Multilayered Meanings: Inscriptions on Chinese Works of Art

New York | 10 – 14 September, 2019
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I nscribed works of art can be found throughout Chinese history, ranging from inscriptions that identify the family or owner of an object, to those that convey auspicious blessings. The resulting pieces masterfully combine the arts of calligraphy, poetry and painting. In many cases, inscriptions can increase the value of an object – such as when imperial poems are inscribed on imperial works of art. This Fall, Sotheby's Chinese works of art auctions feature several objects with exceptional inscriptions, ranging from archaic weapons to fine Qianlong period works of art. Click ahead to discover more.

Multilayered Meanings: Inscriptions on Chinese Works of Art

  • An Exceptionally Rare and Important Archaic Turquoise-inlaid Bronze Sword, Late Spring and Autumn, Early Warring States Period
    Estimate $80,000 – 120,000

    The inscription on this sword reads Caigongzi Cong zhiyong, which can be translated to 'for the use of Cong, son of the Marquis of Cai'. Based on the sword’s discovery in Shouxian, Anhui province, we are able to narrow Cong’s dates to a relatively short period, from the relocation of the Cai's capital in 493 B.C. to its downfall in 447 B.C. The style of the inscription is called ‘bird-worm’ seal script, which incorporates pictorial elements into the calligraphy, creating highly artistic characters resembling abstract forms of birds and worms.
  • An Exceptional Soapstone Figure of A Luohan by Zhou Bin, Qing Dynasty, 17th–18th Century
    Estimate $120,000 – 150,000

    Sensitively fashioned in the round from a stone of attractive yellowish-orange tones, this figure bears the mark Shangjun, the sobriquet name of Zhou Bin – one of the best known and talented carvers of the 17th century.
  • A Celadon Jade 'Luohan' Inscribed Boulder, Qing Dynasty
    Estimate $100,000 – 150,000

    In 1757, as an act of religious devotion, the Qianlong Emperor visited the Shengyin Temple during his Southern inspection tour to study portraits of the sixteen luohan by Tang dynasty painter Guanxiu. The Emperor annotated the paintings with colophons, respectively eulogizing and reidentifying each luohan depicted. This boulder is a three-dimensional representation of the painting, accompanied by Qianlong’s colophons in the rocky overhang above.
  • A Massive Inscribed Spinach-green Jade 'Dragon' Washer, Qing Dynasty
    Estimate $100,000 – 150,000

    Inscribed with an imperial poem composed by the Qianlong Emperor in 1769, this washer can trace its form to a renowned jade basin presented to Khubilai Khan in the Yuan dynasty. The imagery of the dragon and cloud – two entities that animate one another, and rely on their mutual interaction to realize their full power and potential – was a metaphor for good governance.
  • A 'Chicken Bone' and Black Jade 'Laozi' Inscribed Boulder, Qing Dynasty
    Estimate $60,000 – 80,000

    During the Qianlong period, famous paintings of the past were translated into jade carvings. The Emperor encouraged artisans to think across media, and in doing so, to expand their own capabilities as well as the properties of an artwork by reimagining the object in a new medium. This image of Laozi riding a buffalo is depicted on a hanging scroll by the Song dynasty master Zhao Buzhi (1053-1110) Laozi Riding an Ox, which was in the Qing Court Collection and inscribed with a poem by the Qianlong Emperor in 1751. The very same imperial poem appears on the present boulder, incised on the cliff above the traveling sage.
  • Tang Ying, An Exceptional and Rare Famille-Rose 'Landscape' Panel, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period, Dated Yihai Year, Corresponding to 1755
    Estimate $120,000 – 150,000

    A celebrated artist and official, Tang Ying was the supervisor of the imperial kilns and personally served all three of the major emperors of the Qing dynasty: Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. This rare plaque can be attributed to Tang Ying on account of its style of landscape painting, its calligraphic flow, its two seals, and the rare fact that the signature states that it was painted at “the Zhushan Official Residence”, Zhushan in Jingdezhen being the seat of the Imperial workshops.
  • An Extremely Rare and Magnificent Pair of Gilt-Bronze Inset Hongmu 'Luohan' Panels, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period
    Estimate $250,000 – 350,000

    The luohan depicted on these panels can be identified through the Qianlong imperially inscribed poem above, Ding Guanpeng copying Guanxiu sixteen luohan painting. Their distinct exaggerated, almost grotesque, iconography is derived from the Tang painter Guanxiu’s famous dream and subsequent rendition of the luohan.
  • A Complete Set of Twelve Copper-Plate Engravings of Qianlong's Formosa Conquest, 1788-1790
    Estimate $80,000 – 120,000

    This set of twelve copper-plate engravings commemorates the Qianlong Emperor's military campaign in Formosa (Taiwan) in 1787 and 1788. The set depicts the victory of Qianlong's troops against local rebels in eleven battle scenes and also shows the imperial reception of the victorious army and its commander, with inscribed poems composed and written by the Qianlong Emperor, dated 1787, 1788, and 1789.
  • A Pair of Large Cloisonné Enamel Double Gourd Wall Vases, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period
    Estimate $40,000 – 60,000

    Brimming with auspicious motifs such as the Eight Buddhist Emblems, double gourd shape, lingzhi head-form gilt plaque and inscribed ‘Da Ji’ (‘auspiciousness’) above a poem, these wall vases would have symbolized prosperity and good-fortune.
  • Wang Dafan, A Pair of Famille-Rose 'Figural' Plaques, Republic Period, Dated Dingchou Year, Corresponding to 1937
    Estimate $80,000 – 120,000

    During the Republic period, it was customary for artists to include a verse of calligraphy on their painted porcelain panels. These panels by Wang Dafan include poems by Qing dynasty poet Wang Wenzhi and Tang dynasty poet Li She.
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