Emperor Qianlong's firearm. [Photo / Sotheby's London]
The first Chinese firearm with an imperial reign mark ever to be offered at auction sold for 1.985 million pounds (2.5 million U.S. dollars), the auction house Sotheby's London announced in a statement on Wednesday.
The gun -- a brilliantly designed and exquisitely crafted musket, produced in imperial workshops -- was created for the Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), arguably the greatest collector and patron of the arts in Chinese history.
Estimated at 1 million to 1.5 million pounds (1.33 million to 1.99 million dollars), the firearm ignited a 10-minute bidding battle before finally selling to an Asian private collector.
"This gun ranks as one of the most significant Chinese treasures ever to come to auction. Today's result will be remembered alongside landmark sales of other extraordinary objects that epitomize the pinnacle of imperial craftsmanship during the Qing dynasty," said Robert Bradlow, senior director of Chinese Works of Art, Sotheby's London.
"Over the last 10 years we've seen the market for historical Chinese works of art go from strength to strength, with collectors drawn from across the globe and exceptional prices achieved whether the sale is staged in London, Hong Kong or New York," he added.
The musket bears not only the imperial reign mark on top of its barrel, but in addition, incised on the breech of the barrel are four Chinese characters which denote the gun's peerless ranking -- "Supreme Grade, Number One." This exceptional grading makes it unique amongst the known extant guns from imperial workshops, and asserts its status as one of the most important firearms produced for Emperor Qianlong.
According to Sotheby's London, the advent of Western firearm technology sparked the production of muskets in imperial workshops, and this modern mode of weaponry had unquestionable advantages over the traditional bow and arrow for hunting.
Using only the most luxurious materials, imperial muskets were created in very small numbers for Emperor Qianlong. While the Emperor is unlikely ever to have held a gun in battle, he would regularly hunt with a musket.
The auction house said the Supreme Number One is closely related to six celebrated, named imperial Qianlong muskets in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, which appear to correspond with seven muskets listed in the Qing work, Collected Statutes of the Qing Dynasty with Illustrations. These guns were probably graded in the same way as the Supreme Number One, but with lower grade and/or number ("Supreme Grade, Number Two", "Top Grade, Number 2").
Revered as one of the most powerful "Sons of Heaven," Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) was the longest-lived and de-facto longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history (1736-1795).