The seal face is inscribed with a four-character inscription Xieci yuanchun, which is a verse from a poem recorded in the Chinese classic Yuefu shiji [Collection of Yuefu poetry] as being recited on a New Year banquet during the Sui dynasty. This four-character verse, which can be interpreted as 'in celebration of the New Year', indicates the present seal was likely created for the occasion of a New Year festival.
Although the present seal does not appear to be documented in Qing imperial records, it may have belonged to Empress Dowager Cixi. As noted by Guo Fuxiang, Empress Dowager Cixi owned a large number of seals. Only a small group has been included in the Cixi Baosou, and among all the seals of Cixi, a larger number of seals were made from either tanxiangmu or celadon jade from Xiuyan, Liaoning province (see Guo Fuxiang, Gugong bowuyuan cang qingdai dihou xiyin pu Cixi juan [Catalogue of imperial seals of the Qing dynasty. Cixi section], vol. 1, Beijing, 2005, p. 22). Compare a closely related tanxiangmu seal of a similar size that belonged to Cixi, also with a separately carved double-dragon finial, inscribed to the seal face with a seven-character verse from a poem by the Yuan dynasty scholar Weng Sen, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Gugong jingdian. Ming Qing dihou baoxi (Classics of the Forbidden City. Imperial Seals of the Ming and Qing Dynasties], Beijing, 2008, pl. 280, together with a larger example, the 'Cixi taihou yulan zhibao' (seal for the appreciation of the Empress Dowager Cixi) seal, pl. 269.
Tanxiangmu is a type of soft wood that grows in southern China. Known for its mesmerizing natural scent, tanxiangmu was a popular material favored by the Qing Court. Very few imperial seals made of tanxiangmu, however, have come to the market, although a tanxiangmu seal belonging to the Kangxi Emperor was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 6th April 2016, lot 3101, and in the accompaning essay by Guo Fuxiang, the author notes that tangxiangmu seals from the Kangxi period are exclusively made from a single block of wood and their finials are often carved with a recumbent mythical beast. By contrast, Cixi-era tanxiangmu seals tend to comprise bases and finials created separately and attached together, and their finials are often made in the form of entwined dragons, such as the present example.
For other related late Qing dynasty imperial seals, see a rock crystal seal of Empress Dowager Cixi, from the collection of Gustav Detring (1842-1913) / Constantin von Hanneken (1854-1925), sold in these rooms, 21st March 2018; a celadon jade seal of Empress Dowager Cixi, with the finial carved in a very similar style, from the collection of Mark Birley, sold in our London rooms, 21st March 2013, lot 366; and another of a rectangular form, from the Guangxu period, sold in our London rooms, 11th May 2011, lot 201.