Live Auction

The English Interior

Thu, Oct 27, 2022 11:00AM EDT
Lot 509

Very Rare Chinese 'Legend of the White Snake' Automaton

Estimate: $8,000 - $12,000
Sold for

Bid Increments

Price Bid Increment
$0 $25
$200 $50
$500 $100
$3,000 $250
$5,000 $500
$10,000 $1,000
$30,000 $2,500
$100,000 $5,000

Painted wood, papier maché, enamel, silk and metal in three wood and glass casements raised on a later Hongmu wood stand; fitted with moving figures and animals amongst pavilions in landscapes.

4 ft. 6 1/4 in. x 6 ft. 4 in. x 15 in.

Note: Narrative scenes of the legend are contained within the three casements. The central and largest depicting the famous battle between the immortal Bai Suzhen (the white snake) and her enemy Buddhist monk Fahai. Bai Suzhen amasses an army of underwater demons to flood the temple where Fahai has imprisioned her husband Xu Xian. The attack fails as Fahai magically commands the mountain to rise out of harm's way. The temple appears amongst the towering rocky mountains, varying trees, foliage and swirling colorful clouds. The left casement illustrates further scenes from the drama including the rescue of Bai Suzhen from the Leifeng pagoda where Fahai is holding her captive after the birth of her son. The right casement depicts other moments from the legend among them, the disapproving monk Fahai wielding a sword with other figures in landscapes with pagodas. 

The tradition of automata originates with clock making which was introduced to China as early at 1601 by Spanish Jesuit missionaries. This impressive example example dates from the Qing Dynasty and represents the demand for clocks by elite members of society which included a palace workshop dedicated to the craft. A small clock in the Palace Museum, Beijing, set within a ‘landscape’ similar in palette and style to the automaton, and accompanied by two blue birds comparable to one in the present example, attributed to the 19th century.


In good restored condition with minor losses, nicks and wear. Replaced elements and original elements recently resecured to to case, some elements lacking overall. The fabric lining to the interior has some staining and tears. Scuffing to the top cases. With later electrical wiring which needs to be repaired for use and is currently not in working order. Impressive in craftmanship and scale.Not withstanding this report or any discussion concerning condition of a lot, all lots are offered and sold "as is" in accordance with our conditions of sale.