A royal musket believed to have once belonged to Qing Dynasty's Qianlong Emperor (Photo/Courtesy of Sotheby's London)
The Qianlong Emperor Shooting Deer by an unknown Qing Dynasty court painter (Photo/Courtesy of Sotheby's London)
On November 9, Sotheby's in London plans to put on auction a "Divine Gun" that is believed to have been created for a Chinese emperor for an estimated price of 1-1.5 million pounds ($1.33-1.99 million).
A Sotheby's London employee who wished to remain anonymous told the Global Times, "This is first Chinese firearm with an imperial reign mark to be offered at auction."
The musket is believed to be created for the Qing Dynasty's (1644-1911) Qianlong Emperor, arguably the greatest collector and patron of the arts in Chinese history. Considering the weapon's background, some controversy has arisen concerning how it ended up overseas.
According to the employee, the consignor chose to offer the gun in London since "not only is London a hub for the international art market, but also Sotheby's November sales of Chinese works of art coincide with 'Asian Art in London,' a 10-day celebration of the finest Asian art."
The Supreme No.1
Robert Bradlow, senior director of Chinese Works of Art at Sotheby's London, said: "This remarkable object epitomizes the pinnacle of imperial craftsmanship during the Qing Dynasty. The gun's historical importance cannot be overstated - it ranks as one of the most significant Chinese treasures ever to come to auction."
The brilliantly designed and exquisitely crafted musket, bears not only the imperial reign mark on top of the barrel, but in addition, incised on the breech of the barrel, are four Chinese characters which denote the gun's peerless ranking, "Supreme Grade, Number One."
This grading makes the weapon unique amongst the known extant guns from the imperial workshops, and asserts its status as one of the most important firearms produced for the Qianlong Emperor.
Revered as one of the most powerful "Sons of Heaven," the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) was the longest-lived and de-facto longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history.
While the Qianlong Emperor was unlikely to have ever held a gun in battle, he would regularly hunt with a musket such as this.
The Qianlong Emperor was intent on keeping alive the traditions of the Manchu lifestyle and organized large-scale training hunts near Chengde, Hebei Province, to keep his troops well trained for military campaigns.
Two paintings depict the Qianlong Emperor hunting with similar muskets, including a work by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), the Jesuit missionary artist favored by the emperor, and an unknown court painter.
Numerous writings by the emperor on muskets, spanning much of his lifetime, have been preserved. One year before his death, at the age of 88, the Qianlong Emperor wrote a poem about shooting a deer during his mountain retreat from the summer heat.
"What's to stop me, now so carefree/To try for the one I might choose? Aiming my musket just once/With a smack on target it fell."
The gun being offered for sale can be linked with a variety of imperial objects from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, through its reign mark, decorative techniques and motifs.
The plantain leaf and key-fret pattern decorating its nozzle, for example, was used on bronze ritual wares of some 3,000 years ago, which were both collected and copied for the emperor. A similar reign mark and gold and silver decoration can be seen on numerous imperial swords and sabres of the Qianlong Emperor in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.
Spoils of war?
The auction for the imperial musket will be offered alongside of sales of Chinese art including fine imperial ceramics, gilt-bronze figures, paintings and fine Chinese jades from the Thompson-Schwab collection.
After the news was announced, some media outlets in China have theorized that the musket might have been taken during the looting of the Summer Palace in Beijing during the beginning of the 20th century.
However, the Sotheby's employee explained to the Global Times, "There is no reason for us to believe that this piece left China prior to the early 20th century."
A great number of Chinese art objects that are offered on the market today left China after the fall of the dynasty, when art dealers with international connections were selling to the West, he added.
According to incomplete statistics from UNESCO, there are roughly 1.64 million Chinese historical relics scattered around 200 museums in 47 countries across the world. Many of the items were smuggled out of the country, while others were taken away after battles.
The Sotheby's London employee said, "The market for historical Chinese works of art has grown over the last 10 years. This gun ranks as one of the most significant Chinese treasures ever to come to auction, and, as such, we expect it to attract global interest."
According to the Global Chinese Art Auction Market Report 2015, released jointly by Artnet and the China Association of Auctioneers, the overseas sale of Chinese art has also more than quadrupled since 2009, with an unexpectedly strong growth in 2015 even as the mainland China market went through a cooling period. The global sales of Chinese art accounted for almost a third of the global art auction market last year.
Driven by an increase in demand, the overseas market for Chinese art reached a historic high in 2015, totaling $2.6 billion in sales and reaching a size more than half that of the Chinese mainland for the first time.