A red and brown soapstone seal of the Chinese emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) sold for €17.5m (€21m including buyer’s premium) at a 14 December Far Eastern sale at Drouot in Paris. The final sale price—more than 20 times the estimate—is a world record for an imperial Chinese seal, said the auction house Pierre Bergé and Associates. The buyer has been identified as a Chinese collector but no further details have been given.
Described in the catalogue as scratched and chipped, it was estimated to make around €1m, said the sale’s Asian arts expert Alice Jossaume, of the consultancy Cabinet Portier and Associates. “We thought it might go to €5m or €6m because of its exceptional carving, colour, rarity and size,” Jossaume told The Art Newspaper. “But we never thought it would go so high.”
The seal is decorated with nine finely sculpted dragons searching among the clouds for a sacred pearl. An inscription identifies it as having been used by Qianlong, one of China’s longest serving emperors, to sign paintings and calligraphy that he personally executed. According to the auction house, the seal was one of more than 1,800 owned by Qianlong, most of which are now housed in Beijing’s Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City—although around 700 have been lost.
Thousands of objects from Qianlong’s reign disappeared in the looting and destruction of the imperial summer palace outside Beijing by French and British troops in 1860, during the Second Opium War. Some of these items make their way to auction, such as the two bronze animal heads from the summer palace that were sold by Bergé in 2009 from the collection of Yves St Laurent. Their sale triggered outrage in China, and the buyer, François-Henri Pinault, eventually returned them to the country.
The seal came to auction from the descendants of a French naval doctor who acquired it in China in the late 19th century, according to a statement from Bergé and Associates. Jossaume said it was impossible to know if the seal was looted from the summer palace since there are no records or other proof. Although the French doctor was in China around the same time, “it’s not thought he took part in the sack of the palace,” she said. “We believe he bought it in China but we don’t know the price.” She added: “This seal could perfectly well have come from the Forbidden City. It was not necessarily in the summer palace.”