Red Lacquer Dragon Throne for the Qianlong Emperor Could Fetch £800,000 at Christie's London

One of the most important items in the palace of a Chinese emperor is the dragon throne that signifies the emperor’s power and prestige as the Son of Heaven. The emperor who sits on the throne, surrounded by embellished screens and servants, awaits the approach of his officials who will kneel before him as a sign of respect. The dragon throne is a prime representation of the emperor’s significance.

An imperial three-colour carved “nine dragon’ lacquer throne from the Qianlong period will be featured in a single-lot sale dedicated to it in London next week. Estimated at £800,000 - 1.2m, the throne symbolises the reign of the Qianlong emperor.

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

Emperor Qianlong

Marco Almeida, Director and International Senior Specialist of Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art at Christie’s

Finely carved through red lacquer, the throne measures 111.1 x 115.5 x 85.7 cm. As Qianlong reign progressed, carved lacquer wares came to dominate the lacquers made for the court. Each layer of lacquer takes one to two days to dry and the crafting must be done before the lacquer completely dries. Records suggest that the lacquer items made in the palace in the late 1730s and 1740s were not carved by craftsmen who restricted themselves to carving lacquer, but who were also 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

Legs of the throne

Dragons on the lower portion of the throne

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 jiqing youyu ‘May there be a superabundance of auspicious happiness’.

A carved dragon throne from the mid Qing dynasty|the Palace Museum Beijing

After looking at official records from museums, we found a closely related example of lacquer thrones carved with dragons amongst clouds and waves in the collection of the Palace Museum Beijing. Yet, there’s no proof of which emperor it belonged to, only evidence to show that it was made in the mid Qing dynasty. As to the present throne, specialists date the throne back to the early part of the Qianlong period, or even to the Yongzheng reign because of its “less exaggerated form and more restrained decoration”.

A set of Qing dynasty red lacquer furniture was sold at Poly Auction (Xiamen) at US$1,35m

Last July, a set of Qing dynasty red lacquer furniture was sold for US$1,35m in Xiamen, including a red lacquer dragon throne along with screens and a leg stand. The structure and size of the throne are similar to the present one. As lacquer products are extremely fragile, it is hard to tell the condition of the throne from photos. We will have to wait and see whether the throne will shine in the sale. We are on our way to capture more detailed images of the throne for you to see. Stay tuned.

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

Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s London
Sale: Dragon Throne For The Son of Heaven
No. of lots: 1
Sale date: 14 May 2019|11am
10 May 2019|10am - 4:30pm
11 May 2019|10am - 5pm
12 May 2019|10am - 5pm
13 May 2019|9am - 4:30pm