Not all collectibles are created equal, especially when it comes to the treasure trove that Chinese emperors used to hold. Billed as Qing Emperor Qianlong’s personal art catalogue, Shiqu Baoji (“The Shiqu Catalogue of Imperial Collection of Painting and Calligraphy”) recorded some of the most coveted works, hand-picked by the emperor himself.
Two hanging scrolls stolen from this impeccable imperial collection, which depict in great detail the traditional Chinese customs are going under the hammer in Sotheby’s upcoming Hong Kong Fine Classical Chinese Paintings sale, carrying a combined estimate of HK$50m - HK$80m (US$6.4m - US$10.3m).
Lot 3121 | Shen Yuan (Qing Dynasty), Poetic Idea of "Song on the Lantern Fair" (left);
Li Shizhuo (1687-1770), Poetic Idea of "Song on the Headcount Congee" (right)
Ink and color on paper, two hanging scrolls
Dimensions: 113 x 28.8 cm each
- Qing Imperial Court Collection
- Luo Zhenyu (1866-1940) (Li Shizhuo painting)
- Kichibee Hasimoto (1862-1924) (Li Shizhuo painting)
Estimate: HK$50,000,000 - 80,000,000
Qing Emperor Qianlong (r.1736-1795) was known to be one of the most prolific art collectors in Chinese history. Inheriting the artistic legacy of his forefathers and as a poet himself, he prided himself on his passion for calligraphy, painting and literature.
During his early reign, he commissioned the imperial court to curate a set of ten paintings inspired by renowned Chinese poet Fan Chengda’s poetry “Ten Ballads of Fields and Villages in the Twelfth Month.” The complete set, alongside many of the works recorded in the Shiqu Catalogue, was originally kept in the Forbidden City until late Qing.
Portrait of Emperor Qianlong | The Palace Museum, Beijing
Of the ten paintings, the two present works were stolen before the last Emperor Xuantong (r.1909-1911) got the chance to go through the imperial inventory, which explains why the collector's seals from Emperor Xuantong were missing in these two.
Seven were believed to be taken out of the country during the Chinese Civil War from 1927 to 1949, and are now residing in the National Palace Museum in Taipei; whereas the remaining one was never seen.
The present works were the second and fourth ones listed in the imperial catalogue, and the complete list of paintings are as follows:
- Prince Shen | Poetic Idea of “Song on Hulling Rice” (lost)
- Shen Yuan | Poetic Idea of “Song on the Lantern Fair”
- Zhou Kun | Poetic Idea of “Sending off the Kitchen God”
- Li Shizhuo | Poetic Idea of “Song on the Headcount Congee”
- Ding Guanpeng | Poetic Idea of “Song on Cracking Bamboo”
- Zhang Hao | Poetic Idea of “Song on Braziers Alight”
- Chen Shijun | Poetic Idea of “Song on Lighting up the Fields”
- Dong Bangda | Poetic Idea of “Bidding Farewell to the Old Year”
- Cao Kuiyin | Poetic Idea of “Selling off Idiocy”
- Zhang Ruocheng | Poetic Idea of “Beating Dung Piles”
(Left) Zhou Kun | Poetic Idea of “Sending off the Kitchen God”
(Right) Ding Guanpeng | Poetic Idea of “Song on Cracking Bamboo”
(Left) Zhang Hao | Poetic Idea of “Song on Braziers Alight”
(Right) Chen Shijun | Poetic Idea of “Song on Lighting up the Fields”
Dong Bangda | Poetic Idea of “Bidding Farewell to the Old Year”
Cao Kuiyin | Poetic Idea of “Selling off Idiocy”
Zhang Ruocheng | Poetic Idea of “Beating Dung Piles”
The nine surviving paintings from the collection, though by different painters, share very similar stylistic cues and compositions. The narrow panoramas were believed to be intended for folding-screen panels.
The two paintings on offer were inscribed by Emperor Qianlong with a poem on each of them, together with his imperial seals.The red seal marks on the scrolls indicate Emperor Qianlong’s ownership, as well as the “third series of Shiqu Catalogue” seals.
Shen Yuan's Poetic Idea of "Song on the Lantern Fair"
Li Shizhuo's Poetic Idea of "Song on the Headcount Congee"
Not only are the two scrolls the same collection as those residing in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, their illustrious provenance is certainly appealing to keen collectors.
The two paintings last sold in two 2012 auctions until this sale. Rare works listed in the Shiqu Catalogue almost never fail to dominate any saleroom, including the following Chinese paintings, which were sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong:
Ren Renfa | Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback | Price realized: HK$306m
Huang Yue, Zhao Bingchong | Landscapes After Sikongtu | Price realized: HK$20.7m
Yu Xing, Fish Pond | Price realized: HK$20.6m
Qian Weicheng, Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan | Price realized: HK$146.8m
Chinese customs took center stage on both scrolls on offer. The one by Shen Yuan (?-ca. after 1752) depicts the scene at the Lantern Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month, to ring in the new year. Realistically rendered with succinct brush and ink, the painting provides a glimpse of the festivity.
The one by Li Shizhuo (1669-1770), meanwhile, is based on the Suzhou custom of serving headcount congee to the family to ward off plagues at the end of a year.
Closer looks at Shen Yuan's Poetic Idea of "Song on the Lantern Fair"
Closee looks at Li Shizhuo's Poetic Idea of "Song on the Headcount Congee"
Two other highlights from the sales include:
Lot 3076 | Hongren (1610 - 1664), Landscapes and Calligraphies
Ink and color on paper, album of 19 leaves
- Sotheby’s New York, Fine Chinese Paintings, June 3, 1986, lot 57
Dimensions: 18.7 x 13 cm
Estimate: HK$45,000,000 - 55,000,000
Lot 3098 | Zhu Da (Bada Shanren), Fish
Ink on paper, hanging scroll
Dimensions: 65.8 x 89.4 cm
Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 7,000,000
Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Fine Classical Chinese Paintings
Date: April 19, 2021 | 9:30am
Venue: Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery | 5/F One Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty, Hong Kong