Lot 3646. A large gold-splashed bronze rectangular incense burner, Qing dynasty, 17th-18th century; approx. 212 by 125.5 cm, 83 1/2  by 49 3/8  inEstimate 300,000 — 400,000 HKD (38,199 - 50,932 USD). Lot sold 375,000 HKD (47,749 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's

well cast with rounded sides rising to a waisted neck and gently everted rim, the rim surmounted by a pair of upright loop handles, all supported on four tapering legs, the base centred with a recessed panel enclosing an apocryphal six-character Xuande mark, the exterior of the copper-brown body liberally splashed overall save for the mark with gold.

A private collection of gold-splashed incense burners

The diverse range of shapes and the brilliance of the abstract gold splashes on this carefully selected group of incense burners reveal the true connoisseurship of the collector. Their forms take inspiration from antiquity, each distinct from the other, but they are united by the irregular spots and flakes of gold that cover their well-patinated bodies. These seem to emerge from the alloy at different angles, in the random fashion that minerals such as gold are discovered in their natural state. This gives a most pleasing overall appearance, the gold splashes not distracting from the overall forms of the vessels but subtly reinforcing their distinct individuality. For in contrast to archaic ritual bronzes, primarily made for ceremonial use or for the tomb, these brilliant legacies of late Ming and early Qing China were a celebration of life, to be used in daily settings and for bringing warmth and rich colour to a scholar’s desk.                                        

The origin of gilt-bronze splash remains a source of speculation. Gerard Tsang and Hugh Moss in Arts from the Scholar’s Studio, Hong Kong, 1986, p. 184, mention that the popularity of this surface decoration was fostered by Xuande bronzes of the Ming dynasty, where the appearance of the gold splashes was caused by the uneven surface patination of the vessel. Some scholars have linked gold-splashed decoration on bronzes to qingbai and Longquan wares of the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties. In the exhibition catalogue China’s Renaissance in Bronze, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, 1993, p. 169, Robert Mowry mentions the appearance of fine paper enlivened with flecks of gold and silver from the early 15th century and suggests that this ‘might have also played a role in the creation of such abstract decoration, either directly inspiring those who designed the bronzes or indirectly moulding taste to appreciate objects sprinkled with gold and silver’.

The enduring question as to which of the large production of bronze incense burners cast with Xuande reign marks are indeed of the period and which are apocryphal is discussed by Gerard Tsang and Hugh Moss, Arts from the Scholar's Studio, Hong Kong, 1986, p. 150, where it is concluded that the textual evidence is unreliable, and that 'accurate identification ... must therefore rest largely on the wares themselves'.

Ulrich Hausmann, the scholar and collector of later Chinese bronzes, discusses Xuande reign-marked bronzes from the late Ming dynasty in his essay, 'In Search of Later Bronzes', ed. Paul Moss, Documentary Chinese Works of Art in Scholar's Taste, Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, 1983, p. 232:

"The end of the Ming dynasty, for many a period of decadence and decline, saw a surprising variety of new creations and proves to be a much underrated period which produced fine and often highly original metalwork. Many pieces show an uninhibited display of differing designs and unusual shapes which probably make this period the most individualistic of all the later periods. Because of the diversity of appearance, sometimes rather fancy, many of these pieces are wrongly ascribed to the eighteenth century, rather than one hundred years earlier". 

The current incense burner, of stylised archaistic fangding form modified into a pleasing gently rounded body, of great simplicity, but highly tactile, fits perfectly into Hausmann's description. However, as with many of the fine examples in this group of incense burners, commissioned for wealthy merchants and created at flourishing private workshops, it is difficult to date precisely, hence the relatively broad attribution of 17th or 18th century, encapsulating the end of the Ming dynasty and early Qing dynasty.

Sotheby's. Important Chinese Art, Hong Kong, 8 october 2019