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Lot 59. An exceptional and rare pair of bronze 'dragon' tripod censers, Marks and period of Qianlong (1736-1795). Width across handles 11¼ in., 28.5 cm. Estimate: 200,000 - 300,000 USDLot sold: 327,600 USD. © Sotheby's 2021

each globular body resting on three cabriole legs issuing from ferocious beast masks and rising to a recessed neck and galleried rim, the shoulder set with a pair of pierced S-curve handles, the body crisply cast in high relief with two pairs of dragons each contesting a 'flaming pearl' surrounded by flame wisps and lingzhi-shaped clouds, the motif repeated at the handles, the shoulder with a ruyi collar beneath a band of florets encircling the neck, the exterior of the rim cast with an archaistic kuilong scroll between two keyfret borders and centering a six-character horizontal mark within a rectangular cartouche, metal rim liners.

ProvenanceCollection of Garret Kerman (1925-2012), acquired in Asia prior to 1957, and thence by descent.

Note: This pair of censers embodies the grandeur and power of the Qianlong reign (1736-95) through their striking shape and lavish decoration. They draw from archaism, as seen in the overall shape inspired by ritual bronze ding vessels of the Eastern Zhou period (770-256 BC), and combine this with the quintessential Qing dynasty imperial motif of scaly dragons striding through a dense field of swirling clouds. The elongated handles that extend dramatically in an S-curve from the globular body, on the other hand, are a feature that originated around the Song dynasty (960-1279). Integrating old and new design elements, these remarkable vessels are characteristic of imperial ritual bronzes of the Qianlong period which synthesize the Emperor’s dual interests in archaism and novelty.Censers were made in a wide range of sizes to suit the needs of different settings and occasions. The present pair might have stood in one of the important rooms in the Imperial Palace, in which incense would have been burnt to disperse insects and provide a pleasing aroma. Some censers might have been produced for altars or temples in the Palace as part of a five-piece altar garniture (wugong). See, for example, a censer of closely related design and form, but of monumental size, measuring 94.5 cm in height, preserved in the British Museum, London (acc. no. OA+.7057.a). Compare also the following censers with a similar mark and design, in ascending order by size: a vessel of similar size sold in these rooms, 25th February 1983, lot 142; another sold at Christie’s New York, 22nd March 2007, lot 201; a third sold in our London rooms, 31st October 1986, lot 243; and a very large one, sold as part of a five-piece garniture in our Hong Kong rooms, 11th April 2008, lot 2826.

Dragons among clouds were an important imperial design element since ancient times, symbolizing the emperor's righteous rule over the universe. The five-clawed dragons in pursuit of a ‘flaming pearl’, as seen on the present piece, were a particularly popular subject on pieces made for the Qing Court. Occasionally, bronze vessels of this type were decorated with phoenix, indicating that they may have been commissioned as a tribute to the empress or the empress dowager. See a large pair of Qianlong-marked bronze vases, with the decoration of both dragons and phoenix, made for the Yuanmingyuan (Imperial Summer Palace), sold three times in our Hong Kong rooms, most recently 9th October 2007, lot 1322.

The present pair of censers was acquired by Garret Kerman (1925-2012), a professional ice skater from New York City who was a member of Sonja Henie's "Holiday on Ice", a show which took him to Asia in the 1950s. During these travels, Kerman brought back a number of art and antiques, many of Chinese origin. Kerman gifted this pair of censers to his brother Max and Max's wife June as a housewarming gift in 1957, and they have remained in June's collection ever since.

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Garret Kerman (1925-2012)

Sotheby's. Important Chinese Art, New York, 21 September 2021