The present pair of altar ornaments are part of a set of seven, known as the Seven Royal Treasures (qizhengbao or qizhen). These treasures consist of the Golden Wheel, the Horse, the Elephant, the Loyal General, the Able Minister, the Lady, and Divine Pearls. The present pair represent the Able Minister (who holds authority over the military to defend the borders from attack) and the Lady (who serves as the virtuous wife of the king).
The origins of the Seven Royal Treasures can be found in Indian mythology, where only the “wheel-turning sage king” (cakravarti-raja in Sanskrit) possessed the treasures, which would aid him in ruling his kingdom. The Seven Royal Treasures where later inherited by Buddhism, and came to be used as offerings presented to the Shakyamuni Buddha. The Seven Royal Treasures also came to be associated with the sage kings of Chinese mythology, and this appealing connection increased their popularity as decorative motifs in the Imperial palaces.
Altar ornament sets of the Seven Royal Treasures were made in various materials. See, for example, a set carved from spinach jade, raised on white jade and silver-inlaid zitan stands, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in the exhibition China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795 at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, cat. no. 45 (Fig. 1), and an enamelled gilt-copper set also in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in the exhibition Buddhist Art from Rehol: Tibetan Buddhist Images and Ritual Objects from the Qing Dynasty Summer Palace at Chengde, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1999, cat. no. 69. Five sets of the Seven Royal Treasures, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, made in gilt-bronze and some with the treasures carved in jade, were included in A Special Exhibition of Buddhist Gilt Votive Objects, Taipei, 1995, cat. nos. 22 to 26.
Very few sets of the Seven Royal Treasures survive outside of museum collections, and it is unusual even to find a pair of altar ornaments from a set. Surviving porcelain examples are even more rare, due to the elaborate modelling and the fragility of the material. A single altar ornament depicting the Lady (but catalogued as Budai), and raised on a doucai stand, is on display at the British Museum, London, reference Franks.1613, donated by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-1897). A pair of famille rose altar ornaments from a set, consisting of the Elephant and the Horse, was sold at Christie’s London, 8 June 2004, lot 437. Another pair of famille rose ornaments, both with the Divine Pearls, was offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 5 October 2016, lot 106.