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Detail from the musket, which will be auctioned on 9 November. Photograph: Sotheby's
A musket made in the imperial workshops for an 18th-century Chinese emperor, which inspired him to write a poem in praise of its accuracy and his own skill hunting deer, is coming up for auction in London at an estimated price of up to £1.5m and is regarded as the finest ever sold.
Decorated in gold and silver, it has four Chinese characters inscribed on the barrel, which identify its outstanding quality as “supreme grade, number one”, and is one of the most important of a small group made for the Qianlong emperor, who reigned from 1735 to 1796.
Detail of the musket’s muzzle. The gun is regarded as representing the pinnacle of Chinese imperial craftsmanship. Photograph: Sotheby's
Members of his Manchu Qing dynasty prided themselves on their hunting and weapons skills, and the emperor was also renowned as a collector and patron of the arts. He was a younger son, but became emperor as the favourite of his grandfather. After reigning for 60 years Qianlong formally abdicated in favour of his 15-year-old son, so as not to surpass his grandfather’s reign, but in practice he continued to rule until his death in 1799, aged 87.
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Robert Bradlow, the senior director of Chinese works of art at Sotheby’s in London, where the weapon will be sold on 9 November, said it represented the pinnacle of imperial craftsmanship. “The gun’s historical importance cannot be overstated – it ranks as one of the most significant Chinese treasures ever to come to auction.”
Several contemporary paintings show the emperor hunting with a similar musket, and his poem, written the year before his death in his summer mountain retreat, celebrates the joys of slaughter:
What’s to stop me, now so carefree
To try for the one I might choose?
Aiming my musket just once
With a smack on target it fell
Part of a painting showing the emperor hunting with a similar musket. Photograph: Sotheby's