Somewhat worn but once very high-quality, with great sculptural qualities and remains of silver "true…
Sheathed 49.3 cm
Dagger 42.8 cm
Base 4.5 mm
Middle 4 mm
5 cm from tip 3 mm
Base 23 mm
Middle 22 mm
5 cm from tip 15 mm
Sheathed 557 grams
Dagger 305 grams
2 mm from hilt
Iron, steel, copper, brass, silver, wood, ray skin, coral, malachite, turquoise, lapis lazuli
Kham region, Tibet
(Formerly including Sichuan)
European antique art market
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A very rare type of dagger that originates from the borderlands of Eastern Tibet and Sichuan.
The blade is of the classic form of Tibetan daggers and shortswords, gradually tapering over its entire length towards a sharp point. The blade is forged with hairpin laminations, with alternating bands of bright "male" and darker "female" iron/steel.
The hilt has a large pommel of flattened hexagonal cross-section. It is made of alternating layers of iron, copper, and brass. This kind of work is typical of the swords of eastern Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. The grip section is of waisted form, covered with ray skin. It has a small silver lobed cup guard.
The hilt is richly adorned with coral and malachite set in silver bezels. Six corals are set into the pommel, four on the front, two on the back. The grip section has four rows of settings that each hold a round coral flanked by two drop-shaped malachites.
The scabbard is made of two thin pieces of wood held together by a classic brass U-frame. The back is covered with green pebble-grained leather, the front has a decorative pierced brass panel. The scabbard mouthpiece is a complex sleeve made of bands of copper and silver with applied silver and copper wire decoration. It holds 11 pieces of coral and 11 pieces of turquoise, and in addition a single lapis lazuli with on either side a silver ornament.
This dagger is part of an illustrious group of similar items that seem to date from the 18th century and earlier. Published examples are very rare.
One example is kept in the Palace Museum in Shenyang.1
Shenyang Palace Museum example.
"Knife from minority race of south-west China"
Length 47 cm.
Another was published in Robert Hales' Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour: A Lifetime's Passion, page 199. It is described as a Tibetan dagger of the 18th century.2
A very similar dagger was once in the collection of the Qianlong emperor.3
This dagger (left) compared to the dagger in Qianlong's collection (right).
The collection records call the piece a Jīnchuān fān jiàn (金川番劍) or "Jinchuan Aborigines Dagger". It also mentions that it is "the most precious thing from the area of Qiong-Zuo", which generally refers to the areas inhabited by minorities in southwest China.
Between 1747 and 1773, Jinchuan in western Sichuan was the scene of two fierce wars and the dagger was obtained during the First Jinchuan War of 1748-1751.2 The collection catalog entry is dated to the summer of 1776, but it does not state whether this particular piece was collected during the first or second Jinchuan campaign.
For a full translation of the text, which is a poem by Qianlong, see my article: Qianlong's Jinchuan dagger.
1. Grace Wong, Goh Eck Keng, editors; Imperial life in the Qing dynasty, Treasures from the Shenyang Palace Museum, China. Singapore, The Empress Place, 1889. Page 26.
2. Robert Hales; Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour: A Lifetime's Passion, Robert Hales C.I. Ltd., 2013. Page 199.
3. Xīqīng xù jiàn jiǎ biān (西清续鉴甲编), a catalog of antiquities that was compiled for the Nán shū fáng ( 南書房) or "Southern Library" of the imperial palace and published in 1791.
The Divine Edge swords
The Qianlong emperor was obviously very much charmed by either this dagger, or a very similar one. By the 15th year of his reign (around 1751 to early 1752), Qianlong ordered a redesign of the swords carried by the imperial guard during auspicious ceremonies such as the prayer at the Temple of Heaven. The hilts and scabbards of these swords closely follow the design of the Jīnchuān fān jiàn in his possession.
They are illustrated in the 1766 Huangchao Liqi Tushi.3
The Imperial Attendant Auspicious Ceremony saber.
Woodblock from the Huangchao Liqi Tushi.
A series of these sabers were made, and a few of them are still preserved in the Palace Museum Collection in Beijing. They combine a Chinese jiàn shaped tip on an otherwise single edged straight sword. The guard is lobed, like our example here, but the pommel is octagonal which could be a reference towards 8 as an auspicious Chinese number or towards the Eight Banners, or both. These swords carry the name Shénfēng (神鋒) or "divine edge" on their blades.
Our dagger compared to one of the published Shénfēng swords.4
Condition / restoration
Some bezels and stones were lost and expertly replaced by silversmith K.H. Schermerhorn, Hofleverancier. (Purveyor to the court). They did an excellent job, hard to see even if you know it was done;
Before restoration, top. (This photo was from the seller and was highly edited to show fewer signs of wear.)
After restoration, bottom. (Non-edited photo.)
Original peening at the pommel still intact, confirming that hilt, guard, handle and blade were "born together". Blade, lightly cleaned, in good condition.
Dating and attribution
The pommel shape and construction are of a type I am used to seeing from the region from Arunachal Pradesh to Eastern Tibet and Western Sichuan. The Qing court collection cataloged a nearly identical example, obtained in the mid 18th century, as aboriginal Jinchuan.
A very rare and interesting type of dagger from the Eastern Tibet / Sichuan borderlands, of which very few survive today.
They seemed to have been highly appreciated in the 18th century already: The Qianlong emperor cherished one in his collection and modeled swords of his trusted guards, to be worn at important ceremonies, after them.
1. Xī qīng xù jiàn jiǎ biān (西清续鉴甲编). Published 1791, it is an overview of some of the collection kept at the imperial palace in Shenyang.
2. For more information on the Jinchuan wars, see my article the story of the Jianruiying and my descriptive article of an important Jinchuan sword I sold in 2018.
3. Huangchao Liqi Tushi (皇朝禮器圖式) or "Illustrated Regulations on the Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Present Dynasty". An imperially commissioned text that was published in 1766 based on a 1759 manuscript. Chapter 15.
4. See: Gugong Bowuyuan Cang Wenwu Zhenpin Quanji 56: Qing gong Wubei (故宫博物院藏文物珍品全集 56: 清宫武备) or "The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Beijing 56: Armaments and Military Provisions", Palace Museum, Beijing. Published Hong Kong 2008. Pages 131-133.
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Thought to have been presented by the Royal House of Nepal.
Rarely seen today, a commoner's example with carved, bone hilt.
Of nice quality, with unusual openwork silver bolster with serapendiya.
An exceptionally large example with a desirable three fullered blade.
Signed: Ricky Milnes, India 44, Burma 44, Ramree 45.