An Extremely Rare and Important Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel And Cover (You) Shang Dynasty, Yinxu Period

Lot 583. An Extremely Rare and Important Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel And Cover (You) Shang Dynasty, Yinxu Period. Height 11 1/4 in., 28.7 cm Estimate $1.5/2.5 million. Sold for $1,935,000. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

NEW YORK, NY.- Sotheby’s Asia Week New York sale series continued today with the auction of Important Chinese Art. In front of a full crowd of collectors and admirers, 170 lots spanning millennia achieved $15.8 million in total – well in excess of its high estimate of $14.2 million, and with over half of the lots surpassing expectations. 

The top lot of today came in the afternoon session when an Extremely Rare and Important Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel and Cover from the Shang Dynasty, Yinxu Period, sold for $1.9 million. This strong price followed a robust morning session in which a seven minute-bidding battle between seven collectors elevated a Rare Pair of Famile-Verte ‘Romance of the Western Chamber’ Cups, Kangxi Period, far past its pre-sale estimate of $100/150,000 to a final price of $1.2 million; soon thereafter, five bidders chased a Rare and Large Celadon-Glazed Lobed Baluster-Form Vase to $1.2 million over double its high estimate.

Sotheby’s Asia Week continues tomorrow with a dedicated sale to The Richard R. & Magdalena Ernst Collection of Himalayan Art, followed by the annual auction of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art. The last auction of the day, The Chew Family Collection of Chinese Paintings & Calligraphy, will commence at 5pm. 

HIGHLIGHTS 

An Extremely Rare and Important Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel And Cover (You) Shang Dynasty, Yinxu Period

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Lot 583. An Extremely Rare and Important Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel And Cover (You) Shang Dynasty, Yinxu Period (1300-1046 BCE). Height 11 1/4 in., 28.7 cm Estimate $1.5/2.5 million. Sold for $1,935,000Courtesy Sotheby’s.

of oval section, the compressed pear-shaped body well-cast in low relief with a pair of taotie masks divided by four vertical notched flanges against a leiwen ground, the hollow pedestal foot with confronting dragons and short flanges, the neck with a continuous frieze of kuilong, centered on each side with an animal mask in relief, the shoulder set with two loops attached to an arched swing handle decorated with further dragons issuing from animal-mask terminals on either end, the domed cover similarly cast with taotie masks separated by notched flanges, all below a cap finial formed by four abstract cicadas, the surface with areas of malachite encrustation (2).

Provenance: Collection of Huang Jun (1880-1952), Beijing.
Collection of Dr. A.F. Philips (1874-1951). 
Sotheby's London, 30th March 1978, lot 13.
Collection of J.T. Tai (1910-1992), New York.
Collection of Wahl-Rostagni, Rome.
French Private Collection.

ExhibitedArchaic Chinese Bronzes from Shang and Zhou Dynasties, Oriental Bronzes Ltd., London, 1989, cat. no. 3.

Literature: Huang Jun, Yezhong pianyu erji [Feathers from Yezhong series II], vol. 1, Beijing, 1937, p. 17.
Christian Deydier, Les Bronzes Archaïques Chinois. Archaic Chinese Bronzes I Xia Shang, Paris, 1995, col. pl. 107.
Christian Deydier, Understanding Ancient Chinese Bronzes. Their Importance in Chinese Culture, Their Shapes, Functions and Motifs, Paris, 2015, p. 83.

Classic, yet Individual: A Remarkable Archaic Bronze You

This finely and lavishly decorated bronze wine vessel is both in shape and decoration a perfect representative of the high and , mature ‘Anyang’ style that flourished from the mid-Shang period (c. 1600 – c. 1046 BC) in the then-capital of Yinxu in present-day Henan province. Although it displays the classic proportions of you of that period and exhibits the archetypal taotie design, it is very rare in its combination of these formal and decorative features, and it is difficult to find close counterparts. The remarkable condition of the piece further adds to its importance in the surviving canon.

You are believed to have been used as wine containers at ancestral rituals. The term, however, can be matched with this shape only since it was used for vessels of this form in the Northern Song (960-1127) catalogue Kaogutu (‘Illustrated antiques’), where eight you are illustrated and described. Wang Tao writes (Chinese Bronzes from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 2009, p. 62) that ‘in Shang oracle bone inscriptions and Western Zhou bronze inscriptions, we read that a vessel named you was employed as a bucket for aromatic wine used for sacrifice’. The character does, however, not occur in inscriptions on the archaic bronze vessels themselves, which may originally have been named differently.  

The shape was in use since the later Erligang period (c. 1600 – c. 1400 BC) and can vary a lot, being much taller, cylindrical, square, bearing a long spout, or shaped like an animal with four legs. According to Robert W. Bagley (Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 374), the wine vessels found in the tomb of Fu Hao, consort of King Wu Ding, the only undisturbed royal Shang tomb at Anyang so far, which has been variously dated from 1250 to c. 1200 BC, ‘do not include oval-bodied you, suggesting that the type did not appear until after the first century of the Anyang period’.

The basic form of our vessel, of pointed oval section, which became popular in the 12th and early 11th centuries BC, was modified again in the Western Zhou period (c. 1046 – 771 BC), when its profile became more compact and its oval section more squared. Yet this Shang form itself could be adjusted in so many ways that the variety of forms is breath-taking: contemporary examples can differ in proportion, section and profile, the alignment and shape of the handle, the shape of the knob, and the existence and shape of flanges. In addition, there were of course endless possibilities how to decorate such vessels. Two basic types seem, however, to be prevalent, one with overall decoration, but differing from our you in many respects; the other only partly decorated, but otherwise more closely related.

You with overall decoration are usually of broader, more exaggerated pear shape, the designs executed in higher relief, paired with more prominent flanges and wing-like hooks on either side of the cover. The handle is usually cast with animal heads in the round that hide the loops for attachment, and it may even be attached the opposite way, running from front to back. You of this type from the Sackler collection are illustrated in Bagley, op.cit., pls 64 and 65, with excavated and heirloom counterparts, figs. 64.2, 64.3, 64.4 and 64.6.

The more ovoid form of the present you and its linear decoration are closer to late Shang examples that are lacking the flanges and are decorated only with narrow bands of design around cover, shoulder and foot, leaving the main part of the body plain. On such you, the handle tends to have simple, openly visible loops without animal masks, seemingly similar to the present piece, although our you does bear masks on either side, albeit in miniature. Bagley also illustrates and discusses a range of such more sparsely decorated you of the late Shang period from the Sackler collection, op.cit., pls 68-70, and comparisons, mostly excavated, figs 68.5, 70.2, 70.3, 71.2 and 71.3.

The present you manifests a very rare combination of form and design. A comparable you that — like the present piece — combines features of both types, is illustrated in Higuchi Takayasu & Hayashi Minao, Fugendō Sakamoto Gorō Chūgoku seidōki seishō/Ancient Chinese Bronzes in the Sakamoto Collection, Tokyo, 2002, pl. 73 (fig. 1): it is similar in shape, has similar flanges and similar overall linear decoration, but a band of triangles around the cover and its handle is formed like twisted rope.

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fig. 1. Illustration of the present lot in Huang Jun, Yezhong pianyu erji [Feathers from Yezhong series II], vol. 1, Beijing, 1937, p. 17.

Another related you, which is lacking its handle, is in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, illustrated in Haiwai yizhen: Tongqi, xu/Chinese Art in Overseas Collections: Bronze [sic] II, Taipei, 1988, p. 52 (fig. 2): it also shows similar proportions and similarly shaped flanges with a central hook, and is very similarly decorated but in slight relief, again with triangles replacing the animal design around the cover. This you is also illustrated in Bagley, p. 398, fig. 70.1, as comparison to the sparsely decorated variant, which he suggests must derive from this ‘fully decorated parent type’. 

An archaic bronze you, late Shang dynasty, 12th-11th century BC, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund Photo: Travis Fullerton © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

fig. 2. An archaic bronze you, late Shang dynasty, 12th-11th century BC, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund. Photo: Travis Fullerton © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

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 An archaic bronze you, Shang dynasty, Yinxu period. Collection of Nara National Museum. Photograph provided by the Nara National Museum.

Two further you may be mentioned as comparisons, with similar overall decoration in low relief on a plain ground, without leiwen background, one with rope-twist handle, from Shandong,  illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Western Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Washington, D.C., 1990, p. 505, fig. 70.3, but attributed to the Shang dynasty; the other from the collection Earl Morse, almost identical to the last, but having lost its handle, sold in our London rooms, 14th November 1972, lot 227.

The large-scale taotie design on the present bronze displays the fully developed style of this motif, with C-shaped horns, pointed ears, and inward curved fangs. It extends into a body on either side of the central flange, so that it can be interpreted either as a single mask facing the viewer or as two kui dragons in profile, facing each other. Vadime Elisseeff, who discusses the development of this design in ‘A Lei in the Musée Cernuschi Collection’, Orientations, August 1992, p. 48, illustrates a very similar taotie motif, but with outward bent fangs. Related taotie masks as well as similar dragon motifs as seen on the shoulder and cover of our you, with open jaws and with down-pointing snouts, can already be seen on bronzes from the tomb of Fu Hao, see Yinxu Fu Hao mu/Tomb of Lady Hao at Yinxu in Anyang, Beijing, 1980, passim, both executed in this distinctive flat linear style and with design elements raised in relief an unusual technique in common with our you. A you of more slender form but closely related design and structure excavated from tomb 1022 at Xibeigang, Anyang, and now in the collection of the Insitute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica and dated to the first half of the Yinxu period is illustrated in King Wu Ding and Lady Hao, Art and Culture of the Late Shang Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2013, pl. III-4, p. 130. A ding tripod vessel with similar taotie and dragon designs in linear relief is illustrated in Christian Deydier, Les Bronzes Archaiques Chinoisop.cit., p. 85, and another similar taotie mask can be seen on a 12th century leifrom the Sackler collection, Bagley, op.cit., pl. 8.

The distinguished provenance of the present you can be traced back into the first half of the last century. Huang Jun (1880-1952) was a Beijing art dealer, who in the 1930s and ‘40s published several bronze catalogues.

Dr. Anton F. Philips (1874-1951) was co-founder of the Philips Group of companies that started in Eindhoven in The Netherlands as a light bulb factory. An observatory in his home town, which he donated, is still named after him, the Dr. A.F. Philips Sterrenwacht. The important collection of archaic Chinese bronzes and other works of art that he had assembled, was sold in our London rooms in 1978.

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Tai Jun Tse (J.T. Tai, 1910-1992)

Tai Jun Tse (J.T. Tai, 1910-1992) was one of the major Chinese art dealers of the 20th century, who started working at his uncle’s antiques shop in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, from around the late 1920s, opened his own shop in Shanghai in the 1930s and moved to New York in 1950 to open a gallery there. For decades he remained one of the major suppliers of Americas great collectors, among them Avery Brundage and Arthur M. Sackler.

 

A Rare Pair Of Famille-Verte 'Romance of the Western Chamber' Cups, Kangxi Marks and Period (1662-1722)

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Property From The Cook Family Collection. Lot 504. A Rare Pair Of Famille-Verte 'Romance of the Western Chamber' Cups, Kangxi Marks and Period (1662-1722). Height 3 in., 7.6 cm. Estimate $100/150,000. Sold for $1,155,000Courtesy Sotheby’s.

each finely potted, of beaker form, supported on a tall straight foot, the steep, gently flaring sides rising to an everted rim, the exterior superbly enameled with an animated continuous scene featuring the warrior monk Huiming; one depicting the young scholar Zhang Sheng, standing in a long green robe, a bald-headed monk to either side and the elegantly attired Yingying and her attendant Hongnian observing from the background, bidding farewell to the bare chested monk, dashing off, staff in hand, seeking aid from General Du against the rebellious troops; the other illustrating a victorious moment as Huiming, robes flying in the wind, running alongside General Du, depicted sitting astride a galloping steed with arms raised preparing to throw a long lance, in pursuit of the fleeing rebel Sun Feihu, the recessed base with a six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle, wood stands (4).

ProvenanceCollection of Sidney T. Cook (1910-1964), and thence by descent. 

NoteThis pair of cups is an outstanding example of the high level of skill of porcelain artists working at Jingdezhen in the Kangxi period. Despite the small surface of the cups, the craftsman has successfully captured the drama of the scenes, which are taken from woodblock print illustrations and rendered in a famille-verte palette. A sense of dynamism is captured through the use of outlines which have been drawn in swift yet fine strokes, and attention is cleverly drawn to the central scene by rendering the figures in iron red.

The cups depict a scene from the play Xixiangji (Romance of the Western Chamber) compiled by Wang Shifu (1260-1336). In style the illustration echoes the celebrated works of the painter Chen Hongshou (1598-1652), who created multiple woodblock prints of the play from 1630. Scenes from popular literature are rarely found on Kangxi imperial porcelains, particularly on small vessels such as these cups. It is possible that a small group of wares were decorated with such narrative designs as another means of consolidating his right to the throne as a foreign ruler. Kangxi is known to have worked incessantly to understand China’s history, culture and achievements to gain and retain the respect necessary to rule over a predominantly Han-Chinese elite. Further small porcelain vessels decorated with figural scenes from literature include a cup also depicting a passage from Xixiangji, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. 4, pt. II, London, 2010, pl. 1740, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 4th April 2012, lot 51; and a bowl rendered with a scene from the 14th century drama Han gong qiu (Autumn of the Han Palace) composed by Ma Zhiyuan (1250-1321), from the collection of Allen J. Mercher, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 6th April 2016, lot 3008.

With its narrow foot and tall flared sides, cups of this form were first created in the Jiajing reign (1522-1566) and produced in a small number during the Kangxi period with various designs; a doucai cup with mountains and river, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is published in Qingdai yuyao ciqi, vol. 1, pt. 1, Beijing, 2005, pl. 76; and another decorated with a landscape in underglaze blue, in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, is illustrated in Kangxi Porcelain Wares from the Shanghai Museum Collection, Shanghai, 1998, pl. 29. For the Jiajing prototype, see one painted with rams in cobalt, included in the exhibition The Fame of Flame. Imperial Wares of the Jiajing and Wanli Periods, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2009, cat. no. 12; and a yellow-glazed version of larger size, from the Sir Percival David collection and now in the British Museum, London, included in Illustrated Catalogue of Ming and Qing Monochrome Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 1989, no. A 595.

A Rare And Large Celadon-Glazed Lobed Baluster-Form Vase, Qianlong Seal Mark and Period (1736-1795)

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 Property from an Important American Private Collection. Lot 535. A Rare And Large Celadon-Glazed Lobed Baluster-Form Vase, Qianlong Seal Mark and Period (1736-1795). Height 27 in., 68.6 cm. Estimate $300/500,000. Sold for $1,239,000. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

sturdily potted, of quatrefoil section, resting on a slightly splayed foot, the elegantly lobed body sweeping to a waisted neck set to either side with an archaistic phoenix-form handle of serpentine openwork form with finely incised detailing of feathers, beak, and eyes, and applied overall with an unctuous celadon-green glaze of a pale sea-green color pooling to slightly richer tones in the recesses and around the foot, the base with a six-character seal mark in underglaze-blue, wood stand (2)

ProvenanceSotheby’s Hong Kong, 5th-6th November 1996, lot 858.

NoteDeceptively simple in form and design, this vase markedly contrasts with the richly ornamented decorative style that is generally associated with the Qianlong period, and illustrates the technical perfection achieved by craftsmen working at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen. Monochrome vessels required the highest level of skill and precision in every stage of their production, from the purity of the clay and precision of the potting to the evenness of the glaze and control of the firing. The slightest irregularity would result in the rejection and destruction of the piece, thus pushing the craftsmen to the limits of their abilities, particularly in the production of large vessels such as the current vase. The subtle glaze has been created in imitation of the luminous blue-green wares achieved by the potters at the Longquan kilns during the Southern Song dynasty. It reflects the Qianlong emperor's noted admiration for these early wares, which he not only collected but also commissioned the imperial kilns to recreate, a task readily accomplished with great skill, added innovations and improvements that set these wares apart from their prototypes.

This vase  exemplifies the inspired reinterpretation of the highly esteemed glazes and forms of the Song dynasty. The diminutive forms of the early dynasty are transformed to a magnificent and imposing scale. It features a perfect, luminous, even glaze and an innovative elegant form, and is extremely pleasing to the eye and outstandingly soft to the touch. It was created by the imperial kilns most probably under the supervision of Tang Ying (1682-1756), China’s most able superintendent of the imperial porcelain manufactory. Featuring a magnificent celadon-green glaze of understated beauty, this vase is exceedingly rare amongst Qianlong imperial porcelains and no identical example appears to be recorded.

A similarly glazed but faceted hu-form handled vase of large size was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th October 2013, lot 3018. See also a massive ru-type hu-form vase with dragon-head handles sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 5th October 2011, lot 1986.