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An important Chinese hardstone-embellished huanghuali seal chest, guanpixiang

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Published: 3 September 2016

Freeman's Begins Fall Auction Season with Asian Arts

Freeman's will kick off its fall auction season with Asian Arts on September 10. Boasting an eclectic assemblage of Chinese and East Asian art ranging from China’s bronze age into the 21st century, this sale coincides with Asia Week New York, which starts on September 9. Featured in the auction are a rare Imperial Chinese hunting knife with enameled gold and silver sheath of the Qianlong period, an important Chinese hardstone-embellished huanghuali seal chest that reputedly once belonged to Puyi, the last emperor of China, and a rare Chinese cloisonné enamel square form censer and cover bearing the Jingtai six character mark.

Lot 86 is a rare Imperial Chinese hunting knife, crafted for use as part of the imperial courtly costume. Such knives were a symbol of Manchu ruggedness and self-reliance, added to formal regalia to set themselves apart from their Ming predecessors, who did not cut their own meat. The hunting knife embodied the independent spirit of the Manchu a throwback to their nomadic past. Even the women of the court carried such knives.  Few knives of this type have appeared at auction, in fact Asian Arts department head Richard Cervantes remarks that that the example going up for auction on September 10 is the most formal in style he has ever seen offered. It a particularly rare configuration among known Qianlong Imperial hunting knives in that the sheath tapers to a point and the handle is composed of two materials -vibrant blue lapis lazuli and a "hidden" section of white jade only revealed when the knife is unsheathed. It is estimated at $20,000-40,000.

A rare Imperial Chinese hunting knife with enameled gold and silver sheath   qianlong four character mark and of the period

Inlaid chests like Lot 12, estimated at $150,000 to 250,000 are rarely seen at auction. Because of the glue used to hold the shell and hardstone embellishments to the wood, many pieces of this style lose their decoration over time. To have one largely intact after hundreds of years is extraordinary. Even more remarkable is the chest's provenance. Formerly of the Harry Lawrence Collection, this hardstone-embellished huanghuali seal chest was purchased from the Seaholm Collection, and reputedly acquired from Puyi, The Xuantong Emperor, while ruler of Manchukuo (circa 1935-1945). Puyi (also known as the Last Emperor of China) was believed to have often made such sales of imperial treasures to Western collectors during this time period. In need of money, the puppet emperor used his access to the court's stores of such rare and beautiful items to as a source of income.  

Another pieces featured in Freeman's Asian Arts auction is Lot 80, a fine, complete and exceptionally rare cloisonné and gilt bronze square-form censer, estimated at $10,000-15,000. The applied cloisonné enamel to the walls, handles and legs demonstrate the traditional Ming style, incorporating vividly-colored archaistic motifs against the indispensable “Jingtailan” blue ground. On the censer’s base is seen a six-character "Da Ming Jingtai Nian Zhi” reign mark, “Made in the period of the Great Ming (Emperor) Jingtai." This particular censer is extraordinary due to its remarkable condition. Despite one minor flaw, the piece remains largely intact. This is a rare find due to the delicacy of the censer's design, the intricacy of the enamel work, and age. The form, condition, and design make Lot 80 an outstanding example of China's golden age of cloisonné.

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