Lot 1447. An extremely rare imperial carved red lacquer and iron matchlock musket, Qianlong-Jiaqing period (1736-1820); 61 3/8 in. (155.9 cm.) longEstimate USD 500,000 - USD 700,000. Price realised USD 578,500. © Christie's Images Ltd 2011.

The gently curved stock carved on either side with a five-clawed dragon in pursuit of a flaming pearl amidst clouds above the butt carved with a series of lappets and central flower head, the lengthy forestock elaborately carved as a series of scrolling clouds beneath the iron barrel finely incised on top with dragons in pursuit of flaming pearls, and leafy scrolls, with a series of leaf-shaped lappets preceding the raised collar and faceted muzzle, delicately incised with auspicious emblems and further leafy scrolls, the barrel and stock joined by four gilt-bronze fittings and the rifle with gilt-bronze trigger

Note: Imperial guns from this period of Chinese history are very rare, especially those which have finely carved lacquer on the stock. In this case, the lively five-clawed dragons chasing flaming pearls emphasize that the most likely owner of this matchlock gun was the Emperor himself. The Qing emperors, particularly the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors, were intensely proud of their Manchu heritage and ensured that the royal princes continued to practice the skills of horsemanship and hunting. They also realized that honing these skills could be useful on the field of battle. Organized hunting trips were also a way of building closer relations between the Qing court and the Mongolian tribes, since the Qianlong Emperor bestowed rewards on Mongolian princes and soldiers who participated with distinction in these activities. Imperial hunting trips were therefore regarded as very important and the Qianlong Emperor held hunting expeditions nearly every year from 1741 to 1770.

While surviving court paintings indicate that bows and arrows and spears were the most usual weapons used during imperial hunts, there is also contemporary pictorial evidence that the Qianlong Emperor also used long-barrelled guns. In one of a series of paintings of the Qianlong Emperor hunting, by the Jesuit missionary artist Lang Shining (European name Giuseppe Castiglione 1688-1766) and other court artists, the emperor is depicted on one knee aiming a long-barrelled gun, similar to the current matchlock gun, at a deer (illustrated in China - The Three Emperors 1662-1795, London, 2005, p. 113, no. 29). (Fig.1) In this painting, dated circa AD 1742, the somewhat unwieldy barrel of the gun is supported on a slender stand. Another Lang Shining painting of the Qianlong emperor hunting, dated by inscription to 1741, depicts huntsmen carrying both bows and arrows and a gun with a long barrel (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 14 - Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 155, no. 33). The gun is shown slung over the shoulder of the second huntsman, who is mounted on a skewbald horse with pale mane and tail, and probably represents the emperor himself since the horse resembles one of his favorite mounts. This painting may also suggest a particular prestige in the use of a gun, since the figure of the emperor is the only one shown with a gun.

Certain of the emperor's personal troops also appear to have been armed with guns, and in one of the long scroll paintings showing Emperor Qianlong reviewing his troops, dated 1746, some of the troops are shown holding long-barrelled guns. These include members of the Zhenglanqi, Plain Blue Banner troops (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 14 - Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, op. cit., pp. 156-7, no. 34). Although under the Kangxi Emperor only the Plain Yellow, Bordered Yellow and Bordered White Banners were under the personal control of the Emperor, after the Yongzheng Emperor ascended the throne he decreed that all Eight Banners should be under his personal control. This remained the command structure into the Qianlong Emperor's reign.

Christie's. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Part I and Part II Including Property from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, New York, 24 March 2011