‘In China, dragons have long symbolised water,’ says Elizabeth Hammer, specialist in Chinese paintings at Christie’s in New York. ‘Funnily enough, whenever we showed this scroll to a client there would be a heavy rainstorm. It's as if the dragons on it were showing off!’
Originally created as part of a rainmaking ritual, the scroll was catalogued in the Shiqu Baoji (a Qing-dynasty imperial inventory) as having been painted by Chen Rong (c. 1200-1266), a Chinese government official noted for his detailed depictions of dragons — and who reportedly preferred to paint after a drink. ‘The artist flicked his brush against the scroll’s surface, spraying ink dots to create an unusual sense of moisture,’ says Hammer.
Red seal marks on the scroll’s surface indicate that it was owned by the Qing-dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799). The emperor was a great patron of ancient Chinese art who housed his imperial collection in the Forbidden City — the massive complex in central Beijing that from 1420 to 1912 served as the palace for 24 Ming and Qing-dynasty rulers. Following the Qing dynasty’s collapse in 1912, the scroll made its way to Japan.
Ahead of its sale in March, the scroll arrived at Christie’s in New York, consigned by the Fujita Museum in Osaka, Japan. ‘It came inscribed with imperial titles and wrapped in a fine silk cloth complete with a carved jade clasp, corroborating its imperial provenance,’ Hammer says.
‘On the night of the auction,’ the specialist continues, ‘there was intense speculation as to which would fetch a higher price: this scroll or an ancient bronze fangzun [a bronze ritual wine vessel]. When the scroll came up for sale, several bidders tried to scare off their competitors with huge incremental jumps.’
The work fetched $48,967,500 including buyer’s premium — more than 40 times its low estimate. Christie’s dedicated Evening Sale of Important Chinese Art from the Fujita Museum realised a grand total of $262,839,500 / HK$2,032,755,075. The seven Asian Art Week auctions from 15-17 March attracted bidders from 37 countries, ultimately realising a total of $332,783,188 (£272,497,754 / €312,222,516 / HK$2,573,500,630), which surpassed the previous record for any Asian Art Week series in auction history.