Marks of greatness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 July, 2003, 12:00am

THE TENSION WILL be high as lot number 535 is unveiled at tomorrow morning's 'Imperial Sale' of Christie's' spring collection in Hong Kong. In the second day of the Christie's Spring Auctions, a remarkable set of 12 seals carved in exquisite jade and soapstone displaying mythical beasts, phoenixes and dragons - that once belonged to one of China's most exceptional emperors, Kangxi - will be up for sale.

After surfacing in the collection of an anonymous French family, the seals are expected to fetch a dizzying $18 million.

'This is more than just a work of art,' says the chairman of Christie's Asia, Anthony Lin, who described the seals as the 'absolute highlight' of this spring's collection. 'It is resonant with the whole history of that period.'

The second emperor of the Qing dynasty was one of China's most magnificent leaders. His 60-year reign was the longest in history - sweeping through a golden age of political stability and prosperity from 1662-1722. An enlightened soul who took advantage of the peaceful climes, Kangxi helped develop Chinese civilisation culturally and scientifically.

'He, I think of all the Manchu emperors, was the most dynamic - intellectually, politically and also artistically,' reflects Lin. 'He was a real renaissance man, fascinated not just by literature and the arts but also by science. Above all the other emperors, he was the one who had a real world view. He was very astute.'

Collaborating with the Jesuit priests (he let them build a church in his court and even adopted a Jesuit scholar), Kangxi tapped the secrets of Western science. 'He gave them some concessions, but equally he used them,' says Lin. 'He was fascinated, particularly with what was happening in Louis XIV's courts, the research that they were doing.'

With the help of Western astronomy, China's first atlas was created over a gruelling 20-year period under Kangxi's leadership. The country's first dictionary also emerged. And the emperor was an inspired patron of the arts. Ceramic and glass-making (again, picked up from the Jesuits) boomed and became experimental during his reign, while the traditional crafts of painting, literature and calligraphy were nurtured in the imperial court.

Amid all this activity lay one of the emperor's most prized possessions, a set of twelve personal seals, most likely placed upon the emperor's desk in the Peiwen Zhai (imperial study) of the Summer Palace. The seals were set aside from those used to authorise state papers and edicts. They were used by the emperor to lay his imprint upon personal writings, and his favourite calligraphic works and paintings made in the court.

'Seals are particularly personal things,' says Lin. 'Even to this day, if you were to open a bank account in Taiwan or in China, the business is done with seals. It is really one of the most personal things you could have. It is your way of conferring ascent or approval, giving something your personal imprint.'

He lifts the lid of the original box and the collection of seals emerges, gleaming. They are a precious mix of soapstone; green, white and celadon jade; and honey-coloured and precious, translucent tianhuang. The stones are carved into mythical beasts, lions, dragons and phoenixes, and on the underside of each seal are breath-taking imprints marked with Confucian maxims and phrases.

Of particular interest is a square soapstone seal with a lion at play with its cub, marked with the maxim jie zhi zai de (guard against avarice). According to Shan Guoqiang, a researcher at the Beijing Palace Museum, who writes an essay in the Christie's catalogue: 'In the 59th year of Kangxi's reign, the emperor ordered his court officials to select phrases from the classics to be carved into seals that were to be used to commemorate the 60th year of his reign ... Finally, Kangxi selected this four-character phrase and he was recorded to have said: 'What contemplation should I have? All I should do is follow this Confucian four-character maxim.'' Allegedly the emperor carried the seal wherever he went, eventually giving a copy to his grandson, Prince Hongli - a symbolic gesture as the prince soon ascended to become Emperor Qianlong.

The chance to touch these seals and sense the historic and artistic legacy of the emperor, gaining an insight into his life, has left Chinese art historians in a frenzy.

'I would have thought the strongest candidates at the auction would be from China or Taiwan, because this is something that is very much within their way of thinking and outlook on history,' predicts Lin of tomorrow's showdown. 'They could end up in a museum, but we have no indication as yet. Usually people are quite guarded about what they're going to do at auctions. We have some indications, but we're not sure until the day itself.'

The Imperial Sale, tomorrow, 10.30am. 5/F, Chater House, 8 Connaught Road, Central. More info: www.Christie'