Enfilade

At Sotheby’s | Qianlong Emperor’s Musket Fetches $2.5million

Posted in Art Market by Editor on November 11, 2016

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Imperial matchlock musket, made for the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–1795), Qing Dynasty. The gun bears the imperial reign mark on top of the barrel, and incised on the breech of the barrel are four Chinese characters that denote the gun’s ranking: te deng di yi (‘Supreme Grade, Number One’).

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Press release for Sotheby’s Sale L16215, Lot #1:

‘Supreme Grade, Number One’ Imperial Matchlock Musket
Sotheby’s, London, 9 November 2016

At Sotheby’s in London, the first Chinese firearm with an imperial reign mark ever to be offered at auction sold for £1,985,000 (US$2,461,400 / HK$19,198,920). The gun—a brilliantly designed and exquisitely crafted musket, produced in the imperial workshops—was created for the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty (r. 1736–1795), arguably the greatest collector and patron of the arts in Chinese history. Estimated at £1–1.5 million, the firearm ignited a ten-minute bidding battle, finally selling to an Asian private collector.

Robert Bradlow, Senior Director, Chinese Works of Art, Sotheby’s London, said: “This gun ranks as one of the most significant Chinese treasures ever to come to auction. Today’s result will be remembered alongside landmark sales of other extraordinary objects that epitomise the pinnacle of imperial craftsmanship during the Qing dynasty. Over the last 10 years we’ve seen the market for historical Chinese works of art go from strength to strength, with collectors drawn from across the globe and exceptional prices achieved whether the sale is staged in London, Hong Kong, or New York.”

The musket bears not only the imperial reign mark on top of the barrel, but in addition, incised on the breech of the barrel, are four Chinese characters that denote the gun’s peerless ranking—the exceptional grading te deng di yi, ‘Supreme Grade, Number One’. This grading makes it unique among the known extant guns from the imperial workshops and asserts its status as one of the most important firearms produced for the Qianlong Emperor.

The advent of Western firearm technology sparked the production of muskets in the imperial workshops, and this modern mode of weaponry had unquestionable advantages over the traditional bow and arrow for hunting. Using only the most luxurious materials, imperial muskets were created in very small numbers for the Qianlong Emperor. While the Emperor is unlikely ever to have held a gun in battle, he would regularly hunt with a musket.

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Anonymous court painter, The Qianlong Emperor Shooting Deer (Beijing: Palace Museum), from The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Armaments and Military Provisions (Hong Kong, 2008), p. 205.

The Supreme Number One is closely related to six celebrated, named imperial Qianlong muskets in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, which appear to correspond with seven muskets listed in the Qing work Collected Statutes of the Qing Dynasty with Illustrations. These guns were probably graded in the same way as the Supreme Number One, but of lower grade and/or number (‘Supreme Grade, Number Two’, ‘Top Grade, Number 2’).

Revered as one of the most powerful ‘Sons of Heaven’, the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799) was the longest-lived and de-facto longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history (r. 1736–1795). In the 60th year of his reign (1795), the eighty-five year old Qianlong Emperor declared his abdication, lest he surpassed the 60-year reign of his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662–1722). In a grand coronation ceremony the following year, his fifteenth son took position of emperor, though the Qianlong Emperor continued to rule China as the Qing dynasty’s only, and China’s last, Emperor Supreme.

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Note (added 11 November 2016) The original version of this posting included a view looking down the barrel of the gun. Once the posting was published, I was struck by how threatening the photo could appear to some (myself included). The point of the posting was to highlight something of the collection (and market interest in the collection) of the Qianlong Emperor. I didn’t mean to make the world a more hostile place. It’s been a tough enough week without more guns pointed at anyone. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry. –CH

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