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10 février 2020

A Rare Archaic Bronze Animal Handle, Late Shang-Early Western Zhou Dynasty


A Rare Archaic Bronze Animal Handle, Late Shang-Early Western Zhou Dynasty

Lot 3639. A Rare Archaic Bronze Animal Handle, Late Shang-Early Western Zhou Dynasty; 20.5 cm., 8 1/8  inEstimate 1,000,000 — 1,500,000 HKD. Lot sold 1,240,000 HKD. Photo Sotheby's.

the fragment composed of a feline seated upright straddling a horned mythical beast with a wide open fanged mouth, devouring the head of a creature stuck in its mouth, the three-clawed paws of the victim grasping the neck of the beast, its lower body morphing into the head of an elephant, the tail of the beast seamlessly forming the curled trunk of the tusked animal with its head inverted, the texture of the various animals picked out with different patterns, the underside left hollow filled with core material and mud, the patina of grayish black tone with malachite encrustation, metal stand.

NoteThis extraordinary bronze sculpture is a fragmentary handle of what would originally have been a truly monumental ritual vessel, probably of gui form, undoubtedly made for a high ranking member of the aristocracy in the late Shang or early Western Zhou dynasty. The decoration is highly complex and can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the angle viewed. A feline figure is depicted perched above a bold bovine mask, which appears to be 'worn' by a long mythical creature whose head is concealed under the mask, and arms revealed holding the mask in place, its scaly body with dragon scroll mane, the whole sculpture rotating to provide an additional interpretation of a stylised elephant with long coiling trunk and prominent tusks, trailing the two half-human, half-feline figures. No doubt in its original ritual use, the entire vessel, painstakingly constructed using the piece-mould casting process and created with two of such handles, and no doubt other ostentatious detail around the body and cover, would have provoked awe and reverence. Even as a fragment, it is an outstanding legacy of late Shang/early Western Zhou bronze craftsmanship.

The style of casting, iconography and decoration of this fragment is closely related to the famous you vessel in the Musée Cernuschi, Paris which has a counterpart in the Sumitomo Collection, Japan. Where the whole Cernuschi vessel consists of a stylised feline figure depicted holding a human in its open mouth, with plaintive hands holding on in sheer terror, the current fragment reveals a figure in similar pose, but depicted with head inside the mask. Other elements, such as the stylised elephantine, serpentine and dragon motifs, and the dense scrolling ground, can be found on both pieces. Where the current fragment depicts a feline depicted peering between the ears of the taotie mask, the Cernuschi vessel is cast with a cover surmounted by a stylised goat-antelope, also depicted in similar posture. The Cernuschi vessel is illustrated by Mary Tregear, Chinese Art, London, 1997, pg. 32, and on the museum website (, where Gilles Béguin notes that the vessel, purchased in 1920, reputedly came from Hunan, at the foot of Mount Weishan, on the border between the Anhua and Ningxiang districts west of Changsha, and argues that the zoomorphism of the you places it culturally in a Southern province, independent of the Shang Kingdom further north, part of the totemic narratives that establish the origins of many aristocratic clans, bringing together man and beast in a protective relationship. 

Sotheby'sContemporary Literati -- A Gathering, Hong Kong, 07 april 2014