I’ve been in the room when an unnoticed or misidentified piece of Asian art hammers down at ten or more times the estimate. Chinese art and antiques having been owned by collectors for some time in America has a good chance of being the real deal, but it appears the most knowlegable people on the topic don’t work at auction houses-they work for the buyers.
Last Saturday afternoon, with a full and energetic saleroom, the ‘double dragon’ white jade seal in the galleries at Freeman’s realized over $3.5 million, making it the highest selling lot in the biannual Fine & Decorative Asian Arts auction. Other reports indicated it was Freeman’s highest lot ever.
The Qing Dynasty seal was sold to a bidder in the room by auctioneer and head of Asian Arts department Robert Waterhouse.
“The jade seal had good evidence for an imperial attribution, though it was only the final selling price that could have confirmed it,” Asian Arts Associate Specialist Richard Cervantes said in a press release. ” Of course we are overjoyed with the result.”
On a recent trip to China I had the opportunity to visit some exhibitions on Chinese seals at the Shanghai Museum, the Suzhou Museum and at the source, the site of a society of seal carvers near Hangzhou.
These seals are art. I am not an expert, but there appear to be three major components that make a seal desireable. The first is the stone itself. The second is the carving on the stone- the decorative part you see when the object is just sitting there. Finally is the quality of carving on the seal part itself, the stamp used for a signature.
Seals were first used around 1600 B.C. by officials in China to validate documents. Emperors of China, their families and officials used large seals known as xǐ (璽), later renamed bǎo (寶, “treasure”), which corresponds to the Great Seals of Western countries. These were usually made of jade (although hard wood or precious metal could also be used), and were originally square in shape.
By the mid Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the art of seal engraving entered a new phase, assimilating literati calligraphy and painting techniques. This “literati seal engraving” prevailed through the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Prior to the literati engravings, official standards were imposed with little attention paid to artistic merit.
According to Wikipedia, the most popular style of script for government seals in the imperial ages of China (from Song to Qing) is the jiudie wen (“ninefold script”), a highly stylized font which is unreadable to the untrained.
Most people in China possess a personal name seal. Artists, scholars, collectors and intellectuals may possess a full set of name seals, leisure seals, and studio seals. A well-made seal made from semi-precious stones can cost between 400 and 4,000 yuan.
Official seals are also still used today. The government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) has continued to use traditional square seals of up to about 13 centimeters each side, known by a variety of names depending on the user’s hierarchy. Part of the inaugural ceremony for the President of the Republic of China includes bestowing on him the Seal of the Republic of China and the Seal of Honor.
The seal of state of the People’s Republic of China is a square, bronze seal with side lengths of 9 centimeters. The inscription reads “Seal of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China.”
Seals are also often used on Chinese paintings and in books. Owners of paintings add their own studio seals to pieces they have collected. This practice is an act of appreciation towards the work and you can find examples in most any museum that has a Chinese art collection. Some artworks have had not only seals but inscriptions of the owner on them; for example, the Qianlong emperor had as many as 20 different seals for use with inscriptions on paintings he collected. This practice does not commonly devalue the painting. In fact, certain seals can make it infinitely more valuable.
Seals are widely sold to tourists in China, and are available in the United States as well. The quality of the stone and carving is hit or miss, more often miss. If you should make your way to West Lake at Hangzhou, China, someone from the society of seal carvers is sure not to miss. The gift shop has a large collection of stone seals from which you can choose and one of the expert carvers will be on site to personalize your seal. Many carvers will put your English name on the seal in addition to Chinese characters. Mine initials translated to words that mean “looking for the light” in Chinese, and so that is the source of my Chinese seal signature. I got it some time ago and it is not of the best quality. Someday I will have a new one carved.