Today is May 27, 2008 in Hong Kong. Christie’s disperses a beautiful set of fifteen Chinese automaton clocks dating from the end of the 18th century and from the collections of the Nezu Museum in Tokyo, which separated from these atypical objects in order to renovate the museum. Clocks that all belonged to different imperial dynasties and various emperors, all fascinated by the clockwork mechanisms of these clocks that adorned many rooms in the palaces of the Forbidden City in Beijing. And among these fifteen objects, the sale offered at auction a rare and important clock with an imperial automaton in gilded bronze, stone inlays and decoration of “tribute bearers”, from the Qianlong period (1735-1796), sixth emperor of the Qing dynasty. A piece auctioned at the time for the equivalent of 3.5 million euros, surely went to decorate the interior of a private collector and of which the art market had not heard any more, until today today.

Indeed, fourteen years after its first sale, this clock will be auctioned again on Wednesday June 15 at Drouot under the hammer of the house Dumeyniou Favreau-Aponem, associated with the expertise firm Portier

As early as the 16th century, the Swiss, the French and the English were already masters of sophisticated fine watchmaking, like Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a prodigy from Neuchâtel, or the English merchant James Cox, builder of automatons and creator in 1760 of the perpetual motion clock. A know-how that the mandarins of the time lacked, yet at the base, and this, since Antiquity, of many technological and scientific prowess like the compass, the printing press or gunpowder. “Indeed, at that time, Chinese time-measuring instruments were rudimentary: sundials, hourglasses or water clocks. Very imprecise timepieces in addition to being not very portable and aesthetic, unlike Western clocks. However, the notion of time among the Chinese was fundamental in order obviously to know the time, to punctuate the life of the imperial court and the official ceremonies, or to know the opportune moment to trigger the harvest. The mastery of time was thus a necessary power for the emperors, “comments Alice Jossaume, sinologist and expert with the Portier firm.

It was in the 17th century that the first clocks from Europe arrived in China during the reign of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They were brought by Jesuit missionaries, such as Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who came to the Far East with the mission of “opening souls” and serving as a bridge between the West and China by transmitting knowledge. , especially in mathematics, astronomy or the arts. “In reality, the missionaries mostly hoped to please Chinese dignitaries by bringing rare and valuable items, such as clocks to achieve their evangelistic goal. A kind of horological diplomacy that has borne fruit since some, like Matteo Ricci, have managed to gain access to the court of Emperor Wanli, thus having a profound impact on Chinese culture and society,” adds Alice Jossaume.

But all this mainly had the effect of creating the wonder of the Chinese emperors for these objects coming from another civilization and completely to their taste. At the end of the Ming dynasty and at the dawn of the Qing (1644-1911), the economic peak is palpable in China. Emperors Shunzhi, who reigned from 1644 to 1661, Kangxi (1662-1722) or Yongzheng (1723-1735) all showed admiration for the European clocks brought by the Jesuits, equipped with new functions, such as automatic mechanisms, more precise timing, moving figures and musical boxes of flamboyant shapes.

The most fervent of them remains the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795), who commissioned and accumulated a large collection of nearly 400 clocks. Most are now in the superb watch collection of the Forbidden City museum, such as the “vigil clock” – which could count down the day in 12 or 24 hours – commissioned by the emperor from the missionary Valentin Chalier. “Western clocks thus became an integral part of court life in the Forbidden City. Successive emperors collected them in abundance, so much so that more than 3,000 pendulums, clocks and automatons punctuated the rooms of the Forbidden City,” says Alice Jossaume.

A popularity that in 1680 led the Emperor Kangxi, a great admirer of Western science, to order the creation of internal workshops in China. Thus was born the “Bureau de l’horlogerie”, a kind of imperial watch factory located in the Forbidden City. The ruler recruited many skilled craftsmen and eunuchs from across the empire. Not only did the latter, trained by the Jesuits, such as the Swiss missionary François-Louis Stadlin, ensure the routine maintenance of the European clocks used by the Qing dynasty, but they also made their own clocks, pendulums and automatons, most often in copying the know-how of Europeans, such as painted enamel and brilliant paste precious stones. Subsequently, however, they broke away from their sources by developing stylistic particularities, such as rococo rockeries, neoclassical leafy garlands and ancestral symbols, such as the pagoda, bells, the dragon, the double gourd or the toad with three legs, synonymous with wealth.

“At the same time, in addition to clock imports from Europe, the Chinese watch industry is developing, especially in Guangzhou (Canton) in Guangdong Province. The city became the center of mechanical watchmaking under the Qing dynasty, before really taking off from the middle of the Qianlong period with the advent of a purely Chinese style, quite extravagant and far removed from that of Western creations.” , adds Alice Jossaume. Thus, around 1800, clocks produced in China were considered equivalent to European ones. Strictly speaking Chinese objects that can be found on the market today, like the masterpiece soon to be put on sale by Aponem, the fruit of the artisans of Guangzhou in the 18th century.

Sale on June 15, 2022 with the study SARL Dumeyniou-Favreau-Aponem, room 9. Exhibition on June 14 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

A conference on the theme of “Imperial watchmaking under the Qianlong Emperor” will be given on June 14 at 7 p.m. by Alice Jossaume and Olivier Valmier, upon registration.