An exceptional and extremely rare gilt-copper double box and cover, Mark and period of Yongzheng

An exceptional and extremely rare gilt-copper double box and cover, Mark and period of Yongzheng (detail 1)

An exceptional and extremely rare gilt-copper double box and cover, Mark and period of Yongzheng (top)

An exceptional and extremely rare gilt-copper double box and cover, Mark and period of Yongzheng (bottom)

An exceptional and extremely rare gilt-copper double box and cover, Mark and period of Yongzheng (mark)

An exceptional and extremely rare gilt-copper double box and cover, Mark and period of Yongzheng (2)

Lot 118. An exceptional and extremely rare gilt-copper double box and cover, Mark and period of Yongzheng (1723-1735);  17.9 cm., 7 inEstimate 12,000,000 — 15,000,000 HKD (1,368,190 - 1,710,238 EUR). Lot sold 14,480,000 HKD. Photo Sotheby's

superbly cast in the form of two conjoined circular tiered boxes, comprising a bottom tray surmounted by a smaller one and a cover of corresponding form, the sides of the trays decorated in relief with two emblems of the bajixiang, the double-fish and the endless knot, alternating with a sprig of peaches and a pair of bats, the top decorated with two interlinked roundels, the intersection with a stylised shou character between a pair of trefoil ruyi blooms, flanked by a pair of stylised outstretched bats in the medallions, the well pronounced emblems all picked out in gilt, the base intricately engraved with a four-character reign mark.

NotesThis exceptional tiered box and cover is an outstanding legacy of the palace workshops in the Yongzheng era, when a select number of works of art of the highest quality were produced for the Imperial court. It is a unique work of art, with no comparable example recorded in any museum or private collection. The precision and skill with which the vessel has been cast, and the beauty of the gilt-decoration, sharply detailing the auspicious symbols against a well-patinated coppery-red ground, are all of outstanding quality, reflecting the high standards demanded by the Yongzheng Emperor. 

Bronze vessels bearing cast marks of the Yongzheng Emperor, produced for use in temples and as eminent objects of display, are still rare, but much more frequently found than vessels of the quality of the current box, where the articulation of the incised mark is consistent with that on rare works of art in other media, directly commissioned for the personal use of the Emperor himself.

A number of vessels with cast marks have been sold at auction, including: a peach-shaped bronze incense burner and cover sold in our New York rooms, 17th October 2001, lot 30; a rectangular bronze incense burner of fangding form from the collection of Soame Jenyns, sold at Christie’s London, 12th July 2005, lot 47, and again at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1st June 2011, lot 3619; a tripod incense burner from the collection of Ronald Longsdorf, sold at Christie’s New York, 15th-16th September 2011, lot 1160; a gui-shaped incense burner sold at Bonham's San Francisco, 13th December 2010, lot 5146; and an alms bowl from the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection, sold in these rooms, 8th April 2014, lot 203.

Works of art decorated in enamel on copper were particularly favoured by the Yongzheng Emperor, and a comparatively larger number exist than for other media, such as cloisonné enamel, of which only two pieces are recorded, a covered dou vessel in the National Palace Museum, illustrated in Harmony and Integrity. The Yongzheng Emperor and His Times, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2009, cat. no.  II-80; and a vase in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, where the mark is illustrated by Beatrice Quette, Cloisonné: Chinese Enamels from the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, New Haven and London, 2011, p.26, fig. 2.27.

A  greater number of Yongzheng reign-marked enamel-on-copper vessels are recorded, mostly in the forms of dishes, ewers, incense holders and snuff bottles. For a more unusual form, see a gilt enamel-on-copper box in the form of a Japanese inro in the National Palace Museum, illustrated, op. cit., cat. no. II-92.  

As outlined in the discussion on Yongzheng lacquer wares on lot 113 in this sale, the Yongzheng emperor was particularly drawn to the Japanese aesthetic, and made specific orders for works of art to be produced in the style of particular favourite exotic imports. The form of the current box and cover, derived from a Japanese shape, can also be found on a rare Yongzheng reign-marked lacquer tea tray in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Evelyn S. Rawski and Jessica Rawson (editors), China. The Three Emperors, 1662-1795, London, 2005, cat. no.185. The same tray is discussed by Zhu Jiajin in his article ‘Yongzheng lacquerware in the Palace Museum, Beijing’, Orientations, March 1988, p.30, where he quotes a memorandum:

“On the fourth day of the first month, in the second year of Yongzheng’s reign (1724), the Chief Eunuch and Supervisor Zhang Qilin presented a yangqi lacquer tea tray. A tray should be made of the same size, in the shape of double circles, in red lacquer and decorated with dragons chasing flaming pearls. From the Emperor”.

The same predilection on the part of the Yongzheng Emperor for commissioning unique works of art in the shape of exotic Japanese imports clearly inspired the order of the current ‘double circle’ tiered box. As with the lacquer tray, the choice of decoration is also particularly auspicious. The upper surface of the cover is decorated with longevity symbols, a stylised pair of bats set in confrontation, separated by a shou character, and the sides are decorated with two of the Eight Buddhist Emblems, the fish and the knot, interspersed with bats and peach, an additional emblem of immortality.

The four-character reign mark, written in elegant regular script, is typical of that found on Imperial wares made in the palace workshop. The same mark can be found on two other rare Yongzheng works of art produced at the palace workshops, both of boxwood and decorated with auspicious lingzhi: the first, a lingzhi-form box from the Qing court collection, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Small Refined Articles of the Study. The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Shanghai, 2011, pl. 311, the second, a ‘lingzhi’ ruyi from the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection, sold in these rooms, 8th April 2010, lot 1708. 

Sotheby's. Yongzheng – The Age of Harmony and Integrity Hong Kong, 07 avr. 2015