Sofia A. Suarez consults those in the know
Q What are the most collectible seals and why are they so popular?
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS:
Nicolas K.S. Chow, Sotheby's director of Chinese ceramics and works of art, China and Southeast Asia, says: 'Seals rank among the most intimate objects used by scholars. For the legitimacy they lend to an official edict, a painting or a calligraphy, they hold more symbolic power than any other object. You'll rarely find any official document or painting that doesn't have a seal.'
Seals are often the most treasured of all family heirlooms. 'Of all pieces in the palace, the last emperor, Puyi [1908- 1911], took only a set of three tianhuang seals that belonged to Emperor Qianlong [1735-1796] when he fled from Beijing,' Chow says. 'The symbolic importance given to seals at the court dates back at least to the first emperor of the Qin dynasty [200BC], when the saying 'to ride a sedan chair with six imperial seals' first appeared.'
SIGNED AND SEALED:
Chow says a wide range of materials were used. These include stones such as jade (white or green from the plains of Khotan), soapstone from Shoushan in Fujian province (from the finest translucent toffee-coloured tianhuang to more common variegated stones), marble and sometimes rock crystal, organic materials (such as ivory, sandalwood or occasionally bamboo), metals (such as bronze, silver or gold), porcelain and, very rarely, glass.
Animal forms were favoured for their symbolism. 'At the Qing court [1644-1911], large official seals usually carved with dragons were mostly carved out of white or green jade, because of the durability of the material, or sometimes out of sandalwood, the fragrance preventing the seals from being attacked by insects. In the Yongzheng and early Qianlong period, tianhuang - the most precious material - was favoured for smaller, scholarly seals for the emperors. These are usually found on their personal calligraphies or paintings, but they're particularly rare.'
NEW COLLECTOR TIPS:
Imperial seals are the most sought after, Chow says, especially by collectors from China. 'The market for imperial seals has followed the imperial paintings market. It's really the mainland Chinese who have pushed both markets, because they value historical relevance - more so when the object holds an imperial connection. Today, an imperial would fetch at least $1 million.'
Among non-imperial seals, says Chow, 'those made by carvers in Fujian during the 17th century, usually from Shoushan soapstone, are the most collectible. Particularly outstanding are the works of Yang Yuxuan and Zhou Bin [also known as Shang Jun], who are well-known for the superb naturalism of their carving style.' Seals by 17th-century master carvers may fetch anything from a few hundred thousand dollars to $1 million.
'More affordable are seals carved by the so-called Eight Masters of Xiling in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,' says Chow. 'Their seals are often of plain upright form and square section, which leaves all focus on the seal face. Most well-known among them is Zhao Zhichen [1781-1860], whose seals usually fetch less than $100,000.'
And, yes, Chow says, fakes exist - 'particularly of the large jade imperial type with dragons. These are either recent or date to the Republican period in the early 20th century. The seal inscription on the face of fakes tends to be carved shallowly and the ground is often left rough, whereas the ground on genuine seals will be finely polished and the characters carved in high relief.
'The ultimate proof of authenticity for an imperial seal is a close comparison with the original impression in the imperial records of seals kept for each emperor, the baoshou, which are kept in the Palace Museum Beijing and include an impression of all seals.'
For non-imperial seals, 'one shouldn't necessarily expect to find the original face on 17th- or 18th-century seals, because these were often recarved for successive owners'.
Palace Museum Beijing, www.dpm.org.cn; Arts from the Scholar's Studio, Oriental Ceramic Society, Fung Ping Shan Museum, University of Hong Kong, 1986; The Art of Chinese Seals through the Ages, Wang Renchong et al ($300; Hong Kong Book Centre, B/F, On Lok Yuen Building, 25 Des Voeux Road, Central, tel: 2522 7064). Sotheby's (tel: 2524 8121, www.sothebys.com)