Lot 549
  • 549


300,000 - 500,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Width 4 1/8  in., 10.5 cm
the silver body with deep, rounded sides set over a straight foot, the interior parcel-gilt, the exterior with six chased and parcel-gilt shou ('longevity') roundels bordered above and below by ruyi-head bands finely worked in gold filigree, each ruyi centered with a round cabochon-cut ruby or spinel secured with a gold setting and flanked by two smaller stones, the entire composition framed by a gold filigree keyfret band encircling the rim and another just above the foot, two gold filigree openwork handles rising from the lower ruyi-head border and extending beyond the rim of the cup, each handle formed as a plume of clouds supporting a stylized shou character topped by further clouds and surmounted by an eight-petal flower securing a large oval ruby or spinel at its center, the base inscribed with the two characters lian and sheng


The cup is in generally good condition, and the gold filigree tested positive for 22-karats. The metal has minor oxidation, commensurate with age. One stone is missing, and some of the other stones have inclusions, cavities, or small chips.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

An Imperial Gift: A Rare Guangxu Cup While at first glance, the opulence and complexity of this vessel hits the eye, on closer examination its harmony is apparent. It stands out by its superb craftsmanship, the use of several metal working techniques, its costly materials and its exceptional design; it was most likely crafted in an Imperial workshop as an imperial gift. No other vessel with this precious decoration appears to be recorded.

The use of yellow gold with white silver and red gems in a particularly striking three-color scheme, expressing both richness and originality. The plain silver ground highlights the gilt shou medallions and elaborately decorated gold borders and handles with filigree and inlay, in a pleasing contrast. The floral lappets, carefully organized on either side of the roundels, can be compared to those found on some Yuan dynasty and later blue and white or underglaze-red porcelains.

Filigree metal work was imported into China during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Its use of thin gold or silver threads of different weights was populamized during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and reached a peak in production during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The delicate technique required extremely skilled craftsmanship and high costs, as the gold or silver needed to be heated and beaten into wire-filigree artworks.

One of the most interesting features of this remarkable cup is the unusual pairing of ‘lian’ and ‘sheng’ (‘promoted after having been tested’ or ‘bestowed upon your promotion’) characters found on its base. According to Chinese etymologists, the character ‘lian’ in combination with ‘sheng’, is a substitute for the rare character ‘lian’ meaning ‘put to the test’ (Hanyu da cidian, Shanghai, 1997, vol. 1, p. 1975 under ‘lian’ ). It is important to note that the left stroke 丿is missing in the ‘lian’ character on the base of the cup. This particularly unorthodox way of writing makes the mark exclusive.

The only other vessel showing such characters appears to be a gold double-gourd unearthed from the tomb of Ronglu (1836-1903) and now in the Beijing Capital Museum, illustrated in Jin yin qi juan / Gold and Silver Wares, Beijing, 2004, pls 298-300 (fgs. 1-2). The base is inscribed with four characters ‘lian sheng zu jin’ (‘pure gold, bestowed on your promotion’). It further carries an inscription ‘Bestowed upon her subject Ronglu by the Empress Dowager, on the Double Ninth of the year bingshen' (1896). The ‘lian sheng zu jin’ and the ‘lian sheng’ inscriptions are closely connected due to the alternate writing of ‘lian’. Their etymological relationship suggests that they would have been made in the same context, which therefore associates both with Empress Dowager Cixi (1836-1908).

The double-gourd inscription sets the object in its historical context by naming the recipient and the date of bestowal. The year 1896, right in the middle of the last tumultuous decade of the Qing dynasty, coincides with the recipient’s appointment as Secretary of Defence and Assistant Grand Secretary and with the momentous event of his sixtieth birthday.

The recipient, Ronglu, a prominent Manchu political and military figure in the late Qing dynasty (1644-1901), had won the Empress Dowager Cixi’s trust by securing the army in her favor. Positioned in high office, he had played a crucial role on both a national and international level, especially at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. Grateful for his unwavering support, Cixi had honored him with her permission of his daughter’s marriage with Prince Chun. Through this alliance, Ronglu became part of the imperial family and grandfather of Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing dynasty.  

Although the present cup does not have any published counterparts, nor can it be linked to a particular person, some of its features may be compared to other precious metalwork in the Imperial Court Collection. Its distinctive handles with stylized shou characters approach in their concept those of a gold cup with ‘wanshou wujiang’ (‘boundless longevity’) characters on lingzhi sprays and embellished with pearls on the top. It is described as a winecup used by the Emperor during birthday celebrations and illustrated in Gongting zhenbao / Treasures of Imperial Court. Gugong Bowuyuan zang wenwu zhenpin quanji / The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2004, pl. 216.

The present piece may also compare to another gold cup, described as a sacrificial vessel, of identical shape, with kuilong handles, a similar keyfret border at the rim and sitting on a base of large floral petals, illustrated in ibid., pl. 221.

Stylistically and historically interesting in relation to the present Guangxu vessel, is a small teacup showing the same shou roundels, but in combination with ‘xi’ (‘double happiness’) characters, above a similar band of keyfret and floral lappets at the foot. It is datable by inscription to the eleventh year of the Tongzhi period (1872), the year of the Emperor’s wedding. The cup was ‘sold to The Bank of Tianjin for currency by Emperor Puyi, known as the Last Emperor’ and ‘was returned to the Palace Museum in 1951’, according to Secret World of the Forbidden City. Splendors from China’s Imperial Palace, Beijing, 2000, p. 50.

In combination with jewel inlays, as on the present piece, filigree was very fashionable during the Tongzhi (1862-74) and Guangxu (1875-1908) periods. However, it was mostly applied to personal adornments such as jewelry or headdresses and rarely used for the decoration of vessels. Indeed, metal vessels with filigree are scarce and the present cup is one of the exceptions. With its particularly finely executed filigree work, it is an outstanding example of this technique and its application to luxury objects in the late Qing period. 

The cup is also one of the many artworks related to the Empress Dowager. As soon as her son the Tongzhi Emperor came to the throne, she became actively involved as a patron of court art. Herself a keen painter and calligrapher, she had many works commissioned from the court artists for personal use or for gift giving. Cultural patronage was for her a way to establish authority and power, and exercising firm control of the imperial workshops was considered part of it. Cixi was artistically productive not only within the Palace walls, but also, at the imperial kilns. She had porcelain specially commissioned according to her personal tastes and had a penchant for multiple-color schemes and decorative patterns inspired by the embroidered designs of her clothing. Auspicious symbols and motifs of longevity were among her favorites.

The way the shou medallions on the present cup are depicted on a silver ground evokes the decoration of a particular group of porcelains Cixi had commissioned for the imperial wedding of her son, the Tongzhi Emperor. It concerns a small category of wares within the so-called Dayazhai (‘Abode of Great Refinement’) porcelains decorated with Wanshou wujiang (‘boundless longevity), medallions touched with gilt, between keyfret borders, painted on a variously colored ground. Compare, for example, a pair of yellow cups and saucers with this decoration and a changchun tongqing (‘eternal spring and everlasting harmony’) four-character mark, illustrated in Ronald W. Longsdorf, “The Tongzhi Imperial Wedding Porcelain”, Chinese Ceramics. Selected articles from Orientations 1982-2003, Hong Kong, 2004, pp. 364-373, fig. 25.