Qianlong Emperor's jade seal realised US$2.3 million at Sotheby's Paris

Yesterday saw Sotheby's Paris deliver strong results at the Arts d'Asie sale. 

Amongst 215 lots offered, 167 were sold – achieving a sale total of €8.97 million (around US$9.44 million) with a sell-through rate of 77.6%.

Leading the sale was an imperial Chinese jade seal. Inscribed with the characters Desui chuxin, meaning “able to follow my original intention”, this seal was important during the time of Qianlong Emperor’s retirement. With over 30 bids, the lot was hammered down at €1.8 million, 18 times its pre-sale low estimate. After fees, it fetched €2,213,000 (around US$2.3 million), crowning it the most expensive lot of the sale.  

Lot 1 | Khotan green jade 'De sui chu xin' imperial seal
Seal mark of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795)
6.7 x 2.2 x 3.9 cm

  • Property from a French private collection

Estimate: €100,000 - 150,000
Hammer Price: €1,800,000
Sold: €2,213,000 (around US$2.3 million)

The bid started at €160,000 and immediately sparked interests from online bidders. The price soared to €480,000 within a minute in €10,000 increment. From here onwards, the bidding battle was between the telephone bidders represented by specialists in the Paris saleroom.

After 24 bids, the price had already exceeded €1 million mark. The tug-of-war between two telephone bidders continued until it was finally hammered down at €1.8 million and sold for €2,213,000 (around US$2.3 million) to top the sale. 

Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor in Court Dress, collection of the Palace Museum

In Qianlong’s later years, he spoke of his initial desire as such:

  • "When I first became emperor, I burned incense and reported to the azure Heaven that if I were allowed to reign for a full sixty-year cycle, I would then abdicate to my heir, for I dare not reign more years than my ancestor [the Kangxi emperor], this I recorded among important events that I made clear in edicts promulgated all over the empire and abroad. Now I respectfully welcome the great change, fortunately fulfilling my original heart's desires."

As early as Qianlong succeeded as Emperor, he had made his intention clear: to achieve everything as he planned and gladly pass down the throne after having reigned for sixty years.

With this Desui chuxin seal carved, it seemed to Qianlong that such wish had come true as he did abdicate before exceeding the 61-year reign of his grandfather – but would an imperial story go so simple?

When we look at the companion seal of the Desui chuxin seal, there’s another one that was engraved with Guizheng nai xunzheng, meaning retired but still giving advice.

It’s true that he had given up the throne and passed it down to the Jiaqing Emperor. However, while he retired as an Emperor Emeritus, he was so actively engaged in state affairs – in the name of "giving advice" – that he was the real power behind the throne. The Jiaqing Emperor had actually remained a puppet until Qianlong passed away.

As revealed by historical records, Qianlong Emperor had found himself a glorified excuse for his obsession with power: Although I am in my eighties, my mind and body are as healthy as they can possibly be. If I set aside the empire and enjoy my own leisure time in the following years, is it not a shame to my people and the Heaven? That would not be my original intention when I ascended the throne.

Perhaps Qianlong was getting too immersed in the reminiscence of his brilliant achievements that he deluded himself into believing his own great story. While he kept saying happily that he was able to fulfil his original intention, practically, he enjoyed the longest period of government among the Qing emperors – that was, as we all know, his unspoken wish.

The oval Desui chuxin seal sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2008

Desui chuxin seal comes in two forms: oval and rectangular. In 2008, the oval one, coming from the Estate of Emile Guimet, was sold for HK$4.46 million (US$568,000) at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. As for the present lot, the auction house said that it is property from a French private collection.

Lot 42 | Gilt-bronze and cloisonné enamel caparisoned elephant
Qing dynasty, Qianlong
51 x 49 cm

  • The Estate of Christian, Lady Hesketh,
  • Sold by Order of Her Executors, together with Property of the Trustees Of The 2nd Baron Hesketh’s Will Trust.
  • Sotheby’s, London, 7th March 2007, lot 71.

Estimate: €150,000 - 200,000
Hammer Price: €650,000
Sold: €819,000 (around US$856,000)

Carrying a low estimate of €150,000, the cloisonné enamel caparisoned elephant was hammered down at €650,000 and realized €819,000 (around US$856,000) to become the second top lot of the sale. 

The cloisonné work shows an elephant supporting a Hu rider. In imperial China, Hu is a group of non-Chinese nomads living in Western Asia. As early as Western Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), Hu people had already set foot in China.

In addition to the ambassadors, following the Han officials to China was a group of performers and acrobats who would ride elephants and beasts, perform sword dance and magic.

Since the pronunciation of ridding an elephant is similar to auspicious in Chinese, elephant-ridding artworks symbolized peace, prosperity and bountiful harvest.

Cloisonné was introduced to China from Western Asia as early as the Yuan dynasty (1206AD – 1368AD). It’s a technique where copper or bronze wires are bent or curved to outline the decorative pattern painted with enamels.

Known for its bright colour, rich lustre and endurance, cloisonné work was mostly displayed in the imperial court during Ming and Qing dynasties, thus often being considered royal art. Usually designed as vases, jars, bowls and vessels, it's rare to see a cloisonné artwork in the shape of an animal.

Lot 6 | White and russet jade archaistic ewer and cover
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795)
22.5 cm

  • Collection of Major R. W. Cooper.
  • Christie's, London, 29th April 1963, lot 31.
  • Property from a European private collection

Estimate: €200,000 - 300,000
Hammer Price: €460,000
Sold: €579,600 (around US$604,000)

Encouraged by the Qianlong Emperor's passion for the antique, Qing craftsmen began to look at the past for inspiration and adapt the forms and designs of archaic jades and bronzes into their pieces.

For the present jade vessel, the auction house believes its influence was from a yi, an archaic bronze covered pouring vessel of similar shape dating to the Western Zhou period (Ca. 1046-771 BC).

Other than a liquid container, Yi was also used for cleansing hands in ritual ceremonies. It often appeared in various forms: with or without legs and feet, rounded or flat bottom – but the shape of the spout was usually likened to an animal head. 

Yi (pouring vessel) of the Marquis of Qi, collection of Shanghai Museum

Other highlight lots that sold far above their pre-sale estimates:

Lot 63 | Large gilt-copper mask of Bhairava with inset jewellery and painted details 
Nepal, 16th century, dated Nepal Samvat 719, equivalent to 1598 CE
60 cm

  • Marcel Nies, Belgium.

Estimate: €40,000 - 60,000
Hammer Price: €280,000
Sold: €352,800 (around US$371,000)

In Hindu mythology, three gods rule the world: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Legend has it that Brahma told Shiva that he was the supreme deity one day. Furious, Shiva plucked a hair and turned it in into Bhairava, a fierce manifestation of herself. Bhairava cut off one of Brahma's five heads and made him submissive. 

Lot 3 | White jade 'magnolia' stem cup
Qing dynasty, 18th century
12 cm x 9.5 cm

  • Spink & Son Ltd, London, 25th February 1987 (£17,000)

Estimate: €20,000 - 30,000
Hammer Price: €280,000
Sold: €327,600 (around US$344,000)

Exquisitely shaped, the cup elegantly presents the beauty of a magnolia flower in white jade. Even the foot and the inner wall of the cup are delicately decorated. 

The lot is accomapnied by a receipt from Spink & Son, a renowned London antique dealer, proving that the jade cup was sold in 1987 for £17,000 – a pretty penny given the price at the time. 

Lot 49 | Silver and copper inlaid copper-alloy figure of Shakyamuni Buddha
Tibet, circa 13th century
64.8 cm

  • Señor Laszlo Bene.
  • Sotheby’s, New York, 26th March 2003, lot 46.

Estimate: €60,000 - 100,000
Hammer Price: €250,000
Sold: €315,000 (around US$331,000)

In the copper figure, Shakyamuni Buddha is sitting in a typical posture with his left hand resting flat in the lap and right hand reaching over the knee toward the ground – an icnonic gesture of Buddha known as the "earth witness" mudra. The mudra represents the Buddha's enlightenment under the bodhi tree, when he touched the ground to ask the earth to bear witness for him.

The lotus pedestal is cast separately from the figure. Silver highlights the whites of the eyes, and copper is inlaid in the lower lip, the fingernails and toenails. 

Lot 143 | A gilt-bronze figure of Amitabha Buddha
Qing dynasty, Kangxi period, 17th-18th century 
51 cm

  • Acquired by the parents of the present owner during the 1980s and thence by family descent.

Estimate: €40,000 - 60,000
Hammer Price: €240,000
Sold: €302,400 (around US$318,000)

Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, is also known as Amitayus, meaning Infinite Life in Sankrit. He is the principal Buddha in Pure Land Buddism. 

According to Buddhist scriptures, all who have faith in him and call upon his name will reborn in eternal bliss in the Western Pure Land, a joyous paradise where birds twitter and the fragrances of plants waft in the air.

Lot 18 | A large famille-verte 'Lintong dou bao' charger
Qing dynasty, Kangxi period 
55.5 cm

  • Sotheby's London, 12th June 2003, lot 222.
  • Christie’s, London, 7th November 2006, lot 189. 
  • Galerie 41, Monaco, 31st March 2007.

Estimate: €20,000 - 30,000
Hammer Price: €130,000
Sold: €163,800 (around US$172,000)

Famille-verte decoration during the Kangxi period was mostly based on fictional operas and stories. 

The scene on this large charger portrays the fictional story of 'The Contest of Treasures of Lintong' dating from the Spring and Autumn era (772 - 481 BC). The story depicts a competition organized by Duke Mu of Qin country to intimidate his neighbours, whereby each feudal prince was to present the treasure of his country.

While others showcased their national treasures, Wu Zixu, General of Chu country, chose to display strength as a 'treasure' by holding up a vessel of thousands pound single-handedly. Thus, Wu Zixu earned the respect of all and saved his country from the threat of Qin country.

Wu Zixu holding up a vessel of thousands pound

Auction Details: 
Auction house: Sotheby's Paris
Sale: Arts d'Asie
Date: 16 June 2022
Number of lots: 215
Sold: 167
Unsold: 48
Sell-through rate: 77.6%
Sale total: €8,978,318 (around US$9.45 million)