Owned by an Emperor — Six handscroll paintings from the Fujita Museum

Specialist Elizabeth Hammer examines superlative examples of ‘the most intimate form of Chinese traditional painting’ — all with imperial provenance — which realised a combined $123,901,000 as part of the record-breaking Important Chinese Art from the Fujita Museum auction in New York

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, which alone surpassed the previous record for any Asian Art Week series in auction history. After a momentous auction, Jussi Pylkkänen, Global President, Christie’s, remarked: ‘This evening we witnessed a record total for any Asian Art sale, and a spectacular success for a great museum through the sale of major Chinese works of art and paintings.’ 

The exhibition, global tour, and auction generated huge international interest driven by Shang and Zhou dynasty ritual bronzes and classical Chinese paintings with exceptional provenance. The top lot for the sale was Chen Rong (13th century) as catalogued in Shiqu Baoji, Six Dragons, which realised USD$48,967,500 / HK$378,706,146.

‘Handscrolls are in many ways the most intimate form of Chinese traditional painting,’ explains Elizabeth Hammer, a Christie’s specialist in Chinese Paintings. ‘When you see a handscroll displayed wide open in a museum it’s actually not the way you are supposed to see it; what you lose is the cinematic unfolding of the composition as you go along.’

The six handscroll paintings offered in the Important Chinese Art from the Fujita Museum  auction on 15 March at Christie’s in New York were all owned by Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) of the Qing Dynasty. ‘He put together what was probably the biggest collection the world has ever known of Chinese paintings, Chinese works of art, as well as objects from the rest of the world,’ Hammer continues. (To view all six paintings, click on the ‘View all’ button farther down this page, and browse lots 507 to 512.)

Hammer goes on to explain how the paintings are preserved and presented in the finest materials (see above) — ensuring an unveiling process designed ‘to slow you down and focus the attention in a meditative way’ — before describing what the various inscriptions on the works mean.

The first painting is by Chen Rong, a 13th-century government official who was renowned for his paintings of dragons, which are symbolic of water in China. The painting came to be owned by Emperor Qianlong, as evidenced by the marks of ownership he added to the piece. Such inscriptions, says Hammer, are ‘a recording of the history of a work of art as it goes through time’.

The second scroll, a painting by Li Gonglin, depicts a historical scene in 626 when the man who went on to become Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty defeated a nomadic tribe in battle. ‘We start to get a sense of what [Taizong] thought of his [opponents] as they are shown galloping about pell-mell,’ smiles Hammer. ‘Whenever you get Chinese officials or troops juxtaposed with foreign ones, the Chinese behave with restraint and the foreigners are all over the place.’

‘These were owned by an emperor,’ the specialist reminds us of the group of six handscroll paintings offered in the sale. ‘[After] all these years it still blows me away to be looking at something that had been in the Forbidden City in China… for the pleasure of the emperor. That’s quite something.’ 

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