Two imperial treasures fetch a combined US$16m at Sotheby's 50th anniversary Chinese works of art sales

On April 8, Sotheby's concluded its 50th anniversary sale series in Hong Kong with an array of Chinese works of art. Aside from the two works that hit the HK$100-million mark*, a total of 14 pieces sold for more than HK$10 million.

Among them, the top two lots went to a Yongzheng falangcai vase which brought HK$64.9 million (around US$8.3 million) and a set of Qianlong jade imperial acher's rings with its imperial inscribed cinnabar lacquer box and cover that netted HK$60.34 million (around US$7.7 million).

*A once record-setting 18th century imperial bowl sells for US$25.4m in Hong KongA unique 15th century blue-and-white ewer nets US$13.7m at Sotheby's Hong Kong

Carrie Li | Senior Specialist of Chinese Works of Art

Lot 15 | A group of seven jade imperial archer's rings with its imperial inscribed cinnabar lacquer box and cover
Marks and period of Qianlong (1736-1795); The box and cover recorded to have been made in or before 1752
Lacquer box diameter: 12 cm

  • Reputedly removed from the Summer Palace and thence by descent in the collection of a French family since the 19th century
  • Christie’s Hong Kong, 27th April 1997, lot 94
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 8th April 2007, lot 602

Estimate:HK$50,000,000 - 70,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$54,000,000
Sold: HK$64,936,000 (around US$8.3 million)

Opening at HK$38 million, the lot attracted eight bids from two telephone bidders and was hammered at HK$54 million. With fees, the work went for HK$64.9 million (around US$8.3 million) to Chairman of Asia Wendy Li's client with paddle number L0012.

This cinnabar lacquer box which holds seven imperial jade archer’s rings was a portable treasure held close to the Qianlong Emperor’s heart for over three decades. Six of the rings – together with its imperial cinnabar lacquer box and cover and inner linings in which they are preserved – bear imperial inscriptions written by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-96), all pertaining to archery and offering an intimate insight into the Emperor's mind.

The lot was hammered at HK$54 million

In ancient times, rings of this type were worn on the right thumb to protect it from the bow string when the archer discharged the arrow. The Manchu came into power by means of horse riding and archery. Therefore, rulers of the Qing dynasty deemed it extremely important to continue practicing the art of archery. 

Later the function of archer's rings changed from being a purely practical object. It also became a decorative showpiece. They became sought-after for their decorative value among the Manchu aristocracy of the Qing dynasty.

The round lacquer box that holds the rings is delicately carved with three fish amongst flower scroll, which is still well-preserved after more than 200 years. The subject matter is quite rare as most imperial lacquer wares feature designs like flowers, dragon patterns, natural landscapes or characters.

We can see from the painting made in Qing Imperial Court that Emperor Qianlong is often depicted wearing a jade archer’s ring.

The Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armor on Horseback by Giuseppe Castiglione | Collection of The Palace Museum in Beijing

Lot 3615 | An imperial puce-enamel falangcai 'dragon' vase
Blue enamel mark and period of Yongzheng, Recorded to have been completed in 1732
Provenance (Edited by The Value; Official version to be published):

  • Collection of a German businessman
  • Reputedly acquired in Shanghai between 1920s and early 1940s;
  • Thence by descent in the collection of a family in Hamburg

Estimate: HK$50,000,000 - 80,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$50,000,000
Sold: HK$60,340,000 (around US$7.7 million)

The present falangcai vase was hammered at HK$50 million against an opening bid of HK$40 million. With fees, it sold for HK$60.3 million (around US$7.7 million) to a telephone bidder represented by Do Do Lee (Executive Assistant to Managing Director at Sotheby's Asia) with paddle number L0005. 

Generally speaking, falangcai comes in a smaller size with patterns painted in multiple colours. It is extremely rare to find a monochrome falangcai example surviving.

Do Do Lee won the lot for her client with paddle number L0005

Sam Shum | Senior Specialist of Chinese Works of Art

The current 'dragon' vase is 30cm tall, which is much bigger than other falangcai examples that we see. Besides, the body is painted with two powerful dragons in a deep puce enamel. 'Yongzhen Nan Zhi' seal mark inscribed on the base is a unique trait of imperial falangcai ware. 

There are only three falangcai vases of this similar design. In addition to the current example, one is in the collection of Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art and the other made a public appearance at the 50th-anniversary exhibition by Eskenazi, who is known as the godfather of Chinese antiques.

Corroborated by the imperial court archives to have been completed in 1732 – a mere two months after the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-35) disapproved of the blurriness on a copper-red vase, the vase testifies to not only the craftsmen’s unrelentless will to innovate and please the Emperor, but also the unparalleled culmination of technical virtuosity during the Yongzheng reign.

A close falangcai example to the current vase was showcased at Eskenazi’s special exhibition

Lot 3644 | An imperial Khotan-green jade 'tian'en baxun zhi bao' seal
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period
12.7 x 12.7 x 11.6 cm
Provenance (Edited by The Value):

  • Meley Collection, Paris
  • Collection of Emile Guimet (1836-1918), acquired in the early 20th century, and thence by descent
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 8th October 2008, lot 2006 (Sold: HK$1,858,000)
  • Property from the De An Tang collection

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 40,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$40,000,000
Sold: HK$48,850,000 (around US$6.26 million)

The present lot last appeared at auction in 2008, when it was offered as part of an 8-lot auction of seals from the collection of Emile Guimet, the founder of Musée Guimet in France. Back then, it sold for HK$1.86 million.

Fifteen years later, it was released to the market from the De An Tang Collection, the owner of which is Charles Ho Tsu-kwok, a tycoon from Hong Kong best known for his leadership roles in the media and tobacco industries. With a final price, after fees, of HK$48.8 million, its value saw an 2.6-times increase over the course of 15 years.

The Qianlong seal carved with the characters which can be translated as Treasure of the Emperor at Eighty Thanks to Heaven's Blessing was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor to celebrate his 80th birthday. Large in size, it is mounted by a beautifully carved pair of tightly intertwined crouching dragons, their powerfully carved bulging eyes and flared nostrils above curling whiskers and fanged jaws, with meticulously incised scales and flowing manes.

Charles Ho Tsu-kwok | Screenshot from YouTube

Other highlight lots that fetched over HK$10 million:

Lot 3601 | A gold kneeling figure
Western Han dynasty
Height: 10.8 cm

  • A Japanese private collection, formed before World War II, by repute
  • J.C. Wang, Taipei
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$20,500,000
Sold: HK$25,255,000

Lot 3614 | A limestone head of Vairocana Buddha
Tang dynasty
43 x 43 x 56 cm

  • Yamanaka & Co., Osaka, 1924
  • An old Japanese private collection, by repute

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$15,000,000
Sold: HK$18,600,000

Lot 58 | A doucai 'chicken' cup
Mark and period of Yongzheng
Diameter: 8.1 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 28th April 1998, lot 815

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$12,000,000
Sold: HK$14,970,000

Lot 3688 | A blue and white 'fish pond' brush washer
Mark and period of Xuande
Diameter: 17.8 cm
Provenance (Edited by The Value):

  • Peter Boode (d. c. 1972)
  • Collection of Alfred (1873-1950) and Ivy Clark (c. 1890-1976), c. 1936/38
  • Spink & Son Ltd, London, 1974
  • Collection of Senta Wollheim, compiled in the 1960s to early 1980s, and thence by descent
  • An old German family collection
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 7th October 2015, lot 3605 and cover (Sold: HK$24,080,000)

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$12,000,000
Sold: HK$14,970,000

Lot 3610 | An archaic bronze ritual wine vessel and cover, you
Shang dynasty, Yinxu period
Height: 28.7 cm

  • Collection of Huang Jun (1880-1952), Beijing
  • Collection of Dr. Anton F. Philips (1874-1951), co-founder of the Philips Group, Netherlands
  • Sotheby's London, 30th March 1978, lot 13
  • Collection of J.T. Tai (1910-92), New York
  • Collection of Wahl-Rostagni, Rome
  • A French private collection
  • Galerie Christian Deydier, Paris
  • Sotheby's New York, 21st March 2018, lot 583
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$11,500,000
Sold: HK$14,365,000

Lot 3723 | A blue and white 'nine dragon' vase, meiping
Mark and period of Qianlong; possibly made in 1738 according to Qing court record
Height: 34.8 cm

  • Acquired in Paris, 2014

Estimate: K$7,000,000 - 9,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$11,000,000
Sold: HK$13,760,000

Lot 3790 | A pale celadon jade 'kneeling human' ornament
Mid - late Shang dynasty
Height: 7.4 cm

  • Chinese jades from the Cissy and Robert Tang Collection

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$11,000,000
Sold: HK$13,760,000


Lot 3720 | A blue and white double-gourd vase
Seal mark and period of Qianlong
Height: 29.5 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 17th/18th May 1988, lot 176
  • Shimentang collection
  • Eskenazi, London, November 2012
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 7th October 2015, lot 3631

Estimate: HK$10,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$10,000,000
Sold: HK$12,500,000

Lot 3804 | A celadon and brown 'dragon and bird' plaque
Mid - late Western Zhou dynasty
Height: 9.3 cm

  • Collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth (1929-2014), New York, no. JI 130 (label)
  • Chinese jades from the Cissy and Robert Tang Collection

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 4,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$9,200,000
Sold: HK$11,582,000

Lot 3677 | A black-glazed russet-painted 'vortex' 'temmoku' jar
Northern Song dynasty
Height: 20.7 cm

  • Collection of Mosaku Sorimachi (1888-1962)
  • Collection of Sakamoto Gorō (1923-2016)

Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$8,000,000
Sold: HK$10,130,000

Lot 3604 | An archaic bronze ritual wine vessel and cover, gong
Late Shang dynasty
Width: 18.1 cm

  • Collection of Bella and P.P. Chiu, Hong Kong and San Francisco
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London, 1998
  • Michael Goedhuis, London

Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$8,000,000
Sold: HK$10,130,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Date: 8 April 2023

Sale: In His Majesty’s Palm: Exquisite Imperial Porcelain from the Alan Chuang Collection
Number of Lots: 23 
Sold: 16
Sale Rate: 69.5%
Sale Total: HK$93,028,400 (around US$11.9 million)

Sale: TRANSCENDENT FORM Classical Chinese Art from the Yin Xue Tang Collection: Part 1
Number of Lots: 10
Sold: 8
Sale Rate: 80%
Sale Total: HK$45,958,000 (around US$5.9 million)

Sale: Important Chinese Art
Number of Lots: 253 
Sold: 195
Sale Rate: 77%
Sale Total: HK$534,319,380 (around US$68.5 million)