Ming dynasty carpet that sat at emperor's throne sells for $10.6m and is 'heading back to Asia'

This Ming dynasty carpet sold for US$7.16 million on Tuesday. Photo: Christie’s

A Ming dynasty carpet that likely sat under the throne of the emperor sold for €6,881,000 (S$10.6 million) at an online Christie's auction on Tuesday (Nov 23), making it the most expensive carpet ever sold by the auction house.

The carpet sold for US$1.75 million (S$2.4 million) more than its valuation and became the most expensive item ever sold by Christie's French online store.

It was woven in the 16th century and features two five-clawed dragons adorning the bottom third of the piece; a cloudy sky scene at the top half transitions into a scene of cities and hills near the bottom border. A depiction of a seed pearl adorns the centre of the carpet.

The dragons in the carpet signalled the emperor’s connection to heaven. PHOTO: Christie’s

While the buyer remained anonymous, Louise Broadhurst, Christie's Rug and Carpet specialist, said, "the carpet will finally make its way back to Asia".

"This precious carpet from the golden age of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) is a rare survivor, and its historical importance had deservedly caught the attention of many," she said.

Broadhurst said that the size and style of this piece signalled to experts that the carpet was specifically made to be placed under the emperor's throne itself, signifying the monarch's divine mandate.

In October, Broadhurst told the Post that the carpet is damaged in an area that would suggest a screen was placed on it directly behind the throne.

The dragons were a representation of the emperor's power and good fortune, as Chinese emperors during the Ming dynasty were often called the "True Dragon", or "Son of Heaven".

The carpet also featured a depiction of a pearl in the centre. PHOTO: Christie’s

The carpet is one of only 39 Ming dynasty carpets that exist today, and only 16 of them feature dragons.

Nine of the dragon carpets are on display in the Beijing Palace Museum and, if we are to include the carpet that was just sold, the remaining seven were part of private collections.

Experts believe there were once hundreds of these carpets that adorned the palace halls in the Forbidden City, but they were either destroyed or lost to history in events such as the Sacking of the Summer Palace in 1860, the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century or the Japanese invasion of China in 1933.

An American couple bought this Ming carpet on their honeymoon in China in 1920, and they later loaned it to the Cleveland Museum of Art in the midwestern state of Ohio. When the couple sold their art collection, the carpet was bought by a private collector in Switzerland, who owned it until Tuesday.

The yellowish hue of the carpet stands out today, but in the 16th century, it would have been a stunning "imperial red" colour. While people can enjoy pictures of the carpet today or visit its contemporaries in Beijing, the general public would not have been able to view these carpets in their heyday.

"This carpet would have been woven specifically for a hall within the Forbidden City and as such would not have been seen by anyone outside of the palace walls," said Broadhurst.

In October 2020, another Ming imperial carpet was sold for US$1.7 million. It was is much larger than the carpet that sold this year, suggesting it was used in hallways and probably did not sit at the throne, thus the price difference.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.