Soapstone seal

The Qianlong yulan zhi bao soapstone seal shown alongside a Chinese painting from the imperial collection that carries its impression. It sold for HK$131m (£13m) plus premium at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

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More than 60 years after it was last on the market, the so-called ‘Qianlong yulan zhi bao’ seal (‘treasure admired by his majesty the Qianlong emperor’) came for sale at Sotheby’s from the family of the collector Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-97).

Seals were an important component of Qing court paraphernalia and Qianlong owned many examples (perhaps more than 1800).

This diminutive 4in (10cm) high carving, fashioned in white soapstone with a triple lion dog finial, is one of several dozen ‘connoisseurial’ seals that he used to express his nearobsessive admiration for art and antiques.

Dating from relatively early in his six-decade reign (1735-96), during which time the imperial collection expanded exponentially in terms of quantity and quality, the Qianlong yusheng zhi bao mark it made appears prominently on many of China’s greatest national treasures.

It is clearly recorded in the imperial seal catalogue Qianlong baosou of the Palace Museum collection and matches the textual record exactly in material, size and composition.

Nicolas Chow of Sotheby’s said “it was like an electric shock” when he first saw the seal in the Wou collection.

“I had seen the ghost of that seal so many times on so many of the most important paintings in the world.”

It sold at Sotheby's to an Asian private collector after a 10-minute bidding battle at a price that, touching around £15.5m with premium, was around four times the pre-sale ‘estimate on request’.

It was the highlight of the Hong Kong chapter of the Dr Wou Kiuan collection, a series of four single-owner sales held globally throughout 2022.

Born just months before the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, Wou Kiuan (1910-97) moved to Europe in his 20s and later entered the diplomatic service. He was driven to collect the relics of China’s rich historical past that were fast being scattered across Europe and took advantage of the abundant availability of exceptional material on the London market in the mid-1950s to the late 1960s.

This seal was last sold by Sotheby’s London in May 1965, three years before Wou set up a private museum in the south of England.

The Wou seal becomes the most expensive one ever sold in Asia but it did not challenge the record €17.5m (£14.6m) bid at Pierre Bergé in Paris in 2016 for the Qianlong Yu Bi Zhi Bao seal carved in red and white steatite with nine writhing dragons.