A Chinese clock hits the big time

On 11 June 2019, by Anne Doridou-Heim

Time was certainly money for a Chinese automaton clock from the late Qing dynasty, whose lotuses, activated by an ingenious mechanism, rose in concert with ever-mounting bids.

China, late Qing dynasty, musical automaton clock with automatic two-tone chime, featuring a gilt copper basin ornamented with coloured glass cabochons and four polychrome Cantonese enamel plaques; enamelled face with Roman numerals, h. 169 cm.
Result: €1,561,600

It created a striking effect with its height, 169 cm, bouquet of lotus flowers rising and falling to the melodies it emitted, and gilt copper and Cantonese enamel basin, very similar to the porcelain versions found in gardens. But nobody expected the thundering bid that greeted it: €1,561,600. We know of the Chinese emperors' passion for clockwork mechanisms, starting with Kangxi (1672-1722), and how they made good use of visiting missionaries familiar with their production secrets and thus skilled at designing them. In 1732, two departments were created: one for "clockwork " and the other for "musical clocks". Qianlong (1736-1795) continued the trend: according to notes left by missionaries living there in the 1730s and 1740s, no fewer than a hundred-odd Chinese craftsmen were assigned to this task under strict imperial control. In its own way, this monumental object relates the history of relations between the West and Greater China: we can see that influences went both ways, and how the East also sought to appropriate the very best in Western culture. Where sophisticated clockmaking was concerned, the Swiss, the French and the English were by now past masters. Pierre Jaquet Droz (1721-1790), an extraordinary engineer from Neuchâtel, produced time-keeping pieces featuring complications and amazing automatons. An enlightened mind and a canny entrepreneur to boot, he joined forces with James Cox, an English silversmith and dealer, who distributed pieces designed to appeal to royal courts, from Versailles to Peking. The Chinese, whose appetite for their illustrious past is well known, were determined not to let this spectacular model slip through their fingers – especially as the Forbidden City houses a splendid collection full of similar pieces, dating from the 18th to the early 20th century.

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