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Ten Chrysanthemums

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TEN CHRYSANTHEMUMS\nZHAO MENGFU (1254-1322), Ten Chrysanthemums\nTHIS IS A PREMIUM LOT. CLIENTS WHO WISH TO BID ON PREMIUM LOTS ARE REQUESTED TO COMPLETE THE PREMIUM LOT PRE-REGISTRATION 3 WORKING DAYS PRIOR TO THE SALE.\nInk and colour on silk, handscroll\nWith three seals of the artist reading Zhao, Daya, and Zhao shi Zi'ang, thirteen colophons dating from the Yuan Dynasty through the 20th century, seventy-five collector's seals\nPAINTING: 29.3 BY 201 CM., 11 1/2 BY 79 1/8 IN.\nTOTAL LENGTH: 29.3 BY 514 CM., 11 1/2 BY 202 3/8 IN.


List of the collector seals

1. Yuan Imperial Seal: kui-zhang-ge

Qing Imperial Seals

2. Shiqubaoji (Qianlong)

3. Baozhizhongbian (Qianlong)

4. Shiqudingjian (Qianlong)

5. Qianlong yulan zhibao (Qianlong)

6. Qianlong jianxiang (Qianlong)

7. Sanxitang (Qianlong)

8. Yizisun (Qianlong)

9. Yangxintian jian zangbao (Qianlong)

10. Jiaqing yulan zhibao (Jiaqing)

11. Xuangtong yulan zhibao (Xuantong)

12. Pan Di (Yuan Dynasty): wenzhang zhiyin, liuheng, qieshan

13. Liang Chu (Yuan and Ming Dynasty): Fu an

14. Fang Wai-shi: Zhangyu

15. Xiang Shenwen (Ming Dynasty): several sets of xiang shengwen, Daqing shi, Daqing, xiang

16. Au So: Au so

17. Wang Tai (Late Ming Dynasty): Zhong jiao

18. Cheng Chi (20th century): Zheng Bo-fen zhen zangyin, Ke An zhenshang, new seals owned by Ke An

19. An Qi (1683-1742), several sets of: yizhou, An Yizhou, Lu zun, Siyuan Tang

20. Liang Qingbiao (1620-1691), two seals, several sets: Qiao Linliangshi shuhua zhiyin, Tangzun

21. Liu Ding zhiyin

22. Xing Tong zhiyin

23. He Qi

24. Wang Tai

25. Wang Yangshi yin

26. He Bei (half seal)


1. Pan Di (Yuan Dynasty)

2. Shang Zhijian (Yuan Dynasty)

3. Yuanzhen, (1349, Yuan Dynasty)

4. Liang Chu, hao Fu'an

5. Zhang Yu, hao Fang Waishi (Yuan Dynasty)

6. Shen Menglin (late Yuan Dynasty / early Ming Dynasty)

7. Wang Xu (Yuan Dynasty)

8. Au So (Ming Dynasty)

9. Wang Tai (Late Ming Dynasty)

10.-13. Cheng Qi (dated 1970-1971)

Ten Chrysanthemums, by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322)

Richard Barnhart

The John M. Schiff Professor Emeritus of Art History, Yale University

This handscroll is a rare example of Zhao Mengfu's painting of colorful flowers of the season.1 Though unsigned and undated, the painting is carefully documented by the artist, and its provenance is richly recorded in colophons and in collectors' seals and catalogs dating from the artist's lifetime down to the present. Ten Chrysanthemums adds another dimension to the already rich and diverse oeuvre of the master.

Artist, subject, documentation

On a golden silk surface measuring 29.3 cm. in height, Zhao Mengfu has carefully depicted ten varieties of chrysanthemum, using a full range of color as well as ink. The flowers are presented as cut branches (zhe zhi), and this format as well as the technique of careful drawing and "filling in the outlines" (goule) with rich colors, including transparent greens and blues as well as opaque white, yellow, purple, and pink pigments, is similar to the style of the late Song imperial court, whose painters have left a number of similar depictions of a great many varieties of colorful flowers, including chrysanthemums2. The late Song court was the cultural environment within which Zhao was raised in his royal residence in Wuxing, and it is not surprising that Ten Chrysanthemums demonstrates the extent to which he carefully studied and absorbed the advanced painting techniques of the Song painting academy. In the case of botanical subjects, this process involved careful visual study of the plant and probably painting directly from life, bringing cut branches into the studio. The delicate, colorful beauty of Zhao's chrysanthemums also reminds us of the typical flower and bird paintings of his older friend and mentor, Qian Xuan, a fellow native of Wuxing and a professional painter of flowers and birds following the establishment of Mongol rule. Zhao and Qian maintained a lifelong friendship and seem to have continually inspired one another over the long span of their friendship. Both painters also created a kind of elegy for the Song in their painting and poetry3.  Zhao's extant works suggest that he rarely chose to paint flowers, perhaps because the genre of flower painting was Qian Xuan's specialty and the source of his livelihood.

For all the comparable painting of flowers popular during the time, there is nothing quite like this precise representation of ten different varieties of the same flower in the entire corpus of Song and Yuan painting. Collections of flowers of the four seasons were common, individual flowers were common, and collections of many diverse flowers (baihua) were common, but I am not aware of any other example of several distinct varieties of the same flower combined into one handscroll composition. The many varieties of chrysanthemums, however, were a popular subject of scholarly treatises in the Song period, sometimes illustrated with woodblock prints, and there is something slightly encyclopedic about the present work4.  The other vidence that Zhao Mengfu did this sort of carefully-observed nature study at least occasionally is seen in the one other extant flower painting we know, an album leaf of sunflowers (kuihua) in the Palace Museum, Beijing. He signed it "Sketched from life by Zi'ang" (Zi'ang xiesheng)5. But we may find the nearest visual parallels to the precise realism and frieze-like decorative organization of Ten Chrysanthemums among such paintings by his friend Qian Xuan as the "Eight Flowers" handscroll in the Palace Museum, Beijing.6

A variety of poems and miscellaneous notes are attached to the painting as colophons, and these address the popular imagery of the chrysanthemum as a symbol of autumn and endurance, and especially of the great poet, Tao Qian (365-427). Zhao Mengfu was especially attracted to Tao Qian, and transcribed and illustrated his most famous poem, Guiqulaixi, "On Returning Home," many times. There can be little doubt that he regarded his own life and thought as in some ways closely shadowing that of the earlier poet.7 One of the primary associations of Ten Chrysanthemums is with Tao Qian, who is certainly being commemorated in these lovely flowers.

Ten Chrysanthemums bears no signature of the artist. After completing it, however, Zhao Mengfu carefully placed one of his personal seals, reading Zhao, in the topmost corner of the right edge of the scroll, and a second, reading Daya, in the bottom right corner, establishing the boundaries of his art. A third seal, reading Zhao shi Zi'ang, he then stamped just below the center of the leftmost edge,  providing deliberate documentation through these three carefully chosen and precisely stamped seals that he was the artist. It appears that Zhao was very systematic in his documentation, following the traditions of the Song imperial family to which he was heir. Precisely this same three-seal pattern of documentation seen in Ten Chrysanthemums is repeated in the artist's beautiful handscroll of horses drinking and galloping in an autumn landscape, Qiujiao yinma tu (Palace Museum, Beijing), which is signed and dated to the year corresponding to 13128. After carefully placing his three seals in these same positions on the latter, however, Zhao also wrote a title in the upper right corner and a dated signature at the end, neither of which he chose to do on the chrysanthemum scroll. The same system of seal placement was apparently used regularly by the painter, and may be understood to be a form of signature. For example, in his "Red-robed Foreign Monk" in the Liaoning Museum, dated 1304, the Zhao seal is still visible in the upper right corner and the Zhao shi Zi'ang seal at the left edge. The bottom right corner is cut off, but almost certainly originally held an impression of the Daya seal. Again, in his "Mountains and Rivers" (Chongjiang diezhang tu, dated 1303) in the National Palace Museum, the Daya seal is partially visible in the lower right corner and the Zhao shi Zi'ang seal at the end, while the upper right corner is physically missing. It would have held the Zhao seal, no doubt. Seals stamped directly on the rightmost edge of many early handscrolls tend to be lost because of remounting and wear and tear, but there is enough evidence to confirm that Zhao regularly placed his two seals reading Zhao and Daya in these corners together with Zhao shi Zi'ang at the end as documentation of his authorship of certain handscrolls painted between 1303 and 1312.

There are a number of visible tears to the silk of the present scroll, especially through the central band of the scroll within which the flowers are contained, but these have been carefully repaired and stabilized. Some of the original brilliance of color has faded and a little has been lost altogether here and there, but overall the scroll is in stable physical condition and has changed relatively little since it was painted. There is now no trace of the eighteenth-century court mounting that must once have been a decorative feature of the scroll; the rather plain present mounting was done later. All that remains of the Qing court are the seals of Qianlong and his successors. A metal seal with the legend Kuizhangge, the name of an office of the Yuan government that functioned under that name from 1330 to 1340 to document government collections, is stamped directly under the artist's seal reading Zhao in the top right corner of the scroll 9.  There is some damage to the fourth sheet of colophon paper and evidence that a strip of paper at the top of that sheet was cut out and replaced. This may have been done to remove a seal, a vague impression of which remains, found offensive to some owner. While there is no certain evidence of this, it would not surprise me to learn that some colophons originally written for this scroll are no longer attached to it. The reference in the earliest colophons to the geographical area of Luan for these chrysanthemums has no other source, and would seem to be a rather arbitrary reference if there were no other citation of it. There may have been othero writing attached to the painting. The  break between the third and fourth sheets of colophon paper also appears too abrupt to be quite natural.

On the painting and the colophons attached to it are seals and colophons recording a history of ownership that begins with the Yuan government and the early Yuan scholar Pan Di, who was the first recorded private owner. Colophons written by six other  scholars active in the fourteenth century follow, including several by men who knew the artist personally and another by one of his sons-in-law, confirming the evidence of the artist's seals that Zhao Mengfu was the painter of Ten Chrysanthemums. The scroll passed through the hands of several Ming scholars and artists, including Xing Tong (1551-1612) and Wang Yanshi (late Ming) and on to two of the most notable collectors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Liang Qingbiao (1620-1691) and An Qi (1683-1742).  From An Qi it passed into the Manchu government collection during the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1730-1790), where it remained through the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, as attested to by the seals of the Jiaqing and Xuantong emperors. The scroll was subsequently acquired by Baron Okura, in Tokyo, from whom it passed into the collection of Cheng Qi (born 1911), also a resident of Tokyo. The painting is recorded in detail in the catalogue of the Qianlong collection, Shiqubaoji, xubian (1799; pp. 986-987), and was reproduced in 1917 in the Japanese exhibition catalogue So Gen Min Shin Meiga Taikan.

The first three colophons form a set, and demonstrate a peculiar form of scholarly entertainment built around poetry and painting. The first – and the model for the other two - was written by the owner, Pan Di, a literary official at court in the early fourteenth century. His formulaic poem set the structural pattern for the next two writers, who were apparently friends of the owner, and were required by this particular form of literary entertainment to repeat precisely the same end words in each of the eight lines of their poems while modifying the others in harmony with their host. None of these colophons mentions the painter. The first to do so is the fourth writer, Liang Chu, writing around 1349. He writes boldly: "The one who was its true friend was Tao Yuanming/ The one who captured its true likeness [xie zhen] was Zhao Songxue." "It" here is the chrysanthemum, beloved by Tao Qian and Zhao Mengfu.

The sixth colophon was written by Shen Menglin, a reclusive scholar and son-in-law of  Zhao Mengfu, who lived to be ninety-three and wrote his long colophon at the age of ninety in the early years of the Ming dynasty. By that time the painting was in the hands of another member of his family.

Perhaps the most beautiful and touching of the colophons is the last of the seven fourteenth-century writings, by the scholar and teacher Wang Xu (hao Lanxuan). In his strong, icy, elegant calligraphy, he writes touchingly of Zhao Mengfu as someone for whom he feels great admiration, and of the painting as a masterpiece by the artist. Since Wang spent his entire life avoiding service of the Mongols, devoting himself to literature, scholarship, teaching, and to traveling "over half the world," his tribute to an artist who was so troubled throughout his lifetime by his service to the Yuan court is especially moving 10:

The scholar of the Jade Hall, in manner pure as snow,

Was inspired to sketch ten branches of chrysanthemums.

Their different shapes and diverse colors born of Creation

Have not faded in the late season of the year.

Authentic works such as this are not easily found nowadays,

It is more valuable by far than a thousand-gold jade disk (bi).

To prolong life one can drink here the water of Gangu Spring

And perhaps return home in the company of Tao Pengze.

I've composed this poem and added it to those of the other gentlemen

Though Songxue far away may scratch his head in puzzlement.

Holding to his virtue with a ladle of autumn fragrance,

Drinking alone in the west wind, a cup of Chongyang wine.

Zhao Mengfu's Birthday

So insistent is the association of chrysanthemums and the number nine that when the compilers of Qianlong's collection describe the painting, after faithfully transcribing the several references in the colophons to ten branches of flowers, they stubbornly refer to the painting of "nine chrysanthemums." For the artist to have painted precisely ten chrysanthemums was therefore to have made a particular kind of statement. In some early publications Zhao Mengfu's birthday is given as the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, the "Double nine" autumn festival day known as Chongyang jie. Now, however, it is known that his birthday actually fell on the tenth day of the ninth lunar month, the day after the Chongyang Festival 11.  From this fact alone, in some sense, certainly, did Ten Chrysanthemums arise. There are, of course, many possible explanations of why he may have chosen to paint ten of the flowers symbolizing his birth and his life on this occasion. Each cut branch of chrysanthemum might have represented a season or a year, for example, thus indicating a span of ten years and perhaps in sum commemorating an anniversary: perhaps ten years of his marriage to the artist Guan Daosheng, whom he married in the late 1280s, or perhaps the ten years between the Mongol destruction of the Song capital city of Hangzhou in 1276 and Zhao Mengfu's decision to leave his temporary retirement in Wuxing in 1286 and go north to Dadu, the new Yuan capital, to accept official appointment at the Mongol court. Some associations of Ten Chrysanthemums are probably hidden in linguistic puns and rebusses that can no longer be penetrated. Shiju, ten chrysanthemums, sounds very much like shijiu, nineteen, to cite just one possibility, and nineteen may have been the significant reference of the scroll. Nineteen years of service to the Mongols would lead to the year 1305. This date offers the additional satisfaction of falling into precisely the ten-year period between 1303 and 1312, that the physical documentation provided by the artist suggests as an approximate date for the making of the painting. One possibility, then, is that Ten Chrysanthemums was painted sometime close to the tenth day of the ninth lunar month of the year 1305. Needless to say, there are a hundred other possible readings of these highly ambiguous connections, and no evidence whatever to indicate how a choice could be made among them. But because of the striking coincidences concerning Zhao's birth on the tenth day of the ninth lunar month and the ten chrysanthemums he chose to depict so lovingly – and uncharacteristically - we have no doubt that something quite personal is hidden within these searching portrayals.

Speculation about the meaning and purpose of Zhao Mengfu's Ten Chrysanthemums does not really touch or change the beauty of the work, and whether any of it could ever prove to be true or not will have no effect whatsoever on the ultimate value of the work: it is the only such painting by one of China's greatest artists extant today, and one of the most richly documented, having been in many of the most distinguished collections from the Yuan government down to the Qianlong Emperor, for a span of seven hundred years. The admirable Yuan recluse Wang Xu regarded it as a masterpiece, and perhaps only he had lived the kind of life outside of government service that would allow him to truly understand such a painting and its artist. Ten Chrysanthemums, whatever layers of meaning it holds, is a truly unique document of a great artist's life and art, and one of his most touching works. We can almost see him selecting these ten branches of chrysanthemums, cutting them from the plant, bringing them into his studio, then carefully studying and copying their individual nuances one by one, until he had precisely ten in all, recorded and memorized forever. Whether they commemorate his ten years of withdrawal from court service from 1276 to 1286, the nineteen years he served in office from 1286 to 1305, or both or neither, they undoubtedly link his life and thought continuously to the great poet and recluse Tao Qian. Zhao Mengfu's birthday on the tenth day of the ninth lunar month of the year 1254 connected him instantly to both the chrysanthemum – the flower of his birth one day after the Chongyang Festival day commemorated by the chrysanthemum, to Tao Qian, avatar of the chrysanthemum and constant inspiration to Zhao Mengfu, and to the number ten, the exact day of his birth. The chrysanthemum, in a very special way, is Zhao Mengfu's personal flower, and his very identity. When his friend and fellow-townsman Mou Yan observed Zhao's birthday it was with a gift of chrysanthemums, as the title of his accompanying poem indicates: "On the tenth day, chrysanthemums for Zhao Zi'ang's birthday."12

With Zhao Mengfu we have arrived at the first Chinese painter who chose to create his art from the experiences, thoughts, and emotions of his personal life, and we have found Ten Chrysanthemums to be a unique, lovely, sensitive, and touching reflection of that life. All that it meant to the artist and his family and friends cannot be known, but it joins his birth, the flower of his birth, his abiding affection and admiration for Tao Qian, the ongoing frustrations and provocations of his lifelong service to the Mongol rulers of China, and his complete absorption, here, in the slow, loving observation and delineation of ten beautiful chrysanthemum flowers in the creation of a work of art that remains a touching and complete embodiment of an artist's life, mind, and moving hand.

1Only one other flower painting in color by Zhao is known, an album leaf, now badly damaged, of sunflowers, in the Palace Museum, Beijing. It is reproduced in Zhao Mengfu huaji (Shanghai Museum, 1995), no. 14. He also depicted a rather elegant and exotic bird perched on a branch of precisely-painted bamboo, also in the Palace Museum (ibid no 7).

2 See for example the vase of chrysanthemums with inscription by Emperor Ningzong, now in the Palace Museum, reproduced in Zhonghua Wuqiannian Wenwu Jikan, Songhua pian 4 (Taipei, 1986), 85. A cut-branch depiction of flowering peach by the court artist Xie Yuan is reproduced and discussed in Hui-shu Lee, Exquisite Moments: West Lake and Southern Song Art (New York: China Institute, 2001), 112-113.

3For Qian Xuan see Robert Harrist, "Ch'ien Hsuan's Pear Blossoms: The Tradition of Flower Painting and Poetry from Sung to Yuan," Metropolitan Museum Journal 22 (1987), 53-70.

4A number of Song jupu or chrysanthemum books are recorded in the Siku quanshu index, including one by the scholar Fan Chengda. These popular treatises were undoubtedly known to Zhao Mengfu. His good friend, the painter Li Kan, also famously compiled a very scientific, illustrated treatise on bamboo, the Zhupu.

5He was probably looking closely too at the exotic-looking bird refered to above, note 2; and to some extent, we must suppose, close observation was a requirement of his paintings of horses and their grooms.

6Reproduced in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji, Huihuapian, Yuan, no. 7Fittingly the recent deluxe catalog of an exhibition of Zhao's painting and calligraphy in his hometown of Wuxing (now Huzhou) is given the same title as Tao's most famous poem, "Returning Home," conflating the identities of Zhao and his idol. See Guiqulaixi: Zhao Mengfu shuhua zhenpin huijia tezhan ji ("Homecoming: special homecoming exhibition of Zhao Mengfu's painting and calligraphy," Hangzhou, Xiling Yinshe, 2007). For Zhao's lifelong affection and affinity for Tao Qian, see also Susan E. Nelson, "What I do today is right: Picturing Tao Yuanming's Return," Journal of Sung-Yuan Studies 28 (1998), 61-90.

8Reproduced in Guiqulaixi (see note 7), no. 6. For this and many other reproductions see also Li Tinghua, Zhao Mengfu (in the Zhongguo ming huajia quanji series: Hebei jiaoyu chubanshe, 2002).

9For this bureau and its seals, see Fu Shen, Yuandai huangshi shuhua shoucang shilue (A short history of the collection of painting and calligraphy by the Yuan imperial court), Taibei: National Palace Museum, 1981, pp. 42-52, and plate 25. A second impression of this seal is stamped in the upper left corner of the last colophon sheet, but may be a later replica.

10Wang's biography is found in Zhongguo Renming Tacidian, 90c. For a lifetime of careful research revealing the richness of Zhao Mengfu's art we are all indebted to Professor Chu-tsing Li. Most influential on my own understanding of Zhao's art and life is his "The Freer Sheep and Goat and Chao Meng-fu's Horse Painting," Artibus Asiae 30, no. 4 (1968), 279-326.

11For the older date, see Fu Baoshi, Zhongguo Meishu Nianbiao (Hong Kong, Zhonghua Shuju, 1973), p. 78. The correct date is found in Guiqulaixi (see note 7), p. 284. My thanks to Richard John Lynn for his help in understanding Wang Xu's poem.

12This poem is from Mou's collected works: Mou shi Lingyang ji, zhuan 1, as found in the Siku quanshu. My thanks to John Finlay for help in tracking down this poem and others written by Mou for Zhao Mengfu. That Mou Yan was also a painter might lend support to those who want to see the present work as a painting by another artist that was owned by Zhao, especially in light of the suggestive conflation of the number ten and a gift of chrysanthemums for Zhao Mengfu in the title of Mou's poem. But the placement of three of his carefully-chosen seals, in precisely the locations he used when documenting his own paintings, leaves little room for doubt that Ten Chrysanthemums was painted by Zhao Mengfu. He did not document works in his collection in the same way he documented his own paintings, and the gulf between these two practices is unbridgeable. Another reading of Yin's poem might suggest that it was written in response to a request from Zhao Mengfu for a poem on the subject of Zhao's painting of ten chrysanthemums given to him for his birthday, that is, for the present painting. But this too is mere speculation, unsupported by the physical evidence of the painting and its colophons.


So Gen Min Shin Meiga Taikan,  (Exhibition of Ancient Japanese and Chinese Paintings from the Contemporary and Ancient Periods), Tokyo, 1917, p. 30.



PAINTING: 29.3 BY 201 CM., 11 1/2 BY 79 1/8 IN. TOTAL LENGTH: 29.3 BY 514 CM., 11 1/2 BY 202 3/8 IN.


Shiqubaoji, xubian, 1799, pp 986-987.

Zhuwei daren jiequ shuji zihua wanwu deng caozhang, Qingdai gongting dangan – Xuantong chao(Record of Books and Paintings Borrowed by Several Senior Officers), in the Palace Archives of the Qing Dynasty during the Xuantong years.

Song-Yuan-Ming-Qing Da Guan, (Famous Paintings from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties), Tokyo, 1917.

Cheng Qi, The Paintings and Calligraphy Collection of Xuan Hui Tang, Hong Kong, 1972.

James Cahill, An Index of Early Chinese Painters and Paintings: T'ang, Sung, Yüan, Berkeley, 1980.


Yuan Government.

Pan Di (Yuan Dynasty).

Xing Tong (1551-1612).

Wang Yanshi (late Ming Dynasty).

Liang Qingbiao (1620-1691).*

An Qi (1683-1742).**

Qing Imperial Collection.

Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) - Emperor Xuantong (Pu Yi) (r. 1908-1912).

Pu Jie (1907-1994).

Baron Kihachiro Okura, (1837-1928), Tokyo.***

Cheng Qi (b. 1911), Tokyo.

*Liang Qingbiao, was a prime minister and a great collector of ancient books and paintings.  At one point in his career, he was in-charge of acquisitions of works for the Imperial Collection.  He published a book called Poetry Collection in Jaolin ji.

** An Qi was a salt magnate and connoisseur of art.  He was born to a Korean servant employed in the family of a Manchu minister and therefore belonged to the latter's banner - the Plain Yellow banner.  Through his wealth from selling salt, he amassed a large collection of paintings and calligraphies many from the collections of Xiang Yuanbian (1525-1590), Bian Yungyu , Liang Qingbiao (1620-1691). He was force to sell his collection in order to fund the reconstruction of the Tianjin city wall, which he paid for out of his own pocket. Many of his paintings ended up in Qianlong's imperial collection.

*** Baron Kiharchiro Okura was an entrepreneur and an avid art collector.  He founded the first private art museum in Japan in 1917, The Okura Shukokan, that housed 2,000 pieces of Oriental paintings and sculptures, including such national treasures as the wooden statue of Samantabhadra and 35,000 volumes of Chinese literature.  The museum is located next to the Hotel Okura and was rebuilt in 1928.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.