A stunning piece of Chinas Imperial history a seal personally commissioned and used by the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) sold for £2,708,000 at Bonhams
Sale of Fine Chinese Art on November 11th in London.
The perfect four centimetre square jade seal bearing the inscription `Zi Qiang Bu Xi, (Self-Strengthening Never Ceases) is closely linked to the Emperors 80th birthday celebration which coincided with the 55th year of his reign and is an iconic reminder of Chinas golden age.
Thanks to impeccable record keeping it is possible to date the commissioning and final delivery of this Imperial seal to 1793. Strangely enough the date 1793 coincides with the birth of Bonhams half a world away, also in 1793. Few would then have thought that Bonhams and the Qianlong Emperors story would meet in London over a small perfect piece of carved jade, some 217 years later.
This iconic Chinese object, a small exquisite work of art, created huge interest before the sale in Europe and as well as China. On a recent visit to Beijing with Bonhams Senior Specialist, Asaph Hyman, no fewer than five curators of the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, turned out to view it, as well as other interested parties.
It was something of a homecoming as the seal had been based at the Yan chunge Pavilion in the Forbidden City during its use by the Qianlong Emperor. Now it is going back to China once more, possibly the most treasured possession of its new owner.
The sale attracted huge excitement which was evident in the saleroom packed with some 200 people. When the Imperial seal, lot 55, was called, the atmosphere was electric. There was a deep hush in the room as the bids moved between three buyers, all in the room. Finally it was sold to a Chinese buyer from Beijing.
Speaking after the sale, Asaph Hyman, said: The discovery of this long lost symbol of Imperial China at its zenith is extremely important for all those passionate about the history of Imperial China. There is no other work of art which the Emperor would have been as personally associated with than this, his personal seal. Bonhams is greatly honoured to have sold an Imperial seal of such importance.
Auctioneer for the sale and Chairman of Bonhams Asia, Colin Sheaf, commented: Im absolutely delighted that, after we rediscovered this lost Imperial Chinese treasure in the West, Bonhams has now enabled it to return home. This price justifies all our efforts with researching and marketing to a global audience this Imperial jewel. It reaffirms Bonhams' ability and confidence to auction the finest works of art in the world.
The history and provenance of this artefact speaks both of a simple and elegant personal aesthetic as well as the stamp of Imperial power. In his article on the seal, Guo Fuxiang, a curator at the world famous Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing, a world authority on Imperial history, writes: The reason this inscription was chosen for the seal is revealed in the Emperors personal comments which indicates a determination not to become indolent, but to remain mindful and diligent, doing his best to govern his subjects before relinquishing power. The term Ziqiang Buxi Self Strengthening Never Ceases served as a constant reminder to him.
One of the glories of his long reign was his legacy of stunning artefacts and literature. And at the heart of this cornucopia of Chinese art is this object, the Emperors personal seal with wording that personifies his state of mind. The seal would have originally been one in a set of three jade seals, used to make impressions at the right or left corner of calligraphy artworks. The imprints of all three seals are in the Qianlong Baosou collection in the Beijing Palace Museum.