4 (3)

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Lot 4. A very rare inscribed gilt-bronze archaic vessel and cover, Hu, Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD); 18.3cm (7 1/4in) high. Estimate £40,000 - 60,000. Sold for £ 75,000 (€ 86,045). © Bonhams.

Robustly cast, of elegant pear-shaped form supported on a splayed foot, the smooth body divided by three concentric raised ribs, the shoulders set with a pair of taotie mask handles suspending loose rings, the slightly domed cover with concentric circles and surmounted by three stylised phoenix, with some malachite encrustation, the foot incised with an inscription.

Provenance: The Lai Family Collection, Hong Kong, by repute
Gisèle Croës Arts D'Extreme Orient, Brussels, 1994 
Jean-Yves Ollivier Collection.

Published and Illustrated: G.Croës, XVII Biennale des Antiquaries, Paris, 10-24 November 1994, pp.68-69

NoteThere is an inscription incised onto the foot which reads:

八年詔□容三□一侖甄氏

which may be translated as: 

'By order of...in the eighth year, this vessel has a capacity of three [ge] and one yue in possession of the Zhen Family'

According to Han dynasty units of measurements, two yue is equivalent to one ge (合), thus the unit after san (three) should be ge. Three ge and one yue of this vessel's volume capacity therefore approximates to roughly 70ml. When Emperor Qin Shihuang conquered the various warring states and unified them under his Qin dynasty, he also unified and formalised measurement units across his empire. This system continued through to the Han dynasty. Thus the missing part of the inscription on the present lot can be inferred to be the eighth year of the reign of an emperor. 

The present lot would have been used for storing alcohol. The whole body is gilt, making it particularly precious. The technique of gilding started in the Warring States period, and was developed in the Qin and Western Han periods. See a related gilt-bronze container, Western Han dynasty, illustrated and discussed by Wang Tao, Chinese Bronzes from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 2009, p.116, no.51. 

Related hu vases but with more elaborate decoration were also found in tombs with inscriptions that showed they belonged to the Zhen family (甄氏), a Princely family from the Han dynasty. See Mancheng Han mu fajue baogao, 1980, Beijing, pp.41 and 43.  

A related lacquer-painted bronze flask of very similar form, early Western Han dynasty, is illustrated in The Rise of the Celestial Empire: Consolidation and Cultural Exchange during the Han Dynasty, Hong Kong, 2015, p.110. Another similar gilt-bronze hu, but smaller (7cm), is in the British Museum (acc.no.1947,0712.337).

Bonhams. The Ollivier Collection of Early Chinese Art, London, 8 Nov 2018