A rare silver spherical censer, Tang dynasty, 8th-9th century

Lot 56. A rare silver spherical censer, Tang dynasty, 8th-9th century, 5cm., 2in. Estimate 15,000 — 20,000 GBP. Lot sold 84,500 GBP. Photo: Sotheby's.

comprised of two reticulated half-spheres banded and joined at the median by a hook on one side and a hinge on the other, one half worked with an overall pattern of scrolled leafy tendrils surrounding confronting pairs of birds feeding on grape vines, on the lower half incorporating palmette leaves, the interior with an arrangement of two silver bands containing a freely moving incense receptacle, the construction keeping the receptacle upright when carried around, the whole suspended from a short linked chain and hook. Weight: 46g.

ExhibitedChinese Gold and Silver in the Carl Kempe Collection, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1954-55, cat. no. 97.

LiteratureBo Gyllensvärd, Chinese Gold and Silver in the Carl Kempe Collection, Stockholm, 1953, pl. 97.

Han Wei, Hai nei wai Tangdai jin yin qi cuibian [Tang Gold and Silver in Chinese and overseas collections], Xi'an, 1989, pl. 292.

Chinese Gold and Silver in the Carl Kempe Collection, The Museum of Art and Far Eastern Antiquities in Ulricehamn, Ulricehamn, 1999, pl. 99.

Note: Incense burners of this type, consisting of two openwork hemispheres with a freely moving incense bowl inside were greatly valued by the imperial household and the aristocracy of the Tang dynasty. Han Wei in 'Gold and Silver Vessels of the Tang Period', Orientations, July 1994, p. 31, notes that 'when a crown prince took an imperial concubine, he would usually present her with an incense burner, and protocol demanded that the pairs of attendants leading an imperial procession held incense burners in their hands'. 

A related incense burner, in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, was included in the China Institute in America exhibition Early Chinese Gold and Silver, China House Gallery, New York, 1971, cat. no. 41, decorated with chased work of four birds surrounded by floral scrolls. It is mentioned, ibid., p. 38, that a pair of these incense burners were excavated near Xi'an. Compare also another incense burner, formerly in the Hakutsuru Art Museum, Kobe, illustrated in Nagao Ko, Hakutsuru cho, vol.1, Kyoto, 1931, pl. 49, and included in the exhibition Tang, Eskenazi, London, 1987, cat.no. 1, later sold at Christie's London, 9th June 1997, lot 17; and one in the collection of Dr. Pierre Uldry included in the exhibition Chinesisches Gold und Silber, Rietberg Museum, Zurich, 1994, cat. no. 201.


Censer, Tang dynasty (618–907), 8th–9th century. Silver. Diam. 2 3/8 in. (6 cm). Rogers Fund, 1921, 21.146 © 2000–2017 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

See further a related vessel included in Zhongguo zhuantong. Jinqi, Beijing, 2006, p. 16, top, together with another example, p. 66, bottom; and another example included in the exhibition Imperial Gold from Ancient China, Oriental Bronzes, London, 1990, p. 32, cat. no. 8.  

Sotheby's. Masterpieces of Chinese Precious Metalwork, Early Gold and Silver; Early Chinese White, Green and Black Wares, London, 14 May 2008