In Search of Provenance of A Chinese Seal

Neal Auction, Nov 22, 2009. Lot 1157, Chinese Carved and Incised Red Dragon Seal
Neal Auction, Nov 22, 2009. Lot 1157, Chinese Carved and Incised Red Dragon Seal

Today, at Neal Auction, a Chinese red-dragon seal was sold for $15,000 plus premium, which was as much as 10 times of its high estimation. With a provenance of Benjamin March, the curator of Detroit Art Institute, the seal for sure bears some story and significance. Here is what UAA team found out:

From the auction house description:

A Chinese Carved and Incised Red Dragon Seal, Qing Dynasty, probably Qianlong Period (1736-1795), of rectangular section with the upper surface elaborately carved with a coiled dragon resting above a flaming pearl on a billowing cloud, one facet incised with two characters, unread, the chop carved in positive text, unread, the amber-colored stone with russet veining diminishing upward towards the dragon’s body, height 2 5/8in., presented within an elaborate triple box. Provenance: With Benjamin Franklin March Jr. (1899-1934), Curator of Asiatic Art, Detroit Institute of Arts (1927-1931); thence by descent to the present owner.

What is offered here is a collector seal. Sometimes such a seal is called poetry seal because it has poems or proverbs inscribed, used on paintings or books. This seal bears six Chinese characters in seal script (zhuan shu). The six characters, after I flipped the image through photoshop, are “Shi De Que HuanJie Bai.” It means good deeds will be rewarded by a yellow finch with jade rings, which bless descendant  with noble and pure minds. This refers to a famous fable in China:

The looking of the  stamp (not the relief ) from the Seal, thanks to Photoshop
The looking of the stamp (not the relief ) from the Seal, thanks to Photoshop

In the late of Han Dynasty, Bao Yang, a nine-year-old boy went to North of Hua Yin Mountain. On the road, he saw a yellow finch, felling under a tree from fighting with an hawk and was surrounded by ants waiting for the death. Bao took the bird home and put it in a cloth-cushioned box and fed the bird daily with yellow flowers. After about a hundred days, the bird was recovered and flew away. On the night when the bird left, there came a young man in yellow clothes who saluted Bao and said: I am an ambassador of the Queen Mother of the West. I am forever thankful for your benevolence and kindness in rescuing my life. He also brought four jaded rings to Bao and said “I will bless your descendant of next four generations and wish their minds as the jade and wish they prosper.” Under the protection of the bird deity, Bao and his descendants of the next four generations all were known for their unblemished political records and relative affluent  high-ranked official positions.  I am not the best translator, so read the original version here if you can read Chinese.

Two stamps from Shaohe Yang's antique book "Zhou Li"
Two stamps from Shaohe Yang's antique book "Zhou Li"

Here is the part that maybe more interesting,but it is maddening illusive. A copy of “Zhou Li”, one of the most important textbooks published in South Song Dynasty (its Chinese name is 南宋婺州市门巷唐宅刻本) bear a stamp which looks as if from this seal. More importantly, under that stamp, the second stamp indicates that the book was once in the collection of Shaohe Yang (1830 – 1875), who, along with his father, was the most famous avid antique book collectors in history.  He built a library which housed a lot of single-copied book and perhaps because of that he seldom stamped directly on prominent pages of books. Instead his stamps are often found on empty pages.  Part of his collection was lost in the war period of 1920’s and 1930’s. But eventually, the majority of them went to the National library in Beijing. Interestingly, in 1936, the Library of Congress once held 36 rare books from Yang’s collection, which in 1960’s were returned to the Central Library in Taipei.

I have posted Shaohe Yang’s collector’s stamp here and it is up to readers to judge whether this can be a stunning antique roadshow find or not. I am no expert in collecting Chinese seals, but it looks to me it is of great beauty itself. Of course, if it can be attributed to some famous antiquarian and book collector, it would be even better. But again, Chinese show their homage to masters by copying artworks or even seals. It will not surprise me if this is an imitation seal. Plus a stamp on top of Yang’s name stamp does not mean it is also from the one of his own seals. It could come from a different person of a different period — more likely earlier since it is on the top.

Today, when the  lot opened, the bidding between two or more absentee bids drove the price up to $15,000 immediately. Perhaps, the seal will finally go back to China this time.

Neal Auction, Nov 22, 2009. Lot 1157, Chinese Carved and Incised Red Dragon Seal


Great piece; wonderful research. Can you point me to a resource for deciphering seal script or is it not that simple?

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