Chinese Collectors Are Updating Their Identity With Antique Signature Seals

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Chinese seals, once used by emperors and artists, have taken hold among a group of collectors, making them the best selling properties at Gianguan Auctions in New York.

Inking a seal to sign your name is the newest trend among collectors at Gianguan Auctions, New York City, making the stone seals the gallery's best selling category. With international collectors descending on New York the week after Labor Day for a spirited round of auctions, it is auspicious that a collection of more than twenty seals is featured in Gianguan's September 9th auction.

According to experts, the first record of a seal in China dates to 544 BC. The most important, however, is the Heirloom Seal of the Realm that was created by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. It was seen as a legitimizing device embodying or symbolizing the Mandate of Heaven.

Typically, seals ae carved of colorful stone (jade, shoushan, furlong, tianhuang, songhua and coral) into columns of about 1 1/2" to 4" tall. Their knops are often enhanced with mythical beasts or Buddhist figures, a feature that makes them decorative as well as practical. The flat surface on the bottom is incised in intaglio or raised Chinese characters that are enclosed in a border. The characters may spell out a name or "courtesy name", sometimes a poem, sometimes a bit of philosophy. In many cases, the Gianguan catalog offers a translation of the script in Chinese. (For collectors who do not read Chinese, gallery specialists are happy to translate.) When it is time to affix the seal to a document or painting, collectors use a red stamp pad or go through the ritual of mixing pigment with fluid.

The most notable is Lot 74, a large octagonal shoushan carving with reticulated dragon knop. Its script designates the owner as "King of ...", a town in southern province of Fuzhou. Only in a town far down the coast from Beijing could a small time minister declare himself King without risking his head. The seal is 6" tall and weighs in at 3 pounds. It quite likely belonged to a strong general or a minister with an attendant at the scholar's desk who helped him put it on paper. The gallery expects it to bring $1,500-$3,000.

Another outstanding seal is attributable to Ming philosopher Wang Shou. It is Lot 41, of tianhuang, an amber-to-carrot colored stone that is thought to make the finest of seals. The 6" tall column is topped by a Bixie, the mythical dragon that wears a turtle shell. The script reads "The Sunrise Shines Through the Million Households.” Its estimate is $2,000-$3,000

Lot 48 is a column of furong stone surmounted with a seated Guanyin resting her arm on a cleverly carved table. Bidding on the 5" tall statue starts at $600. Lot 74 is an unusual octagonal seal of shoushan stone with poetry and landscapes inscribed on its panels. Its reticulated knob features nine dragons chasing pearl. Six-inches tall, 3 1/2 pounds, the rarity starts at $1,500.

An unusual take is a double seal, conjoined by a bar and handle. It is of tianhuang and is topped by a cleverly coiled qilin that stretches across both columns. (A qilin is a hooved chimera creature said to appear at the passing of a sage.) The bottoms each have a seal, designed to be read together. Lot 49 is only 2 1/2" tall and weighs a half pound. Its estimate is $600-$800.

Other collections in the sale include a small group of Chinese headrests. These early pillows are not plump and plush. In fact, the earliest one (Lot 254), was made during the Warring States period (475-221 BC). It is a jade rarity with a ruyi shaped headrest above evil-thwarting hogs at rest. In the 14th century, artisans were still working pillows in jadeite, as in , Lot 156, is an adorable carved boy laying on his stomach. A bit earlier, the Song (960-1279 AD) gave us Lot 273, a heart-shaped Cizhou porcelain pillow of ivory, black and brown slip. The pillows range in value from $3,000-$8,000.

Other collections include Chinese ceramics, Zisha teapots and Buddhist art.. All can be viewed at The gallery at 39 W. 56th Street is open for previews now through Friday, September 8. The sale will be conducted live on Saturday, September 9. Bidding is currently underway at and

Condition reports and further information may be obtained by calling the gallery or emailing For details on all the properties in the auction, download the catalog at

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