What you see: A “Supreme Grade Number One” Imperial matchlock musket, made for the Qianlong Emperor in the 18th century. Estimated at £1 million to £1.5 million ($1.2 million to $1.8 million), Sotheby’s London sold the Qianlong Imperial firearm for £1.98 million (or roughly $2.6 million) in November 2016. It set a world auction record for any Chinese Imperial firearm.
The expert: Henry Howard-Sneyd, chairman of Asian art, Europe, and Americas for Sotheby’s.
First, could we talk about how genuine Imperial Qianlong items, regardless of what they are, cause excitement at auction? The Qianlong Emperor is real, but he’s a sort of mythical-type figure in terms of Chinese psychology. In English terms, you might liken him to King Henry VIII. He’s represented as a great emperor. He reigned for 60 years–a very long time, and China had a golden age [then]. The affection he holds in the Chinese mind is pretty much unmatched, and it’s [his time is] not so far in the past to be a myth. As China came into the 21st century, and began to be a wealthy, developed country, the Qianlong Emperor became one of the poster children of popular culture.
How did the Qianlong Emperor view guns? Were they important to him? He clearly admired guns and thought of them as an important element of what he did. Excelling at the hunt was very important to his legitimacy as Emperor. It shows he can look after his people by shooting straight, in effect. In an essay online, there’s a quote from the Qianlong Emperor, [who wrote of a different weapon]: “the ‘Tiger Divine Gun’ is a marvellous appliance for military accomplishment inherited from my grandfather and is used for killing fierce beasts … the Mongolian tribes of the Forty-nine Banners and Khalkha [participating in the imperial hunts] all excel in archery and stress martial art. If I have nothing to show them, I am hardly a worthy heir to my ancestors. Whenever I learn of tigers in the hunting preserve, I go hunting with no exception. Where bows and arrows cannot reach, I always use this gun, and unfailingly get the target … an Emperor must rely on divine appliances to hone martial skills and demonstrate masculine magnanimity, and the musket is wonderfully efficient and pleasing…”. It gives you a sense of how personal it is about being a worthy ruler.
Did the emperor handle this gun? There’s a chance this gun was held and used by the Emperor. There’s also a painting of him using a very similar gun [scroll down and it’s the second image on the right]. This is as close to the emperor as anything we’ve ever sold.
This gun is inscribed with the phrase te deng di yi, which translates to “Supreme Grade Number One”. Is there any explanation in the archival materials that goes into detail about what, exactly, Supreme Grade Number One might mean beyond it being obviously high praise? It seemed to be only used for guns. It’s not recorded on any other known, extant gun. The assumption is it’s the best of the best. It’s hard to imagine what would be above Supreme Grade Number One.
Does the Qianlong Imperial firearm work? The firearms specialist we consulted said yes, it should work. There’s nothing to stop it working.
Do we know when the Imperial workshops made it? We were not able to pin down a time. There’s just not enough information.
Is it possible to know anything about how this gun came to be? We don’t know exactly how it happened. We were never able to find a specific order.
What makes this Qianlong Imperial firearm a work of art? It has, very typically of the taste of this emperor, designs based on archaic elements. He was probably the single greatest collector, and one thing he accumulated were archaic Chinese bronzes. The archaic look appealed to him very much. It was like the Neoclassical period in Western art, looking back at a great classic period of early antiquity, from 1,000, 1,200, 1,300 B.C.
How did Sotheby’s decide to sell the gun in a single-lot auction? In our view it was obvious to sell it as a single lot. It stands out as a completely unique object.
With no other directly comparable items having gone to auction, how did you arrive at the estimate of £1 million to £1.5 million ($1.2 million to $1.8 million)? There are other pieces that are somewhat comparable. The seals of the emperor are very personal and specific [to him], and we sold a sword in Hong Kong a number of years back. By calibrating all the things selling around the same time, we came to a figure that was a well-placed estimate, very strong. Bidders pushed it further, but not much further. I think we put it exactly right.
What was your role in the auction of the Qianlong Imperial firearm? What was your experience of the sale? I was the auctioneer. Specifically, I have a fairly clear visual memory of the room in front of me and one of my colleagues taking bids from a client, and because the reception was not great, he had to go out of the room and come back in to make a bid. I don’t recall if that was the successful bidder in the end. It was very tense and quite drawn out. A lot of consideration went into each bid. It was something that garnered a lot of interest and intrigue because it was a unique thing.
With the first bid, you had a world record because it was the first gun of its type to come to auction. Were you surprised by the final result? I wasn’t surprised. I felt it was a fair price, a competitively reached price.
What factors drove it to the final price of £1.98 million (roughly $2.6 million)? Its uniqueness, and the combination of it being the best of its type and the potential touch of the emperor combined to make a hugely desirable object.
How long do you think this record will stand? Is there anything out there that could approach this piece? There’s no evidence that there’s any other piece like this anywhere. This record could stand forever. As an object itself, it’s hard to beat this one.
Why will it stick in your memory? It’s a unique thing–that’s always something that stands out. And it was enormous fun to work on. It was slightly starting from scratch, but it was [it involved searching] archival material, original [Chinese] court documents. It was a slightly Sherlock Holmesian game of following a trail that made it a fascinating and somewhat exciting journey.
Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
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