Chronology : Origin 600 BCE - CE 1-1000
Shang - Ritual Bronzes from Anyang
2017 SOLD for $ 37M including premium
The long reign of Wu Din marks the culmination of the Shang around 3250 years ago. He resides in the new capital Yinxu which is today in the territory of the city of Anyang.
The tomb of Fu Hao, discovered in 1976, had never been visited by looters. This wife of Wu Din had a considerable political influence, even becoming the supreme general of the armies. Her tomb is a complete catalog of the art of the Shang, including 1800 pieces mainly in jade, bone, bronze and stone, not forgetting 6,900 cowry shells that served as money and 16 skeletons of sacrificed slaves.
The ritual bronzes of the Shang had a wide variety of shapes suitable for storage and cooking. The rites defined the quantities of sacrificial vessels authorized according to the social position. Under the Zhou who overthrew the Shang the king could use 9 ding and 8 gui while a nobleman was limited to 3 ding and 2 gui. The tomb of Fu Hao contained the incredible quantity of 200 ritual bronzes.
On March 15 in New York, Christie's disperses the Chinese art collection of the Fujita Museum in Osaka, including four Shang bronzes. The catalog indicates for each of these pieces an acquisition prior to 1940 by the museum. Their similarity to the bronzes of Fu Hao and the comparable or sometimes superior quality of their technique and of their mystical decoration suggests that these four vessels came from a same royal tomb. They have kept their cover, except of course the zun which never has one.
Lot 523, estimated $ 6M, is a 52 cm high vessel with a complex three-body shape. By its large flared mouth (zun) of square section (fang), it is a fangzun.
Lot 524, estimated $ 5M, is a fanglei 63 cm high including its cover. By comparison the Father Ji's fanglei, sold for $ 9.2M including premium by Christie's on March 20, 2001, is 64 cm high without its lid which is lost and is dated from the Shang-Zhou transition two centuries later.
Lot 525, estimated $ 4M, is a pou 57 cm high. Its two-body shape with a round belly on a truncated cone base is archaic but its decoration is comparable to the other pieces in the sale.
Lot 526 is the sensational zoomorphic gong that was the subject of a previous discussion in this column.
Please watch the video shared by Christie's to introduce the sale.
RESULTS including premium :
Fangzun : $ 37M
Fanglei : $ 34M
Pou : $ 27M
Shang - The Ritual Ram
2017 SOLD for $ 27M including premium
The gong and the zun may both become zoomorphic with a high degree of three-dimensional realism. The zun is designed for its ease of pouring, with a spout lined with broad lips. The gong or guang is an open vessel equipped with a removable lid over its entire upper surface.
On March 15 in New York, Christie's sells a gong in the form of a ram 22 cm long, lot 526 estimated $ 6M. This piece is de-accessioned from the Fujita Museum in Osaka.
The back of the beast consists of the lid which is elongated to the superb head with its C-shaped horns. The body including the cover is embellished in shallow relief with the same traditional motifs as in the geometrically shaped vessels : taotie, stylized beasts. The thick legs ensure the stability of the vase. The back is surmounted by a dragon and a bird positioned like a handle.
The catalog of the auction house considers twelve other complete quadruped gong or zun examples of Shang period, all of them kept in museums : buffalos, elephants, fabulous animals, a boar, an elephant. The last one offered at auction was a buffalo zun in 1988.
Considering the sacred or sacrificial use of some of these animals, the extreme rarity of these pieces may surprise. It is probably due to a high difficulty of execution.
Shang - Chinese Ritual Bronze
2010 SOLD 2.15 M$ including premium
On March 20, 2001, Christie's sold $ 9.2 million including premium in New York a baluster shaped wine jar that had belonged to the collection of the antique dealer CT Loo.
On September 16 a Li type tripod vessel which had been purchased to Loo long time ago is presented by the same auction house.
The decor is of Taotie type. Zoomorphic figures are positioned symmetrically to the features which extend over each of the three legs. They are intentionally limited to the eyes and horns, reinforcing the impression of abstraction provided by the fine geometric pattern that covers the rest of the surface. The effect is both severe and powerful.
POST SALE COMMENT
The sale of antique Chinese bronzes is successful. The Li vessel discussed above has been sold $ 2.15 million including premium.
A few lots later, a Zhou covered wine vessel, newer by about two centuries, has reached almost $ 2 million including premium.
In the same sale, a Shang bronze wine vessel was sold $ 3.3M including premium.
later Shang - A Fangyi for a Lady
2013 SOLD 2.36 M$ including premium
There is no doubt on the prestige of the millet wine ritual vessels known as fangyi. Of course, these pieces are not dated, but the comparison of forms allows a fairly accurate chronology.
On September 19 in New York, Christie's sells a fangyi made in the later Shang period, 3100-3000 years ago. The slightly tapered shape of the square vase is an example of the last designs of yi models. It has retained its cover, as it is often the case, is 22 cm high overall, and had belonged to Eskenazi. Here is the link to the catalog.
The ornament is made of rounded lines of exceptional clarity in reserved plates covering a flat background named leiwen. It contains several registers with the eyes of taotie figures and the usual fabulous animals. Very rare for the Chinese art of that period, elephants are included, but too stylized to be really recognizable.
The repetitive dedication is admirable for its sharpness. It demonstrates that the piece was created for the probably posthumous honor of a woman, but it could not be fully deciphered.
POST SALE COMMENT
This vessel with unusual characteristics was sold for $ 2.36 million including premium.
I invite you to watch the video shared by Christie's to introduce this collection :
Shang-Zhou The Masterpiece of Father Ji
2001 SOLD 9.2 M$ including premium by Christie's
On March 20 in New York, Christie's sells one of the most outstanding Chinese archaic vases which have survived until now, characterized by its monumental size, 64 cm high, and by the superb quality of its bronze casting.
This ritual wine vessel is a fanglei with square section, one of the most prestigious types that reached its apogee 3100 years ago in the transitional period between the Shang and the Western Zhou. It does not have its cover.
Its decoration in high relief over multiple registers meets a classic iconography but is particularly abundant and expressive : taotie, animals, dragons, masks. It includes an inscription in six characters: Father Ji made on commission (or commissioned) this sacred vessel.
This exceptional piece had already been featured at auction. On 20 March 2001, it was sold for $ 9.2 million including premium by Christie's.
The masterpiece of Chinese archaic art was removed from auction and sold to a group of collectors in favor of the Hunan Provincial Museum.
I invite you to watch the video shared by Christie's :
Bronze Age for the Western Zhou
2013 SOLD 6.7 M$ including premium
Often made for princely usage, these objects were however not uncommon and many of them have survived. They are very finely decorated, usually including mythical beasts, and their inscriptions invite the decoding of the beginnings of Chinese civilization.
Their use was perhaps funeral but certainly ceremonial. Almost all of them are adorned with several Taotie, these pairs of eyes whose obsessive gaze enables a ritual communication between the living and the dead.
The Gui vessels of the Western Zhou have a complex shape with two bodies. The upper part is bellied, between two large handles. The base is a parallelepiped with sharp right angles. The entire surface is decorated on both parts.
A beautiful specimen is estimated $ 2M, for sale by Sotheby's in New York on September 17. Executed 3000 years ago, this zuo bao yi gui food vessel has a peculiarity: the Taotie eyes of the base are all on both sides of the edges, increasing the hypnotic power.
This is the top lot among ten Chinese archaic bronzes from the collection of an Austrian architect. Other pieces from the same collection, from Zhou to Han, will be sold by Nagel in Stuttgart between October 30 and November 2.
Here is the link to the landing page of Sotheby's sale.
POST SALE COMMENT
The ten lots auctioned by Sotheby's from the Julius Eberhardt collection were an exceptional group. Half of them exceeded $ 1M. The top three are bronze vessels of the Western Zhou.
As expected, the most interesting piece is the zuo bao yi gui, sold for $ 6.7 million including premium.
Let us also mention from the same period a wine pot sold for $ 3.1 million including premium and a cylindrical vase with an elegant flared neck sold for $ 2.16 million including premium.
Eastern Zhou - The Jade Beast
2019 SOLD for HK$ 26.6M including premium
Under the Shang and Zhou, increasingly elegant plaques in polished jade can take the form of indomitable beasts : tiger, rhinoceros, dragon. Used as chest ornaments, they are a sign of the power of the wearer and accompany him into the grave. This practice continues under the Han.
Among the zoomorphic pieces, the elongated 'tiger plaque' is not uncommon. The detail of the clipping is an adaptation of the artist to the shape of the pebble, just as the parietal painters used the asperities of the walls of the caves to conceive their figuration.
On April 3 in Hong Kong, Sotheby's sells a yellow jade plaque carved in low relief on both sides, lot 3620 estimated HK $ 25M. It is 22 cm long, which is an extreme width for a pectoral use. It was made in the final period of the Eastern Zhou overlapping the Warring States period around 2,300 years ago.
The reclining animal is not identifiable : the artist has voluntarily created a hybrid with muscular forms, displaying the massive silhouette of a rhinoceros, the skin with pustules of a dragon, the large snout of a ruminant and a long horn on the forehead. The smooth areas of shoulders and hips are illustrated respectively with a bird and a dragon with similar elegant undulations. The edge of the plaque bears an inscription in two characters that has not been deciphered.
Eastern Han - Nephrite Bear
2011 SOLD 8 M$ including premium by Elite Decorative
Eastern Han - An Archaic Jade appreciated by the Qianlong Emperor
2007 SOLD for HK$ 34.5M including premium by Sotheby's
Jade is the good stone, favored in China for 8000 years for its beauty and hardness and also for the possibility to sculpt it. Early jade discs centered by a round hole could be worn as an amulet. They are the Bi. Their symbolic decoration attracts the best auspices on the wearer. Their rarity makes them a discriminatory social attribute and their high ranked owners retained them in the grave.
The Qianlong emperor was a great connoisseur of ancient jades. His personal expertise of such pieces has been the subject of no less than 800 of his poems. On April 7 in Hong Kong, Sotheby'ssells one of the most exceptional jades from this former imperial collection, lot 3202 estimated HK $ 30M.
This bi has a complex shape for a total height of 24 cm. The wide inner ring is engraved on both sides of a tight pattern of nails. The outer ring and the protrusion are pierced and carved with dragons, chi, a phoenix and two large letters. The color varies between dark celadon and honey brown.
The emperor took a special care to highlight this piece. In the Gengyin year, 1770 in our calendar, he did assemble it into a removable table screen in zitan 31 cm high. His comment was inscribed on the rim of the bi and on the reverse side of the screen. The end of the imperial poem is questioning "to whom did you belong?" assessing that it was for the emperor a symbol of the forgotten imperial past.
The Qianlong emperor knew that this piece was created a millennium and a half before him, symbolizing longevity both in its decoration and its age. It had been executed during the second Han dynasty 1900 to 1800 years ago from our time.
This lot had been sold for HK$ 34.5M including premium by Sotheby's on April 8, 2007, lot 603.
526 Northern Wei marble Buddhist Triad
2017 SOLD for $ 5.8M including premium by Christie's
756 - Gods, Sages and Emperors
2011 SOLD 115 M RMB yuan by China Guardian
The qin is the traditional Chinese plucked string instrument. The antique variants are now designated as guqin.
The guqin is the first of the four treasures of the scholar, ahead of Chinese go, calligraphy and ink painting. It was known since ancient times and the Chinese tradition likes to assign it with a pre-dynastic origin. Confucius is quoted among the sages who improved the instrument.
The classical seven-string guqin provides a music of great subtlety facilitated by the dots of harmony distributed on the surface. The wooden back is also an invitation to the inscription of poems.
The Imperial guqins are of great rarity. One of them named Da Sheng Yi Yin (reminiscent of the great sage) was sold for RMB yuan 115 million by China Guardian in 2011.
It was produced for or by the Emperor Suzong of the Tang. Lacquered in black and brown, it wears a poem and a seal and its harmonics match the months of the Chinese calendar. Its date is corresponding to 756 in our own calendar. Both sides are illustrated in an article shared by China Daily.
Da Sheng Yi Yin is again announced by China Guardian in the autumn sales held in Beijing from 16 to 20 November. (see comment below)
In December 2010, Poly sold for RMB yuan 137 million including premium (US $ 20.7 million in the conversion rate of that time) an imperial Song guqin made for the Emperor Huizong in 1120 of our calendar.
PRE 2013 SALE COMMENT
This lot is not confirmed in the catalogue. My announcement was probably a misinterpretation of an early press release.
Tang - Ten Virtues on the Face of Buddha
2013 SOLD 40.4 MHK$ including premium
To embody the ten virtues on the face of Buddha, a new technique identified as "dry lacquer" was developed in the Tang period. The goal was to obtain a perfect carving on a piece sufficiently light to be easily moved during the processions.
A mandrel of wood is plated with clay before being covered with the layers of lacquer-imbued hemp wherein the carving is performed. The artist has all the necessary comfort to improve his work until the desired effect is achieved. Then, wood and clay are removed.
The dry lacquer made in Tang period is extremely rare. Of course, many of these fragile pieces made to be handled have been broken over the centuries. They are so rare that we may assume that the Buddha figures using this technique were performed by a single workshop, perhaps unrelated to the imperial court.
A serene Buddha head is estimated HK $ 20M, for sale by Sotheby's in Hong Kong on October 8. The larger than life size, 46 cm high, is accentuating the majestic look. Its symbolic expression of the perfection of virtues through facial features is a masterpiece of the art of portraiture.
Here is the link to the catalog.
POST SALE COMMENT
The unusual technique and the beauty of the face of Buddha pushed this piece up to HK $ 40.4 million including premium.
The Bodhisattva of the Tang
2017 SOLD for HK$ 21.7M including premium
The dry lacquer sculpture constructed and carved as a thin layer removed from over a wooden mandrel is used to obtain figures of high naturalism in the lines and in the expression of the face. The lightness of the piece allows an easy transport in procession but the difficulty of execution has limited the production and the surviving pieces are of the greatest rarity.
Two larger-than-life heads made with an identical technique were certainly produced in the same workshop for the same religious use, perhaps at the time of the Taoist emperor Xuanzong whose reign started 1300 years ago and lasted more than 40 years. The fleshy faces have an obvious similarity although the bodhisattva looks younger.
The figure of Buddha, 46 cm high, was sold for HK $ 40.4M including premium by Sotheby's on October 8, 2013 over a lower estimate of HK $ 20M.
The figure of Avalokiteshvara is 43 cm high including a tall bun. It is estimated HK $ 18M for sale by Sotheby's in Hong Kong on April 4, lot 3015.
Virtually forgotten in China after its very short period discussed above, the technique of dry lacquer was exported to Japan at the time of the persecutions of the later Tang against Buddhism.
Tang - Black and Roan
2013 SOLD 4.2 M$ including premium
During the same dynasty, the technique of ceramic ornament lives a breakthrough with the development of sancai. After the first firing, colors are added to the pottery which is annealed again, forming a glaze.
The usual number of colors in the sancai is three, but some masterpieces are much more varied. This easy technique can be applied to large ceramic sculptures.
On September 17 in New York, Sotheby's sells a wonderful pair of sancai horses. The two pieces are made from the same model. Here is the link to the catalog.
Nearly 70 cm high, they are standing in an attitude of waiting, the head slightly turned. The proportions are of perfect realism, with extreme attention to detail such as the teeth inside the mouth and the pupil and iris of the eye. They are harnessed but withnot excessive luxury, suggesting that they are used for battle.
The color is different, being varied and nuanced for each coat, hooves, mane and accessories. Each one in its own way is a technical feat.
One of them is black, one of the most difficult shades to achieve, providing a dignified and magnificent appearance.
The other one is between red and beige with inclusions of creamy patches. The roan is a genetic singularity affecting some horses by dotting them with white hair. This very rare representation of a roan "strawberry" horse attests to an intention to record the actual look of a real animal, no doubt highlighted by the emperor himself.
POST SALE COMMENT
This magnificent example of realism in ancient Chinese art was expected beyond $ 2.5 million. The lot was sold for $ 4.2 million including premium.
Art Deco with the Tang
2019 SOLD for $ 3.5M including premium
A Tang bowl 24.5 cm in diameter and weighing 1.05 Kg was sold by Sotheby's on May 14, 2008 for £ 1.14M worth at that time $ 2.2M, these figures including the premium. It is estimated $ 2M for sale by Christie's in New York on September 12, lot 551.
The technique is foreign but the refinement is Chinese. The bowl has the shape of an opened lotus flower, decorated on its outer wall with three overlapping rows of lotus petals. Each frieze is composed of eight elements. A narrow garland separates the upper frieze from the rim of the bowl. The interior is centered with a gilt medallion showing a round dance of eight birds in blooming branches.
Each petal is a cartouche that was made in repoussé before being gilded and very finely chiseled with motifs of peonies and pairs of birds. This illustration is perhaps more decorative than symbolic although the repetition of the eight is certainly not a coincidence. The shape of the petals takes into account the curvature of the wall, more flared at the bottom.
This piece was made with a thick silver sheet rounded on a mould. It is a feat with regard to the regularity of its repoussé. The experts observed two tiny reworks made by the artist to correct the hammering.
In the same 2008 sale and coming from the same collection, a lobed bowl of similar diameter and technology was sold for £ 1.6M including premium. This piece has retained its original cover. Its foliated iconography is less dense.
These extremely rare bowls are also known in pure gold and pure silver. This type did not survive the Tang, probably because of the development of the porcelain.
On September 12 in #NewYork our Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver sale will take place. Comprised of over 100 exquisite objects the collection, formed by Dr. Johan Carl Kempe, includes gold and silver works from the Tang period #AsianArtWeek https://t.co/Qt2FX4BOnJ pic.twitter.com/oZwbgmOVLB— Christie's (@ChristiesInc) September 5, 2019