A Rare Qing Qianlong Jade Washer Could Fetch £600,000

The Qianlong Emperor had a reputation for being a jade lover that he admired the toughness and the subtlety of its colouring. The Qianlong reign witnessed the Golden Age of Chinese jade. After all these years, we are now able to take a glimpse of some of the fine jade examples from that time as they will be up for sale at Sotheby’s London. The sale will be led by a Khotan green jade washer, estimated at £600,000-800,000.

To understand Qianlong's great love for jade, we can start with the history of how the influx of raw jade to China started. Large jade carvings like the present large jade washer would have been nearly impossible during the Kangxi and early Qianlong periods, during which the jade-producing areas of Khotan and Yarkent were occupied by the Dzungars and could not be easily accessed. In the 24th year of the Qianlong reign (1759), the Qing army defeated the Dzungars decisively and cemented its control in the northwestern border region of Xinjiang, which came under the rule of the central government.

The jade tribute system was formalised in the 25th of the Qianlong reign (1760). From then onwards, raw jade from Khotan and Yarkent would be sent every spring and autumn to the court, amounting to 4000 jin every year. In fact, at the height of this tributary traffic, the Qing court received some 300,000 jin of raw jade every year. The raw jade supplied increased in both quantity and size throughout the Qianlong reign.



The jade washer is exceptionally large

This monumental spinach-green jade washer measures 50 cm in width at its widest point and 12.8 cm in height. Its mouth is 34.8 cm in diameter, and its base is 25.2 cm in diameter. Generously proportioned, the washer is carved from Khotan jade of a relatively dark colour. The rings of the handles were carved in openwork from the same piece of raw jade as the washer’s body.

Its animal heads were identified as lion heads, they are probably best described as taotie, a term that denominates the fabulous zoomorphic masks prevalent on archaic bronzes. 

The animal heads were identified as lion heads, they are probably best described as taotie

The beast-head handles and especially the six freely moving rings were difficult to carve from a single piece of jade. Jade carving is a subtractive process that does not allow for any error. The creation of a monumental work of such perfection required the careful execution of a dozen procedures, including the examination and selection of raw jade, drafting of the design, rough carving, hole-boring, articulation of the rings, fine carving, detailing, and polishing.

Many of the most impressive jade vessel forms devised in the Qianlong period follow archaic bronzes and the present washer is no exception. The shape represents a free interpretation of an archaic bronze basin known as pan. Archaic bronze pan were water basin used for ritual ablutions.

Records indicate that pan at the Qing court referred mostly to dining utensils and other food containers serving practical purposes. By contrast, the present monumental jade washer with six rings is a work of innovative archaism created under the auspices of the Emperor himself, its primary purpose being display and aesthetic appreciation.

It was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, 1935-6

It has an impeccable provenance. It belongs to the collection of Robert Napier, First Baron Napier of Magdala (1810-1890). It was on public display in an International Exhibition of Chinese Art at Royal Academy of Arts in 1935-36. The washer was included by the French author and major jade collector Stanley Charles Nott in his 1936 book Chinese Jade Throughout the Ages.

Also from the Qianlong period, an Imperial green jade brushpot will be featured at the sale with an estimate of £300,000-500,000. The present spinach-green jade ‘Five Immortals’ brush pot is 16.5 cm in height. Its mouth and base both measure 17 cm in diameter, and its base measures 1.1 cm in height.

Carved from spinach-green jade, the brush pot has a straight cylindrical form, with five geometric cloud motifs on its base. The body is carved in shallow relief with a continuous landscape scene of a tranquil forest with five elderly figures, each striking a different pose. One crosses a bridge holding a magical peach, trailed by a young servant holding a staff. Two elderly figures are walking together, one holding lingzhi fungus and a staff and looking back, the other proceeding forward with a peach. Another two figures are holding a peach and lingzhi fungus respectively.

This complicated composition was created through a variety of techniques, including subtractive carving in high and low relief, incision, and drilling. The resultant scene, resembling a continuous scroll painting, is extremely illusionistic. In its material, craftsmanship, and composition, this brush pot is characteristic of the jade art of the mid-Qing imperial court.

The brush pot was an indispensable part of the scholar’s study in classical China. Even in our increasingly computerised society, an elegant brush pot on a desk remains a loyal companion and a source of aesthetic pleasure.

Highlights from Important Chinese Art at Sotheby’s London

An Imperial Monumental Khotan Green Jade Washer
Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period

Lot no.: 18
width:50 cm (at its widest point); mouth: 34.8 cm in diameter; base: 25.2 cm in diameter; height: 12.8 cm
Collection of Robert Napier, First Baron Napier of Magdala (1810-1890).
Estimate: £600,000 - 800,000

An Imperial Spinach-green Jade ‘Wulao Tu’ Brushpot
Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period

Lot no.: 19
Size: height:16.5cm; mouth: 17cm; base: 17cm
Provenance: Collection of Robert Napier, First Baron Napier of Magdala (1810-1890).
Estimate: £300,000 - 500,000

A Rare White-Glazed Double-Gourd Vase
Qianlong Seal Mark and Period

Lot no.: 73
Height: 23cm
Collection of Gustav Detring (1842-1913) and thence by descent.
Estimate: £200,000 - 400,000

An Extremely Rare Blue and White Double-gourd 'dragon' Vase
Jiaqing Seal Mark and Period

Lot no. 70
Height: 30.3cm
Collection of Gustav Detring (1842-1913) and thence by descent.
Estimate: £200,000 - 300,000

A Fine Pair of Imperial Bronze Altar Vases
Qianlong Marks and Period

Lot no.: 42
Height: 43cm
A Midwest private collection, USA, purchased in the 1960s.
Estimate: £200,000 - 250,000

Auction details

Auction house: Sotheby’s London
Sale: Important Chinese Art
Lots offered: 146
Auction time:
7 November 2018|10:30am (lot 1-69)
7 November 2018|2:30pm (lot70-146)