009, it was, at the time, the record for any Chinese painting and calligraphy. It was acquired by Chinese billionaire and mega-collector Liu Yiqian, founder of Long Museum in Shanghai, where the handscroll was exhibited after.
Closer looks at Xu Yang’s Emperor Qianlong’s Conquest of Xiyu
Not only did the painting renew the artist’s personal record, it is now the third most expensive Chinese classical painting in auction history too - trailing behind Wu Bin’s Ten Views of Lingbi Rock (《十面靈璧圖》), painted in circa 1610, and Huang Tingjian’s Di Zhu Ming (《砥柱銘》) that dates back to the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127).
Wu Bin | Ten Views of Lingbi Rock | Price realized: RMB 512.9m (US$78.4m) | Poly Beijing, October 2020
Huang Tingjian | Di Zhu Ming | Price realized: RMB 436.8m (US$ 64.5m) | Poly Beijing, June 2020
With military expansion and suppression of regional unrest in mind, Qing-dynasty Emperor Qianlong (r.1736-1795) embarked upon a total of 10 military campaigns, known as the “Ten Great Campaigns,” which spanned the mid- to late-18th century.
Prints and paintings were often commissioned by the Emperor after each battle, to glorify the military and political success, as well as to exemplify the imperial state power of the Qing court.
The present work was commissioned by Emperor Qianlong, to commemorate one the 10 campaigns, The East Turkestan Campaign, which took place between 1755 and 1759 in Xiyu (the Western Regions) - modern day Xinjiang. Later campaigns of the Emperor, which were similarly commemorated include Taiwan (1786-1788), Vietnam (1788), Gurkhas invasion of Tibet (1790), and Yunnan, Guizhou and Hunan (1795-1796).
Closer looks at the present handscroll
Imperial court painter Xu Yang depicts in the present work, the ceremony of “Offering of War Captives,” a Qing-dynasty victorious ceremony carried out in and around the capital in Beijing, after a general returned from a battle, where prisoners from the pacification were “offered” in front of the Emperor. While the ceremony began in Kangxi period (1662-1722) and continued in the following reigns of Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795), the present work was one of the first pictorial records known to exist, detailing the ceremony.
All meticulously painted with minute rendering, each of the over 8,000 characters in the present handscroll was finely differentiated. Lines of cavalry and officers are spread throughout the entire painting, which measures 43 cm high and 1865 cm wide.
Closer looks at the present handscroll
Xu Yang was one of Emperor Qianlong’s leading imperial court painters. Recruited in 1751, he was known for his miniaturist style, and was trained in the court by Jesuit painters from the West, such as Jean-Denis Attiret from France. Western influences like the contrasts in lighting as well as one point and angled perspectives loom large in the present work by Xu Yang.
The present handscroll was believed to be completed before the 29th year of Emperor Qianlong’s reign, corresponding to 1765, and bears different imperial collectors' seals, including those from Emperor Jiaqing (r.1796-1820) and Xuantong (r.1908-1912).
The “Shiqu Catalog” seals also indicate that the handscroll was in the Shiqu Baoji (“The Shiqu Catalog of Imperial Collection of Painting and Calligraphy”). It remained in the prestigious imperial collection and it was last seen at a Beijing auction 12 years ago.
Auction house: Beijing Poly
Sale: Fine Chinese Classical Paintings and Calligraphy Evening Sale
Date: June 6, 2021