Chinese Erotica May Raise 1.2 Million Pounds at London Auction

A set of Chinese erotic carvings associated with the court of the Qianlong emperor is estimated by auctioneers to sell for as much as 1.2 million pounds ($1.9 million) at a London sale in May.

The 18th-century ivory scenes of couples enjoying amorous pursuits in palace gardens will be offered by Bonhams at its May 12 sale of Chinese artworks. Carrying a low estimate of 800,000 pounds, they originated from a collection in Germany, said the London-based auction house.

The reliefs are mounted on eight leaves made of zitan wood, a prized, slow-growing timber whose use in China was controlled by the palace workshops. The 12-inch-high panels are hinged like books, allowing the carvings to be viewed at the discretion of the owner.

“I’ve never sold anything like this before,” Asaph Hyman, a senior specialist at Bonhams, said in an interview. “Zitan wood was very expensive in the 18th century. It was usually reserved for items made for the Imperial court. It’s possible that they could have been made for the emperor, though we can’t prove it.”

The quality and size of Bonhams’s carvings are comparable to a set of 12 similar leaves in the Qing court collection at the Palace Museum, Beijing, Hyman said.

Photographer: Clive Rowley/Bonhams via Bloomberg

Detail from a wood panel with erotic ivory carving. Close

Detail from a wood panel with erotic ivory carving.

Photographer: Clive Rowley/Bonhams via Bloomberg

Detail from a wood panel with erotic ivory carving.

These Oriental precursors of Playboy centerfolds are the latest discoveries that may attract intense competition from Chinese bidders keen to buy back their Imperial heritage.

Pricey Vase

In November, a Qianlong-dynasty vase sold for a record 51.6 million pounds to a Chinese buyer at a Bainbridges auction in west Ruislip, on the outskirts of London.

A 79-foot (24 meter) scroll showing the Qianlong emperor reviewing his troops has been estimated to fetch between 5 million euros ($6.9 million) and 6 million euros by the Toulouse, France-based auction house, Labarbe.

“I expect it to sell for a record price for a Chinese piece in France,” said auctioneer Marc Labarbe in an interview.

Dating from 1739 and bearing the seals of 10 court painters, the scroll, which is being sold by a Paris-based family, is one of four Imperial examples thought to have been looted from the Forbidden City in 1900. It will be auctioned on March 26.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Scott Reyburn in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at

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