Lot 3114. A magnificent and rare pair of Canton tribute bejewelled and jadeite-inlaid silver-gilt boxes, Qianlong period (1736-1795); 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm.) wide. Estimate HKD 1,800,000 - HKD 2,600,000Price realised HKD 2,000,000. © Christie's Image Ltd 2019.

Each silver-gilt box is of octagonal-form, set with a jadeite plaque of conforming shape on each side, framed by borders comprised of seed pearls and red glass beads. The gilt base is chased with auspicious emblems within an octagonal panel, surrounded by concentric rings of leafy scrolls and scrolling trefoils. 

ProvenanceBrooke Astor (1902-2007), New York
Property from the Estate of Brooke Astor, sold at Sotheby’s New York, 24 September 2012, lot 150.

Note: The current boxes, richly embellished with precious materials like jadeite and pearls, were in the collection of renowned New York philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor, who once lived in China with her father, a former Marine commandant. It was during her childhood in China when she developed a lifelong passion for Chinese art and culture, to the point of learning the language. Brooke Astor passed away in 2007, and is well remembered as a lively and warm figure tirelessly supporting various philanthropic causes. 

These boxes reflect the superb workmanship of Canton artisans of the period and are representative of the novelty items treasured by imperial members of the Qing court. The surge of consumerism in the 17th and 18th centuries following the expansion of urbanisation and commercial activities in the coastal cities led to a burgeoning demand for luxury items and foreign curiosities all over the empire. This gave rise to a flourishing metalwork industry in Canton area. Guangzhou (or Canton), with the establishment of the ‘Thirteen Hongs’ in the Kangxi period, became the exclusive port for foreign trade in the 18th century, as well as the main source of foreign imports for the imperial court in Beijing. Artisans in the area were exposed to a wide array of European products including luxury items and artworks in various materials, bringing about a distinct Canton style in works of art, well reflected in the current pair of boxes which embraces both European and Chinese decorative elements. 

The elongated octagonal shape is typically seen among European metal boxes, and the Canton artisans quickly adopted this shape in the tributes made for the imperial court, including a silver filigree box of the same shape and decorated with coloured stones and enamels, from the Beijing Palace Museum and included in the exhibition Treasures from Guangdong: Exhibition of Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court, Guangdong Museum, 2005. This box, of slightly larger size, is attributed as a jewellery box for the imperial consorts according to the Palace Museum website. Another Canton silver box with repoussé work and decorated with enamels, also of the same shape, from the Palace Museum, was exhibited in Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1987, Catalogue, no. 40.

A similarly decorated octagonal box, but with additional floral design on the cover, was sold at Yamanaka & Co., New York, 26 and 27 January 1917, lot 43.

Christie's. Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, Hong Kong, 29 May 2019