Half of the Lots Offered for Sale of Sotheby’s Chinese Artworks Unsold, Including a Chinese Imperial Seal from the Qing Dynasty Expected to Fetch Over $ 10 Million | Auction news | THE VALUE

As Sotheby’s Spring Sale week in Hong Kong draws to a close, today’s spotlight was on Chinese artwork.

In the massive Chinese art auction, three Chinese Imperial Seals, which embodied some of the most significant moments in the history of the Ming and Qing dynasties, seemed to have created a little spark in the auction room.

With one unsold, the other two were only able to bring in just HK $ 189 million (US $ 24.4 million) after bounty. Among the 81 lots on offer, a good number of important lots were not so well off. In total, 38 lots did not find new owners, resulting in a dismal 53% sale rate, far behind the home’s modern and contemporary art sector.

Lot 3603 | Emperor Qianlong “Jientang“white jade seal

Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, dated to the Bingxu year (1766)

Inscription: Jientang (紀恩堂)

Dimensions: 10.4 x 10.4 x 7.8 cm

Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • A French collection
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, November 2, 1994, lot 408
  • An American private collection
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 31, 2004, lot 3 (realized price: HK $ 14,002,400 / US $ 1,804,321)

Estimate: HK $ 125,000,000 – 180,000,000

Hammer price: HK $ 125,000,000

Realized price: HK $ 145,691,000

Auctioneer Ian McGinlay opened the current lot at HK $ 95 million. After a total of six bids, it was Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby’s Asia, soon to be retiring, who won the premium lot for his telephone bidder, with a pallet number L0047.

It was in fact the third time that this seal had come up for auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. He was last seen at a sale in 2004, when he made HK $ 14million ($ 1.8million). The result today means that the value of the Jade Seal has increased nine-fold in 17 years.

The sale took place at Sotheby’s Hong Kong gallery earlier today

(Top row in the center) Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby’s, Asia, won the gift lot for his client, with the paddle number L0047

Carved in archaic seal on the facial seal, Jientang (紀恩堂) or “The Hall of Grace Remembrance”, the white jade seal was carved by order of Emperor Qing Qianlong (r.1735-1796) in memory of the place where he met his grandfather, Emperor Kangxi, for the first time.

Sculpted on the face seal, Jientang (紀恩堂) or “The Hall of Remembrance of Grace”

There are two Jientang rooms, one in the Yuanmingyuan (The Summer Palace) where Emperors Qianlong and Kangxi first met; another in Bishu Shanzhuang (The Imperial Summer Retreat). Both places were the places where the Ming Emperors spent their summer months at the time. He had a pair of Jientang seals carved by the palace artisans – the present and the other, which are now in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.

A white jade “dragon” seal with “Jientang“brand, The Palace Museum, Beijing

On the side of the current jade seal, he engraved an imperial poem that dates back to 1766. It begins with the remembrance of Emperor Qianlong and the fond memories of his grandfather, Emperor Kangxi, as well as the significance to uphold “heaven’s mandate to rule” – a philosophical and political idea that originated in the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), which believed in the divine authority of the emperor and the key responsibility of a ruler legitimate to take care of his people,

The second half of the poem takes a sudden turn, where Emperor Qianlong expressed his doubt about the forces opposing the imperial court.

Take a closer look at the current Jade Seal

The burnt marks on the seal also signify the fall of the Qing Dynasty – in which French and British forces invaded Yuanmingyuan, where the current seal was kept.

Tracing defining moments in Chinese imperial history, the seals tell tales of the heyday and fall of the Ming Dynasty, as well as the controversial power struggle of imperial succession.

Lot 3602 | An imperial tanxiangmu Jingtian Qinmin“seal

Qing dynasty, Kangxi period

Inscription: Jingtian Qinmin (敬 天 勤 民)

Dimensions: 11 x 10.2 x 10.2 cm

Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, April 6, 2016, lot 3101 (realized price: HK $ 92,600,000 / US $ 11,933,732)

Estimate: HK $ 80,000,000 – 100,000,000


The auction for the trio’s second Imperial Seal has opened at HK $ 55 million. In total, four bids with an increment of HK $ 5million came from the auctioneer and stopped below the estimate of HK $ 75million. No offer was relayed by telephone banking specialists, forcing the auctioneer to officially declare the lot unsold.

The seal last appeared at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong in 2016, when it reached HK $ 92.6 million (US $ 12 million).

Inscription of the seal: Jingtian Qinmin (敬 天 勤 民), meaning “worship heaven and serve your people”

Carved from sandalwood (tanxiangmu), the seal is 11 cm high and has a face measuring 10.2 cm on each side. The face of the seal is carved, by the order of Emperor Qing Kangxi (r.1662-1722) during the first years of his reign, with a four-character inscription, Jingtian Qinmin (敬 天 勤 民), which means “worship heaven and serve your people.” The seal served as a reminder to Emperor Kangxi himself of the “Mandate of Heaven”.

Take a closer look at the current seal

Lot 3601 | A green jade imperial commemorative seal of Empress Yongle Wen

Ming dynasty, Hongxi period (1424-1425)

Height: 10.5cm

Inscription: … tian qi sheng wen huang hou bao (… 天 齊聖文 ​​皇后 寶)

Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 31, 2004, lot 15 (realized price: HK $ 3,534,400 / US $ 455,500)

Estimate: HK $ 25,000,000 – 35,000,000

Hammer price: HK $ 36,000,000

Realized price: HK $ 43,430,000

Of the three Imperial Seals, the auction for the present was the most intense. As soon as the auctioneer opened the bid at HK $ 18million, the two-way bidding battle between Kevin Ching and Nicolas Chow began, with constant increments of HK $ 1million. A total of 18 bids propelled the price to HK $ 36 million and was sold to Chow’s customer, with a pallet number L0009 for HK $ 43.4 million (US $ 5.6 million ) after fees.

The seal was last auctioned at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong in 2004, with the Qianglong jade seal (lot 3603) above. The seal increased 11-fold in 17 years when it sold for HK $ 3.5 million (US $ 455,500).

Take a closer look at the current seal

The current seal was carved by Emperor Ming Hongxi (r.1424-1425) during his short reign, in memory of his mother, on the death of Empress Wen. Traditionally, a Chinese emperor would have had three identical seals created to pay homage to a deceased ancestor: one made of silk which would have been burnt after the memorial service; a wooden one for burial; and a jade to be placed in Taimiao, or the ancestral hall, as a souvenir.

Although partially broken, the seal is carved with a crouching horned dragon surmounted by a square plinth. Originally carved from four rows of characters, the seven-character inscription that remains on the base of the seal reads “…tian qi sheng wen huang hou bao (… 天 齊聖文 ​​皇后 寶) ”, meaning“ Empress Wen’s treasure ”.

Inscription: … tian qi sheng wen huang hou bao (… 天 齊聖文 ​​皇后 寶)

The erasure of the dynasty explains the disappearance of imperial seals such as the current one. They were the most important symbols of power and often the first things to be destroyed during the fall of the dynasty. And in this case, when Li Zicheng (r.1644-1645) led the rebellion against the Ming Dynasty and invaded the Forbidden City on June 3, 1644.

Some of the highlights of the sale include:

Lot 3609 | A bottle vase with a blue and white lotus mouth mark and period of Yongzheng

Height: 34.4 cm


  • Collection of Charles Anderson Dana (1819-1897)
  • The American Art Association, February 24-26, 1898, lot 252.
  • Collection of Ward Thoron (1867-1937), and thence by descent

Estimate: HK $ 20,000,000 – 30,000,000

Lot 3605 | A pair of imperial “dragon and phoenix” bronze vases mark and time period Qianlong

Height: 42.7 cm


  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, April 29-30, 1997, lot 730
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, April 10, 2006, lot 1537
  • An American private collection
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 9, 2007, lot 1322

Estimate: HK $ 18,000,000 – 25,000,000


Lot 3612 | An exceptional and rare blue and white barbed “grape” loader

Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period (1403-1424)

Diameter: 44cm


  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, May 16, 1989, lot 115
  • Christie’s Hong Kong, November 27, 2007, lot 1661

Estimate: HK $ 14,000,000 – 18,000,000

Hammer price: HK $ 14,000,000

Realized price: HK $ 17,115,000

Lot 3607 | Peony enamel “peony” wine ewer and cover mark and period of Qianlong

Height: 14.7 cm


  • Acquired in the Far East during World War II and thence by descent, to be deemed
  • A British private collection since the 1970s.

Estimate: HK $ 7,000,000 – 9,000,000


Lot 3613 | A dish mark with a yellow and underglaze blue background and a period of Hongzhi

Diameter: 24.6 cm

Provenance: Sotheby’s Hong Kong, November 2, 1994, lot 48

Estimate: HK $ 6,000,000 – 8,000,000


Lot 3628 | A celadon-glazed double calabash vase, seal mark and Yongzheng period

Height: 32.4 cm

Provenance: A renowned private Japanese collection

Estimate: HK $ 2,000,000 – 3,000,000

Hammer price: HK $ 4,000,000

Realized price: 5,015,000 HK $

Summary of the auction:

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong

Sale: Important Chinese Art

Date: April 22, 2021

Lots offered: 81

Sold: 43

Unsold: 38

Sale rate: 53%

Sale Total: HK $ 259,626,520 (US $ 33,455,992)

Laura J. Boyer