Imperial Seals to Highlight Sotheby’s Asian Art Sale

The next auction of Asian Art at Sotheby’s Paris will take the form of a two-session sale on December 18.

The first session, subtitled Marques d’Empereurs (Marks of Emperors), includes a number of objects acquired by Emile Guimet – founder of the Paris Museum of Asian Art at the start of the 20th century – and bequeathed to his descendents. They include an exceptional group of imperial seals from the reigns of Emperor Qianlong (1736-95), Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820) and Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908).

The top lot is expected to be an exceptional Chinese imperial Qianlong Yubi seal (Qianlong period, 1736-95). This unusually large, steatite seal features six dragons flying in and out of the the clouds in pursuit of the flaming pearl, in imitation of the Song style of painting (960-1279). The square base is carved with the prestigious shoushan inscription by the hand of Emperor Qianlong (lot 5, estimate €800,000-1,200,000).

Another important seal is the square jade imperial seal with the inscription Tai Shang Huang Di (Empereur Emeritus), the title Qianlong gave himself when he abdicated in favour of his son Jiaqing in 1795. The seal is topped by a lively-looking dog with its head raised and snout in the air (lot 6, est. €120,000-180,000).

Other highlights from Emile Guimet’s Collection range from a gilded bronze Simhavaktra figure, evoking Guimet’s initial reason for travelling to Asia (to study religion), to the manuscript for the opera Tai-Tsoung, composed by Guimet in 1894 in honour of a great Chinese emperor from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). As well as illustrating Guimet’s erudite interest in China and its history, the manuscript also reflects the multi-talented gifts of this great 19th century humanist – industrialist, composer, writer and patron of the arts.

The sale’s second session, devoted to Asian art, features a selection of items from China, South-East Asia and Japan.

Among important Chinese ceramics to be offered in the morning session is an imperial Qianlong porcelain Bianhu moonflask adorned with two dragons (1736-95). The design in underglaze blue, with a large dragon surging out of the waves, is similar to that of a vase in the National Palace Museum in Tapei. The form of the moonflask derives from earlier foreign pilgrim bottles (lot 68, est. €200,000-300,000).

An exceptional Yuan Dynasty blue and white Chinese porcelain charger (1279-1368) has a similar design to a dish in the Matsuoka Museum, Tokyo. Only two other Yuan blue and white chargers with such a pattern – involving two fish surrounded by aquatic plants – are known. They were excavated in Zushi (Taoyang district) and are now in the Hunan Regional Museum. The subject comes from Tao philosophy, which considers these creatures as free spirits (lot 39, est. €80,000-120,000).

A fine, 18th century, Chinese gilt repoussé copper figure (Qing Dynasty) shows Manjushri with a lotus stem in his left hand, sitting on a lotus base in the Kadgha position, with a serene expression and half-closed eyes. The figure, lacking the usual sabre, is embellished with semi-precious stones and wearing jewellery, two scarves and a belt (lot 16, est. €25,000-30,000).

Another outstanding Chinese work of art is a 14th century bronze Guanyin figure from Yunnan province (Dali Kingdom). The Guanyin is wearing an ankle-length dothi skirt and a triangular diadem adorned with an Amitabha Buddha; the face has a slightly flattened nose, half-closed eyes, thick lips, and a forehead with the urna mark (lot 20, est. €20,000-30,000). A similar bronze figure, with traces of gold lacquer, can be found in the Musée Guimet in Paris.

Among the cloisonné highlights is a Qing Dynasty tripod censer made in China during the reign of Qianlong (1736-95), with the six-character mark of Emperor Qianlong in a gilt cartouche on the neck. The quality of the workmanship, along with the imperial mark, suggest the censer was made in the Cloisonné Enamel Workshop within the Zaobanchu (Imperial Palace Workshop) in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The body, cover and S-shaped handles are decorated with foliage, lotus flowers and petal friezes on a turquoise ground; the knop with bats and dragons; and the three legs with gilt-brass lion masks. The censer represents a pinnacle of artistic and technical achievement in the realm of cloisonné enamel craftsmanship during the Qianlong period (lot 65, est. €50,000-70,000).

It is extremely rare to find small, cloisonné works in archaic style of such quality as the impressive Gui censer with cover from the same period, in bronze and cloisonné enamel, with the six-character mark of the Qianlong period in relief. The censer recalls the small bronze Zun vases in the Alfred Morrisson Collection; its form and decoration were inspired by bronze originals dating notably from the Western Zhou Dynasty (lot 60, est. €40,000-60,000).

Jade highlights include Qianlong animal figures (1736-95) whose refined detail – to the coats and manes, for instance – reflects their meticulous craftsmanship. A fine example is a delicate Qing Dynasty double-horse group in white and russet jade owned by Comtesse Exelmans between 1905 and 1935 (lot 115, est. €20,000-30,000).

Another fine jade item is a spinach-green jade and red carved lacquer Qing Dynasty khotan bowl with Qianlong period mark (1736-95). The stylised lotus-flower and foliage lacquer-carving is extremely rare; no other similar example appears to be recorded, although plain spinach jade bowls of the period can be found in many museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago (lot 126, est. €8,000-12,000).

The morning session also includes a selection of artworks from South-East Asia.

A 16th century Thai bronze figure of a Princess in meditation (Ayutthaya Period) has long been known in Europe and illustrated in numerous publications since 1922. The Princess has delicate features and is wearing bracelets, rings, a diadem and a light dhoti garment (lot 27, est. €12,000-18,000).

Following on from the first part of the collection, sold last June, Part II of the Collection of Ming & Qing Ceramics assembled by the Swedish industrialist Carl Kempe (1884-1967) will be offered during the afternoon session. The collection also features an interesting group of Korean ceramics (mainly celadon) with the Sanggam motif of the Koryo Dynasty (10th-13th centuries).

The sale’s final section includes a large Namban export lacquer chest from the Momoyama period (1568-1600). The chest has gold iroe-hiramakie decoration inlaid with mother-of-pear; lacquer work inside the curved top; and is decorated throughout with a variety of creatures such as lions, tigers and buffaloes. The first customers for Namban lacquer wares – which derived not only from local Japanese taste, but also from Spanish, Dutch and (somewhat later) British influence – were the Portuguese, who arrived in Japan in 1542 or 1543 (lot 271, est. €30,000-40,000).

A print of the Great Wave off Kanagawa, perhaps the most famous of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), shows the distant Mount Fuji behind a huge wave about to engulf three tiny fishing-boats (lot 274, est. €8,000-12,000).

The sale ends with a fine array of Japanese sabres, including a Katana from the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) made by the renowned swordsmith Nagamitsu of Bizen (lot 290, est. €8,000-12,000).