The Qianlong's emperor's musket is fashioned from elm wood, with a fine inlay of gold, silver and copper. Photo: Sotheby's

Sotheby’s, on London’s New Bond Street, is crammed with people desperate to feast their eyes on David Bowie’s personal art collection prior to its sale this Thursday and Friday. Artworks belonging to the late pop star fill the upstairs galleries, and two to three thousand people have wandered in each day since viewing opened. 

Downstairs, in a quiet side room, however, a lone piece that used to belong to another very famous man is being prepared. The Qianlong emperor was both the longest-reigning (1735-1796) and longest-lived (1711-1799) emperor in Chinese history, and one of the most powerful ‘Sons of Heaven’. On Wednesday, at 11.15 am GMT, his imperial matchlock musket will be sold in a single-lot sale. Believed to the first ever Chinese firearm with an imperial seal to be offered at auction, it is expected to fetch between £1 million (US$1.25m) and £1.5m.

Robert Bradlow, Head of Sotheby’s Chinese Works of Art department in London, is rather excited by this beautiful weapon, the sale of which will be sandwiched on Wednesday by two other intriguing lots: Fine Chinese Jades from the Thompson-Schwab collection, which features an imperial Qianlong period seal that’s expected to go for between £500,000 and £700,000, and Important Chinese Art, whose standout lot is an iridescent blue-tinged Doshoan Nogime Tenmoku tea bowl that is being teed up for bids in the region of £350,000. The three-sale series is part of Asian Art in London, a 10-day event featuring gallery openings, exhibitions, lectures and auctions throughout the British capital. 

This blue-tinged Doshoan Nogime Tenmoku tea bowl is being teed up for bids in the region of £350,000. Photo: Sotheby’s

“We have never seen anything like this at auction before,” Bradlow says of the musket. In almost three decades in the auction business he has handled many magnificent pieces of eastern art, but there is an element of mystery to this lot that makes it irresistible.

The Qianlong emperor was very proud of his Manchu heritage and organized hunting parties to honour the traditions of his ancestors. Rather than keeping to an old-fashioned bow, arrow and spear, however, he embraced Western firearm technology, ordering his imperial workshops to design and craft a weapon out of the finest and most luxurious materials. Fashioned from elm wood, the musket’s barrel is also decorated with a fine inlay of gold, silver and copper. It is an enormously long weapon – too ungainly to be carried like a conventional rifle – and was therefore supported instead by a bipod stand and fired from the ground, which made it ideal for shooting tigers and other ferocious beasts at long range. The musket is stamped with the Emperor’s seal and has a grading inscribed behind the breech: ‘te deng di yi’ (Supreme Grade Number One).

Bradlow explains the challenges of picking an estimate price for such an unusual piece. “There are a series of considerations when choosing any estimate,” he explains. “The first is precedent. We have an extensive archive with photographs of pieces sorted by shape, material and size –so we can always see what prices objects have sold for previously. But ultimately value is down to rarity, quality and condition. There is quite a bit of gut instinct, based on similar pieces you might have handled –but we work as a team and agree on the price together.”

For a piece like the musket this process is complicated by there being no precedent. “The closest thing we’ve had previously was a jade-handled sabre which sold for over HK$46 million (US$5.9 million) in Hong Kong. But we decided that £1-1.5 million seemed a reasonable price for an imperial piece. The workmanship on the barrel is exquisite.”

“Interest from mainland China and the recognition that these are not simply pieces of inanimate material, that they bear the seal of the Emperor, has changed everything”

The imperial mark, and the presence of similar pieces in Beijing’s Palace Museum confirm the original provenance of the weapon as being from the much-admired Qianlong emperor’s arsenal. But there is a mystery surrounding how it left mainland China and surfaced in Taiwan in the 1960s. “No one knows how it got there,” says Bradlow “We have only known about it post-war.”

The market for Chinese art has changed greatly over the last ten to 15 years, and this musket is a good example of the increasing value of pieces bearing the imperial mark, which has been driven in part by the appearance of more interest from mainland China itself. Indeed, the imperial seal offered for sale in the Thompson-Schwab auction was sold in 1955 for just £38.

“Up until recently people didn’t appreciate the significance of the imperial seal,” explains Bradlow. “Interest from mainland China and the recognition that these are not simply pieces of inanimate material, that they bear the seal of the Emperor, has changed everything. These facts were not appreciated by a Western audience until, perhaps, the emergence of a Chinese market.”

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