Lot 231. An exceedingly rare bronze figure of a dragon, Liao-Jin dynasty (907-1234). Height 3 3/4  in., 9.5 cm. Estimate USD 50,000 — 70,000. Courtesy Sotheby's.

marvelously cast seated on three powerful legs, its right forepaw raised and holding a 'flaming pearl' in its claw, its ferocious head detailed with a pair of long curled horns above large protruding eyes and a long upturned snout exposing sharp fangs and a curled tongue, the scaly body sinuously curved with long flowing flames issuing from its shoulders and saw-tooth dorsal fin extending down its spine trailing to a upturned curving tail, the underside with two small square apertures, the surface with malachite and azure encrustation, traces of gilt.

ProvenanceCollection of Stephen Junkunc, III (d. 1978).

Note: The most intriguing feature of the present dragon is its distinctive posture. Vigorously portrayed in a seated position holding a 'flaming pearl' in its claw, the present lot is an unparalleled example which translates the majestic nature of the mighty dragon into an expressive visual art form. While a small group of related dragons are known in seated position, the present dragon is an extremely rare example of this type, as only one close counterpart of a slightly smaller size appears to be recorded, which was sold in these rooms, 26th February 1982, lot 267.

The earliest known dragon in seated form is a larger bronze example from the Tang dynasty, excavated from the tomb of Shi Siming (703-761), one of the two Tang dynasty generals responsible for the Anshi Rebellion, in Fengtai district, Beijing, exhibited in Common History of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, Capital Museum, Beijing, 2015, p. 158. Although related in form, the excavated Tang dragon is cast move simplistically, its tail curled under its rear leg and extending upward on its side, with differing from the present dragon. See also a gilt-bronze seated dragon, attributed to late Eastern Han to Six Dynasties, rather similar to the previous example, and also depicted with the tail curled upward from its side, which may suggest a possible Tang dynasty re-attribution, exhibited in Inlaid Bronze and Related Material from Pre-Tang China, Eskenazi, London, 1991, cat. no. 57.

The depiction of a Liao dynasty seated dragon appears to show more similarities with the present lot. Compare the dragon design on a gilt-silver crown, excavated from a Liao tomb in Jianping county, Liaoning province, now in the Liaoning Provincial Museum, exhibited in Unearthing China's Past, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1973, p. 186, fig. 100. The crown is decorated with a pair of confronting dragons. Each is depicted seated with their tails curled upward behind the back and rendered with significantly more details than the Tang examples. Another notable feature is the use of short horizontal lines to depict the skin on the inside of the dragon's forelegs, which is also a characteristic on the present dragon.

Perhaps the most closely related example by far is a larger bronze dragon from the Jin dynasty, similarly cast in a seated position with one claw raised grasping a cloud wisp  and tail curled upward behind the back, with the skin of the inside of the fore legs similarly depicted, discovered in Acheng, Heilongjiang province, now in the Heilongjiang Museum, Harbin, exhibited in Zhongguo jiyi. Wuqiannian wenming guibao [The Chinese Memory. Treasures of the 5000-year Civilization], Capital Museum, Beijing, 2008, cat. no. 59.

While its function remains unclear, the small apertures to the underside of the present dragon indicate the purpose of attachment, likely as an ornamental fitting. A smaller white jade carving of a seated dragon from the Liao dynasty, excavated from Chaoyang, Liaoning province, is identified as an ornament on a Buddhist parasol that was discovered concurrently, see Yang Haipeng, 'Jindai tongzuolongde faxian yu yanjiu', [Discovery and study of bronze seat dragons from the Jin dynasty], Beifang wenwu [Cultural relics of the north], vol. 1, Harbin, 2009, p. 46. According to the historical text Jinshi [History of Jin] compiled in the Yuan dynasty, a seated dragon is also recorded as being part of the decoration set on top of a danian -- a type of imperial carriage used by the emperors during the Jin dynasty.

Sotheby's. Junkunc: Arts of Ancient China II, New York, 10 Sep 2019, 02:00 PM