Half of the Lots Offered at Sotheby’s Chinese Works of Art Sale Unsold, Including a Qing Dynasty Chinese Imperial Seal That Was Expected to Fetch Over US$10m

As Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring sale week is coming to an end, today’s spotlight was on Chinese works of art. 

In the Important Chinese Art Sale, three Chinese imperial seals that embodied some of the most history-defining moments of Ming and Qing dynasties, seemed to have created little spark in the saleroom.

With one unsold, the remaining two were only able to bring in HK$189m (US$24.4m) after premium. Among the 81 lots offered, quite a number of the important lots did not do so well either. A total of 38 lots failed to find new owners, resulting in a dismal 53% sell-through rate, which lags far behind the house's Modern and Contemporary Art sector.

Lot 3603 | The Qianlong Emperor’s “Jientang” white jade seal

Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, dated to the Bingxu year (1766)

Inscription: Jientang (紀恩堂)

Dimensions: 10.4 x 10.4 x 7.8 cm

Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • A French collection
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, November 2, 1994, lot 408
  • An American private collection
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 31, 2004, lot 3 (price realized: HK$14,002,400/ US$1,804,321)

Estimate: HK$125,000,000 - 180,000,000

Hammer price: HK$125,000,000

Price realized: HK$145,691,000


Auctioneer Ian McGinlay opened the present lot at HK$95m. After a total of six bids, it was soon-to-retire CEO of Sotheby’s Asia, Kevin Ching, who won the premium lot for his phone bidder, with a paddle number L0047.

That was in fact, the third time this seal had come to the auction block at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. It was last seen in a 2004 sale, when it realized HK$14m (US$1.8m). The result today means that the value of the jade seal has seen an over nine times increase in 17 years.

The sale was held at Sotheby's Hong Kong Gallery earlier today 

(Top row center) Kevin Ching, Sotheby's CEO, Asia, won the present lot for his client, with the paddle number L0047


Carved in archaic seal script on the face seal, Jientang (紀恩堂) or “The Hall of Grace Remembrance,” the white jade seal was carved by the order of Qing Emperor Qianlong (r.1735-1796) in remembrance of where he met his grandfather, Emperor Kangxi, for the first time. 

Carved on the face seal, Jientang (紀恩堂) or “The Hall of Grace Remembrance”


There are two Jientang halls, one in the Yuanmingyuan (The Summer Palace) which was where Emperors Qianlong and Kangxi first met; another one in Bishu Shanzhuang (The Imperial Summer Retreat). The two locations were where Ming emperors spent their summer months back then. He had the palace craftsmen carve a pair of Jientang seals - the present one and another, which now resides in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.

A white jade "dragon" seal with "Jientang" mark, The Palace Museum, Beijing


On the side of the present jade seal, there carved an imperial poem that dates back to 1766. It begins with Emperor Qianlong’s recollection and fond memories of his grandfather Emperor Kangxi as well as the significance of abiding by "the Mandate of Heaven to rule" - a philosophical and political idea originated from the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), which believed in the divine authority of emperorship and a legitimate ruler's key responsibility to care for his people,

The second half of the poem takes a sudden turn, where Emperor Qianlong expressed his self-doubt in face of the opposing forces in the imperial court.

Closer looks at the present jade seal


The burnt marks on the seal also signifies the downfall of the Qing dynasty - in which French and British forces invaded Yuanmingyuan, where the present seal was kept.

Charting the defining moments of Chinese imperial history, the seals tell the stories of the apex and downfall of the Ming dynasty, as well as the controversial imperial succession power struggle.

Lot 3602 | An imperial tanxiangmu Jingtian Qinmin” seal 

Qing dynasty, Kangxi period 

Inscription: Jingtian Qinmin (敬天勤民)

Dimensions: 11 x 10.2 x 10.2 cm

Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, April 6, 2016, lot 3101 (price realized: HK$92,600,000/ US$11,933,732)

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 100,000,000



The bidding for the second imperial seal from the trio was opened at HK$55m. A total of four bids of HK$5m increment came from the auctioneer and came to a pause at the below-estimate HK$75m. No bids were relayed from the specialists at the phone banks, forcing the auctioneer to officially declare the lot unsold. 

The seal last appeared in a Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale in 2016, when it achieved HK$92.6m (US$12m).


Inscription of the seal: Jingtian Qinmin (敬天勤民), meaning “revere Heaven and serve thy people”


Carved from sandalwood (tanxiangmu), the seal stands 11 cm in height and has a face measuring 10.2 cm on each side. The seal face is carved, by the order of Qing Emperor Kangxi (r.1662-1722) during the early years of his reign, with a four-character inscription, Jingtian Qinmin (敬天勤民), meaning “revere Heaven and serve thy people.” The seal served as a reminder for Emperor Kangxi himself on “the Mandate of Heaven.”


Closer looks at the present seal

Lot 3601 | An imperial green jade memorial seal of the Yongle Empress Wen

Ming dynasty, Hongxi period (1424-1425)

Height: 10.5 cm 

Inscription: ...tian qi sheng wen huang hou bao (...天齊聖文皇后寶)

Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 31, 2004, lot 15 (price realized: HK$3,534,400/ US$455,500)

Estimate: HK$25,000,000 - 35,000,000

Hammer price: HK$36,000,000

Price realized: HK$43,430,000


Out of the three imperials seals, the bidding for the present one was the most intense. As soon as the auctioneer opened the bid at HK$18m, the two-way bidding battle between Kevin Ching and Nicolas Chow began, with steady HK$1m increments. A total of 18 bids propelled the price to HK$36m and was sold to Chow’s client, with a paddle number L0009 for HK$43.4m (US$5.6m) after fees.

The seal was last auctioned off at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale back in 2004, together with the Qianglong jade seal (lot 3603) above. The seal has seen an over 11 times jump in 17 years when it was sold for HK$3.5m (US$455,500).

Closer look at the present seal


The present seal was carved by Ming Emperor Hongxi (r.1424-1425) during his short reign, in remembrance of his mother, when Empress Wen died. Traditionally, a Chinese emperor would have had three identical seals created to pay respect to a deceased ancestor: a silk one that would have been burnt after the memorial service; a wooden one for burial; and a jade one to be placed in Taimiao, or the Ancestral Hall, as a keepsake.

Though partially broken, the seal is carved with a horned dragon squatting surmounted on a square pedestal. Originally carved with four rows of characters, the seven-character inscription that remains on the base of the seal reads “...tian qi sheng wen huang hou bao (...天齊聖文皇后寶),” meaning “treasure of Empress Wen.” 


Inscription: ...tian qi sheng wen huang hou bao (...天齊聖文皇后寶)


The obliteration of the dynasty explains why imperial seals such as the present one disappeared. They were the most important symbols of power and often the first things to have been destroyed when the dynasty fell. And in this case, when Li Zicheng (r.1644-1645) led the rebellion against the Ming dynasty and invaded the Forbidden City on June 3, 1644.

Some of the highlights of the sale include:

Lot 3609 | A blue and white lotus-mouth bottle vase mark and period of Yongzheng

Height: 34.4 cm


  • Collection of Charles Anderson Dana (1819-1897)
  • The American Art Association, 24th-26th February 1898, lot 252.
  • Collection of Ward Thoron (1867-1937), and thence by descent

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000

Lot 3605 | A pair of imperial bronze “dragon and phoenix” vases mark and period of Qianlong

Height: 42.7 cm


  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, April 29-30, 1997, lot 730
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, April 10, 2006, lot 1537
  • An American private collection
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, October 9, 2007, lot 1322

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 - 25,000,000


Lot 3612 | An exceptional and rare blue and white barbed “grape” charger

Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period (1403-1424)

Diameter: 44 cm


  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, May 16, 1989, lot 115
  • Christie's Hong Kong, November 27, 2007, lot 1661

Estimate: HK$14,000,000 - 18,000,000

Hammer price: HK$14,000,000

Price realized: HK$17,115,000


Lot 3607 | A Beijing enamelled “peony” wine ewer and cover mark and period of Qianlong

Height: 14.7 cm


  • Acquired in the Far East during World War II and thence by descent, be repute
  • A UK private collection since the 1970s.

Estimate: HK$7,000,000 - 9,000,000


Lot 3613 | A yellow-ground and underglaze-blue dish mark and period of Hongzhi

Diameter: 24.6 cm

Provenance: Sotheby's Hong Kong, November 2, 1994, lot 48

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 8,000,000


Lot 3628 | A celadon-glazed double-gourd vase seal mark and period of Yongzheng

Height: 32.4 cm

Provenance: A Japanese private collection, by repute

Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Hammer price: HK$4,000,000

Price realized: HK$5,015,000

Auction Summary:

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong

Sale: Important Chinese Art

Date: April 22, 2021

Lots offered: 81

Sold: 43

Unsold: 38

Sell-through rate: 53%

Sale total: HK$259,626,520 (US$33,455,992)