Red Lacquer Dragon Throne for the Qianlong Emperor Sold for £6.1m at London Auction Week

Amongst all Asian works of art featured this auction season in London, the “Red Lacquer Dragon Throne for the Qianlong Emperor” is probably one of the most prominent pieces. The dragon throne did not disappoint and was hammered down at £5.2m, 6.5 times its estimate, in a single-lot sale, realising £6.1m (US$7.8m) after premium.

An imperial three-colour carved “nine dragon’ lacquer throne from the Qianlong period

Jud Wei-Ting, Senior Client Advisor at Christie’s (picture taken from last Autumn sale season in Hong Kong)

The estimate of the red lacquer dragon throne is £800,000 - 1.2m (US$1.03m - 1.55m). The bidding started at £550,000 and immediately attracted the interest of bidders in the room, on the phone and online. In a fraction of a second, the price reached over £2m. With an increment of £200,000 - 300,000 each bid, the price rose to £4m, leaving only two bidders – a room bidder and the telephone client of Jud Wei-Ting, Senior Client Advisor at Christie’s, in the competition.  

The bidding slowed down as each increment lowered to £100,000. At £5.2m, the auctioneer put the hammer down and a burst of applause came from the audience. The winner of the throne is the client represented by Jud Wei-Ting.

What is so special about this dragon throne that has made it one of the most important works of this auction season?

The dragon throne is made with red lacquer

Every inch of the throne is covered with lacquer

Dragon carvings on the throne legs

Finely carved through red lacquer, the throne measures 111.1 x 115.5 x 85.7 cm. Each layer of lacquer takes one to two days to dry and the crafting must be done before the lacquer completely dries. The throne was made by skilled carvers of ivory, bamboo, rhinoceros’ horn and a range of other materials.

Although the greatest proportion of the design appears in carved red lacquer against a yellow lacquer ground carved with lozenges, the majority of the clouds have small carved green lacquer extensions – either to the side or below the individual cloud forms. Specialists point out that this throne has at least 100 to 150 layers of lacquer, thus the production must have taken almost a year.

Front view of the dragon carving on the throne

Both sides decorated with dragons amidst dense scrolling clouds

The back carved with a bat suspending a chime and a double-fish

The nine dragons appear on the interior backrest and sides of the throne. There are additional small dragons on the apron and in-turned horse hoof shaped legs. The dragons on the current throne are depicted pursuing flaming pearls amongst dense and complex clouds, as is often the case on Chinese imperial decorative arts. The clouds themselves are auspicious symbols, in part because they provide a rebus for good fortune. It is also significant that clouds, such as the examples on this throne, are often shaped like lingzhi fungus of immortality, and so emphasise a wish for long life.

On the central panel of the back an upside-down bat holds a ribbon from which are suspended a qing chiming stone and a pair of fish. The fact of the bat being upside-down suggests the arrival of blessings as the word for upside (dao) is a pun for (dao) ‘arrive’. The qing chiming stone provides a rebus for congratulations or celebrations (qing), while the paired fish are one of the Eight Buddhist Emblems, but in this context, they represent abundance and in combination with the chiming stone suggest the wish ‘May there be a superabundance of auspicious happiness’ (jiqing youyu).

Emperor Qianlong

Surprisingly, the repercussions of the China-US trade war was not seen in the sale, making the sale a success. As mentioned in our previous article, the selling price of the throne depends on its condition as red lacquer products are easily damageable. It is very likely that the dragon throne is well-preserved in good condition, an important factor that contributed to the exceptional price fetched.

A Very Rare and Magnificent Imperial Three-colour Carved “Nine Dragon” Lacquer Throne. Qianlong Period (1736-1795)

Lot no.: 60
Size: 111.1 x 115.5 x 85.7 cm
Provenance: Private Asian Collection, acquired in Hong Kong in 1997.
Estimate: £800,000 - 1,200,000
Hammered price: £5,200,000
Price realised: £6,108,250

Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s London
Sale: Dragon Throne For The Son of Heaven
Date: 14 May 2019|11am
Lots offered: 1
Sold: 1
Unsold: 0
Sold by lots: 100%
Sale total: £6,108,250