This September, Sotheby’s is privileged to present extraordinary collections of rare and exceptional Chinese archaic bronzes, Buddhist sculptures and thangkas, jades, porcelain as well as an important single-owner collection of Korean ceramics in five remarkable live and online auctions.

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© Sotheby's 2022

Leading the week is POWER / CONQUEST: The Forging of Empires, a landmark auction of exceptional archaic bronze vessels and weapons. This sale of 30 lots will explore the themes of kings, regional power, clan warfare and territorial control during China’s Bronze Age, as told by a group of archaic bronze vessels bearing important historical inscriptions.

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Lot 17. The Jian Min Fang Zun, Western Zhou dynasty, probably King Mu period (976–922 BC). Height 8½ in, 21.5 cm. Estimate: 800,000 - 1,200,000 USD. Lot sold 756,000  USD. © Sotheby's 2022

cast to the interior with a fifty-one-character inscription reading wei jiuyue jishengba dingchou gong ling Jian Min cong jue you xu yantu Jian Min ji gao yu gong xiu wang you gan dui yang jue xiu yong zuo Xin Gong bao zun yi yong su xi pei zong zi zi sun sun qi wan nian yong bao.

Provenance: Probably discovered in Henan, circa 1949 (by repute).

Collection of Mrs. Walter Sedgwick (1883-1967), by 1954.

Collection of an English nobleman.

Sotheby's London, 7th April 1981, lot 72.

Swiss Private Collection.

Literature: Shimonaka Kunihiko, ed., Shodō zenshū [Complete volumes of calligraphy], vol. 1: Chūgoku In·Shū·Shin [China: Yin, Zhou, and Qin], Tokyo, 1954, no. 48.

Zhou Fagao, Sandai jijin wencun bu [Supplements of surviving writings from the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties], Taipei, 1980, no. 840.

Sun Zhichu, Jinwen zhulu jianmu [Records of Bronze Inscriptions], Beijing, 1981, p. 258, no. 4451 (vessel recorded).

Yan Yiping, Jinwen zongji [Corpus of bronze inscriptions], Taipei, 1983, no. 4881.

Li Xueqin, 'Mo zun kaoshi [Examination of the Mo Zun]', Xinchu qingtongqi yanjiu [A study of newly discovered archaic bronzes], Beijing, 1990, pp 295-297 (vessel discussed).

The Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, ed., Yinzhou jinwen jichengshiwen [Interpretations of the compendium of Yin and Zhou bronze inscriptions], vol. 4, Hong Kong, 2001, no. 6005.

The Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, ed., Yinzhou jinwen jicheng [Compendium of Bronze Inscriptions from Yin and Zhou Dynasties], Beijing, 2007, no. 06005.

Wang Tao and Liu Yu, Liusan oumei yinzhou youming qingtongqi jilu / A Selection of Early Chinese Bronzes with Inscriptions from Sotheby's and Christie's Sales, Shanghai, 2007, pl. 164.

Liu Yu et. al., Shangzhou jinwen zong zhulubiao [Comprehensive list of recorded Shang and Zhou bronze inscriptions], Beijing, 2008, no. 6549 (vessel recorded).

Wu Zhenfeng, Shangzhou qingtong qi mingwen ji tuxiang jicheng [Compendium of important inscriptions and images of bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties], vol. 21, Shanghai, 2012, no. 11804.

Li Xueqin, 'Zaishi Jian Min Fang Zun [Another explanation of the Jian Min Fang Zun]', Guwenzi yanjiu [A study of ancient epigraphy], vol. 31, Beijing, 2016 pp. 91-93 (vessel discussed).

Li Xueqin, 'Zaishi Jian Min Fang Zun [Another explanation of the Jian Min Fang Zun]', Qinghuajian ji gudai mingwen [The Qinghua Bamboo Books and Ancient Civilization], Nanchang, 2017, pp 156-160 (vessel discussed).

The Nobles of the Past: A Distinguished Archaic Bronze Fang Zun

Remarkable for its monumental presence, this fang zun is a masterpiece of Western Zhou bronzes. Fang zun are rare among all Zhou bronze forms, and even more so are ones with a long documentary inscription of significant historical value. The present fang zun is cast to the interior with a fifty-one-character inscription. The owner’s name is a compound pictogram comprising a jian 柬 and a min 黽, which does not appear to have been associated with a modern pronunciation. Therefore, we will refer to the name of the owner as Jian Min. The inscription records that on the dingchou day of the jishengba 既生霸 lunar phrase of the 9th month, Gong 公 ordered Jian Min to lead his subordinates to conduct a task at the land of Yan 炎. Jian Min reported to Gong that the assignment was successfully completed without any mistakes. Jian Min gratefully lauded Gong’s kindness and virtue. He then made this precious vessel to honor Xin Gong 辛公. This vessel was cast to be used day and night for ancestor rituals and to be treasured eternally by his sons and grandsons for ten thousand years.

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Fig.1 Bei Gui and a rubbing of its inscription, Western Zhou Dynasty © Palace Museum, Beijing.

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Fig.2 Fan You and a rubbing of its inscription, Western Zhou Dynasty © Shanghai Museum, Shanghai.

 This fang zun was first studied by Shimonaka Kunihiko, based on the materials provided by Umehara Sueji, who saw this bronze in Mrs. Walter Sedgwick’s collection during his trip to Europe and America between 1953 and 1954. In recent decades, Li Xueqin also published two dedicated articles on this vessel (1990, pp 295-297 and 2016, pp 91-93). In his articles, Li Xueqin associates this fang zun with two other well-known bronze vessels, the Bei Gui 貝黽簋 (fig. 1) from the Palace Museum, Beijing, and the Fan You 繁卣 (fig. 2) from the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, both of which record Gong as a superior granting rewards and Xin Gong as an ancestor in their inscriptions. Li concluded that Xin Gong, Gong, and the owners of the three bronzes should be from the same family, which was, in fact, a surviving Shang clan in the Western Zhou period. The clan sign from the inscription of the Fan You indicates that their clan name is Huo 或. Li further suggests that all three bronzes should be from the period of King Mu (c. 976-c. 922 BC), the fifth king of the Western Zhou dynasty.

The most critical piece of information from the inscription of the present fang zun is Jian Min's assignment at the land of Yan. A key character, which indicates the type of the assignment, is partially obscured by encrustation, which poses a challenge in its identification, especially from photographs or rubbings. Based on the published photographs, Li Xueqin identified this character as qi 启. He believed that this character in the given context can be interpreted as 'to explore' and concluded that the inscription of this fang zun documents that Gong ordered Jian Min to Yan to explore and develop the land in order to claim its ownership (2016, p. 92).

A closer examination of the character from the actual bronze, however, reveals that the bottom half of the character appears to be 貝 instead of 口. The character can then be identified as 戶貝. This new discovery is significant, as it entirely changes the meaning of the phrase as well as the previous understanding of the inscription by the academic world. This character is rarely seen in archaic bronze inscriptions. The only other appearance of this character is in the inscription of a bronze zun from the Le Cong Tang Collection, named Wen Zun 聞尊 (fig. 3). The Wen Zun was first published by Cheung Kwong Yue (2008, p. 10) and has been studied since then by several contemporary scholars. Different theories were proposed on the reading of this character and its meaning (see Dong Shan, 2008, Jiang Shuhong, 2011, and Zhang Chongli, 2012). The current view appears to be that this character should read xu 胥, which can be interpreted as 'to supervise' and 'to manage'. Based on this interpretation, the task that Gong assigned to Jian Min was to supervise and manage the land of Yan.

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Fig3 A line drawing of Wen Zun’s inscription illustrated in Dong Shan, ‘Du Wen Zun Min [Reading The Inscription Of Wen Zun]’, fudan University Research On Chinese Excavated Classics And Paleography (website), Shanghai, 2008

Yan was one of the locations where King Mu’s father, King Zhao of Zhou was stationed at during his military campaign to conquer the Chujing in the south. According to a timeline reconstructed by Li Xueqin (2006, p. 130), in the 9th month of the 15th year, King Zhao started his campaign at Chengzhou (today's Luoyang). In the same month, the king is recorded to have arrived at Yan, which means Yan was likely to be within days of travel distance south of Chengzhou (fig. 4). Li also concluded that Yan should be a location near Luoyang (2016, p. 92). As one of the only few recorded stops along King Zhao's campaign route to Chujing in the south, the land of Yan was unlikely to be in an undeveloped state in the proceeding reign of King Mu. This further proves that Jian Min's assignment to Yan was to supervise and manage an already occupied location, instead of exploring and developing vacant land.

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fig. 4 A map of the possible location of Yan, original version of the map illustrated in Michael Loewe & Edward L . Shaughnessy, Eds, the Cambridge History Of Ancient China. From The Origins of Civilisation to 221 B.C., Cambridge, 1999, p. 313

As the eastern capital, Chengzhou was a critical location for the stability of the Zhou empire. After King Wu of Zhou conquered the Shang, he faced the challenge of managing the large number of aristocrats from the previous dynasty. King Wu's solution was to position three of his brothers as the 'Three Guards' to govern the former Shang territory on the east. This soon proved to be ineffective. Upon King Wu's death, the 'Three Guards' joined the rebellion of the Shang prince, Wu Geng, and posed a serious threat to the newly-enthroned King Cheng (fig. 5). The rebellion was eventually suppressed by the young king's loyal regent, Duke of Zhou 周公 (fig. 6). Learning from previous mistakes, Duke of Zhou adopted an alternative strategy in managing the Shang people. He introduced a policy to relocate them close to Chengzhou for more centralized control. In order to motivate the Shang aristocrats, the Zhou court granted land near Chengzhou to the Shang people for them to live and govern. Based on their merit, the Shang nobles could also be selected to serve at the Zhou court as officials.

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fig. 5 Portrait of King Cheng illustrated in Sun Chengen, Jigu xiangzhan [Ancient portraits], Ming dynasty, Jiajing 15th year edition (1537), p. 12

fig. 6 Portrait of Duke of Zhou illustrated in Sun Chengen, Jigu xiangzhan [Ancient portraits], Ming dynasty, Jiajing 15th year edition (1537), p. 13

"You shall reside in the city of Luoyi, carry on with your daily life and you will have peace and success; from the moment you relocated, your son and grandsons will prosper eternally." Book of Documents: Book of Zhou, Duoshi.

It is very possible that Gong, as one of the Shang aristocrats, was granted the land of Yan. Chen Yingjie believes that Gong was the leader of the Huo clan (2009, p. 67). Gong appointed his family member, Jian Min, to supervise and manage this land and rewarded him for successfully completing the task. The inscription of the present fang zun has significant historical value as it provides invaluable insights into the lifestyle of the Shang people who lived under the Western Zhou dynasty. It documents an example of benevolence and tolerance towards residents from the previous dynasty during the reign of King Mu. The Shang noble class were not only able to keep their status and customs, but also had great autonomy, including controlling and managing lands and holding rituals for their Shang ancestors.

Related fang zun of this form with a long documentary inscription are extremely rare. Most known examples have a much shorter inscription, and many are preserved in major museums around the world. Compare a similar bronze fang zun cast with a fifteen-character inscription, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in The Palace Museum, ed., Gugong qingtongqi / Bronzes in the Palace Museum, Beijing, 1999, pl. 131 (fig. 7). See also the Rong Zi Zun, inscribed with six characters, in the Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum, Kobe, illustrated in Shizuka Shirakawa, Hakutsuru eika [Selected Masterpieces of the Hakutsuru Museum], Tokyo, 1978, pl. 10; the Ri Ji Fang Zun with a twenty-character inscription, excavated in Shaanxi in 1963, now in the Shaanxi History Museum, Xi’an, published in Zhang Tianen, Shaanxi jinwen jicheng [Compendium of bronze inscriptions from Shaanxi], Xi’an, 2016, vol. 3, no. 0314; and another, cast with a twelve-character inscription, in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., published in John Alexander Pope et al., The Freer Chinese Bronzes, Washington, D.C., 1967, pl. 18. The only auction example of this type appears to be a bronze fang zun, inscribed with seven characters, offered in these rooms, 18th March 2008, lot 71. 

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fig. 7 An inscribed bronze Fang Zun, Early Western Zhou dynasty © Palace Museum, Beijing.

Literature: Li Xueqin, 'Mo zun kaoshi [Examination of the Mo Zun]', Xinchu qingtongqi yanjiu [A study of newly discovered archaic bronzes], Beijing, 1990, pp 295-297.

Li Xueqin, ‘Jimei bowuguan suocang ling gui de niandai [Dating of the Ling Gui in the Guimet Museum]’, Faguo hanxue [French Sinology], no. 11, Beijing, 2006, pp 128-131.

Chen Yingjie, Xizhou jinwen zuoqi yongtu mingci yanjiu [Study of Western Zhou bronze inscriptions relating to vessel functions], vol. 1, Beijing, 2009.

Cheung Kwong Yue, ‘Xinjian Le Cong Tang Wen Zun mingwen shishi [An attempt to interpret the inscription of the newly seen Wen Zun from the Le Cong Tang Collection]’, Guwenzixue lungao [Essay of ancient paleography], Hefei, 2008, pp 5-10.

Dong Shan, ‘Du Wen Zun min [Reading the inscription of Wen Zun]’, Fudan University Research on Chinese Excavated Classics and Paleography (website), Shanghai, 2008.

Jiang Shuhong, ‘Wen Zun xinjie [New interpretation of the Wen Zun]’, ibid., 2011.

Zhang Chongli, ‘Shi Wen Zun mingwen zhong de hu zi [Interpreting the hu character in the inscription of Wen Zun]’, ibid., 2012.

Li Xueqin, 'Zaishi Jian Min Fang Zun [Another explanation of the Jian Min Fang Zun]', Guwenzi yanjiu [A study of ancient epigraphy], vol. 31, Beijing, 2016, pp 91-93.

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Lot 19. A superb malachite and copper-inlaid bronze vessel and cover (Fang Hu), Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period (475–221BC). Height 19⅞ in., 50.6 cmEstimate: 800,000 - 1,200,000 USD. Unsold. © Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: Gisèle Croës, New York, 1998. 

ExhibitedFrom Archaic Ritual Bronzes to Tang Tomb Figures. This Life and the After-Life Part Two, Gisèle Croës, New York, 1997, pl. 42.

Lavish Surface Ornamentation of the Warring States: A Magnificent Inlaid Fang Hu

Richly ornamented with horizontally-arranged geometric friezes outlined with copper wire and strips, and partially filled with small malachite chips, the present ritual vessel, fang hu, is a testament to the lavish bronze culture of the Warring States period (480-222 BC) of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-221 BC).

As with preceding periods of China's bronze age, ritual bronze vessels were of very high importance in Zhou society and were used during sacrificial ceremonies to offer food and wine to ancestors to obtain their protection. As the offerings were subsequently jointly consumed at ritual banquets, they also served to bond family clans. A vessel such as the present fang hu might have been used to contain wine in such ceremonies that were held at ancestral temples.

Ritual bronze vessels during this period generally adopted relatively simple forms, gradually losing the high cast relief decoration, elaborate flanges and zoomorphic forms seen on bronzes of the earlier Shang and Western Zhou periods; meanwhile their surfaces were gradually ornamented with visually dazzling geometric designs. With clever use of the techniques for inlaying different materials, the craftsmen enriched the monochrome bronze surface to create a unique multi-colored design. 

Inlaid bronzes were first produced during the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC). While the early copper inlays that were added to the mold before the bronzes were cast were limited to simple designs and silhouettes, more vivid designs were soon created by incising the bronze after casting and filling the grooves with precious and semi-precious stones, such as turquoise and malachite. 

The geometric designs found on bronzes of this period are thought to have been inspired by the fluid designs found on contemporaneous lacquer, which gained great popularity during this period. Early Warring States lacquerwares derived many of their decorative motifs, primarily interlaced designs, from bronze art. See, for example the painted lacquer dou from the early Warring States period, circa 433 BC, discovered in the tomb of Marquis Yi at Leigudun, Suxian, Hubei province, illustrated in The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999, cat. no. 108. However, by the mid-Warring States period, many new motifs in lacquer had emerged and, especially in the south, a curvilinear style gradually prevailed, demonstrated by fluid inlay designs, such as those seen on an inlaid bronze dou discovered in Fenshuiling, Changzhi, Shanxi province, illustrated in Wu Hung, 'The Art and Architecture of the Warring States Period,' Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy (eds.), The Cambridge History of Ancient China. From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C., Cambridge, 1999, p. 683, fig. 10.13.

The present fang hu belongs to an impressive array of bronze vessels, each brilliantly inlaid with abstract designs arranged in horizontal registers. Compare the famous copper-inlaid fang hu excavated from the burial grounds of the kings of the state of Zhongshan in Hebei, Pingshan Sanji Gongshe at Zhongshan, now in the Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, illustrated Wu Hung, ibid., p. 684, fig. 10.14 and Jenny So, Eastern Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection, New York, 1995, fig. 109. Another fang hu, although missing its original inlay, formerly in the collection of Alfred F. Pillsbury and now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis (accession no. 50.46.98), is illustrated in Max Loehr, Ritual Vessels of Bronze Age China, New York, 1968, pl. 70. Two very similar bronze fang hu inlaid with diagonally oriented geometric patterns arranged on a central axis are also known. The first, reportedly excavated near Yulin fu, Shaanxi, in 1913, now in the National Gallery of Asian Art, Washington, D.C., gifted by Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer in 1961, is illustrated in the catalogue Chinese Art of the Warring States Period. Change and Continuity, 480-222 B.C., Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1982, cat. no. 7; the second, discovered in 1957 in Hunan province is illustrated in An Exhibition of Archaeological Finds from the People's Republic of China, Tokyo, 1977, cat. no. 42. Another in the Meiyintang Collection, with the body inlaid with an ornament on the body arranged by crossed diagonal bands is illustrated in Wang Tao, Chinese Bronzes from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 2009, pl. 47. 

Perhaps the most famous example of an inlaid fang hu from the period is the documentary 'Chen Zhang' fang hu, acquired from C.T. Loo in 1916 and now in the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, bearing a twenty-nine-character inscription at the foot recording that the bronze was obtained from the Yan state by a Qi general, Chen Zhang (also known as Tian Zhang, Zhangzi and Kuang Zhang) during a military assault in 315 BC, included in the exhibition Chinese Bronzes of the Shang Through the Tang Dynasty, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1938, cat. no. 185, and further discussed in Yang Hua and Gilbert K. Mattos, 'The Chen Zhang Fanghu', Orientations, vol. 32, no. 2, p. 57. Of similar design is an inlaid fang hu from the famous 'Jincun' finds near Luoyang in Henan, illustrated in William Charles White, Tombs of Old Lo-yang, Shanghai, 1934, pl. 109. Compare also a similar design inlaid in copper and malachite found on a bronze dui from the Winthrop Collection, gifted to the Fogg Art Museum in 1943, and now in the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge (accession no. 1943.52.115), illustrated Jenny So, op. cit., p. 201, fig. 29.8.

Very few inlaid fang hu from the Warring States have appeared at auction. Compare one with a similar 'zigzag' design at the shoulder, included in the exhibition Chinese Art of the Warring States Period, Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, Osaka, 1991, cat. no. 169, sold in these rooms, 11th September 2012, lot 100. A rare 'figural' bronze fang hu, possibly slightly earlier in date and with only traces of the inlay remaining, was sold at Christie's New York, 24th March 2022, lot 719. An inlaid fang hu with the addition of gilt bosses was deaccessioned by the Albright Knox Museum in Buffalo, New York, and sold in these rooms, 20th March 2007, lot 508. Perhaps the most famous example sold at auction in recent years is the 'Stoclet' fang hu, with gilt, silver and glass inlay, previously in the collection of Adolphe Stoclet and included in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935, cat. no. 406, sold in these rooms, 23rd September 2020, lot 578.

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Lot 9. The Yi Yu Gui, Western Zhou dynasty, King Zhao period, probably c. 980 BC. Width 12 in., 30.6 cmEstimate: 600,000 - 800,000 USD. Lot sold 1,083,600 USD. © Sotheby's 2022

cast to the interior with a nineteen-character inscription reading Yi Yu cong wang nan zheng fa Chujing you de yong zuo Fu Wu bao zun yi Wu.

Important Archaic Bronzes from the Collection of Albert Y.P. and Sara K.S. Lee.

Provenance: Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Toeg.

Sotheby's London, 3rd December 1963, lot 184.

Bluett & Son Ltd., London, 6th January 1964.

Collection of Professor Peter Plesch (1918-2013)

Sotheby's London, 20th February 1968, lot 53. 

Spink & Son Ltd., London.

Collection of a European nobleman.

Christie's London, 6th June 1994, lot 68.

Literature: Hu Xiaoshi, Jinshi fanjinji dier [Sequel to the collection of various archaic bronzes], 1918, p. 14.

Bao Ding, Guochao jinwen zhulubiao buyi [Supplements of the list of bronze inscriptions recorded in the present [Qing] dynasty], vol. 1, 1931, p. 38 (vessel recorded).

Chen Chengxiu, Yiwenge jinwen [Archaic bronze inscriptions from the Yiwen Pavilion] (unpublished), compiled by 1931.

Liu Jie, 'Liangzhou jinwenci daxi shangdui [Discussion on the great corpus of bronze inscriptions of the two Zhou periods]', Bulletin of the National Library of Peiping, vol. 6, no. 3, Peiping, 1932, p. 385 (vessel recorded).

Wu Qichang, 'Jinwen yinianbiao [Possible chronology of archaic bronze inscriptions], Bulletin of the National Library of Peiping, vol. 6, no. 5, Peiping, 1932, p. 528 (vessel recorded).

Wu Kaisheng, Jijin wenlu [The record of inscriptions from archaic bronzes], vol. 3, 1933, p. 23 (vessel discussed).

Wu Qichang, Jinwen lishuo shuzheng [Critical examination of calendars in bronze inscriptions], vol. 2, Shanghai, 1934, p. 18.

Bernhard Karlgen, 'Yin and Zhou in Chinese Bronzes', Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, no. 8, Stockholm, 1935, p. 55 (vessel recorded).

Guo Moruo, Liang Zhou jinwenci daxi tulu kaoshi [Illustrated record and investigation of the great corpus of bronze inscriptions of the two Zhou periods], Tokyo, 1935, lubian, p. 26.

Ke Changji, Weihuage jigulu bawei [Records of ancient works from the Weihua Pavilion], ji, 1935, p. 18 (vessel discussed).

Liu Tizhi, Xiaojiao Jingge jinwen taben [Rubbings of bronze inscriptions in the Xiaojiao Jingge], vol. 7, 1935, p. 43.

Rong Geng, Yinzhou qingtongqi tonglun [A comprehensive study of the archaic bronzes from the Yin and Zhou dynasties], Beijing, 1958, p. 89, fig. 9.

Shirakawa Shizuka, Kinbun tsūshaku

 [A general explanation of archaic bronze inscriptions], vol. 1, xia, Kobe, 1962, pp 777-780.

Shirakawa Shizuka, Jinwenji [Collection of archaic bronze inscriptions], vol. 2, Tokyo, 1980, p. 11, no. 200.

Sun Zhichu, Jinwen zhulu jianmu [Records of Bronze Inscriptions], Beijing, 1981, p. 138, no. 2335 (vessel recorded).  

Tang Lan, ‘Lun zhouzhaowang shidai de qingtongqi keming [A discussion on the bronze inscriptions from the period of King Zhao], Guwenzi yanjiu [Studies of ancient characters], vol.2, Beijing, 1981, p. 72.

Yan Yiping, Jinwen zongji [Corpus of bronze inscriptions], Taipei, 1983, no. 2543.

Ma Chengyuan, Shang Zhou qingtong qi mingwen xuan [Selection of Shang and Zhou dynasty bronze inscriptions], vol. 1, Beijing, 1988, no. 106.

Wu Zhenfeng, Shaanxi jinwen huibian [Compilation of bronze inscriptions from Shaanxi], vol. 3, Xi'an, 1989, no. 15.

Y.P. Lee, Important Inscribed Ancient Chinese Bronze Vessels from the Li Yingshuan Collection in the Shanghai Museum, vol. II, Shanghai, 1996, pl. 41.

Liu Litang, ‘Guanyu zhou zhaowang nanzheng jianghan diqu youguan wenti de tantao [Discussion on King Zhao’s expedition to the Jianghan region]’, Jianghan kaogu / Jianghan archaeology, no. 3, Wuhan, 2000, p. 69 (vessel recorded).

The Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, ed., Yinzhou jinwen jichengshiwen [Interpretations of the compendium of Yin and Zhou bronze inscriptions], vol. 3, Hong Kong, 2001, no. 3976.

Guo Moruo quanji [The complete collection of works by Guo Moruo], vol. 7, Beijing, 2002, p. 234.

Peng Yushang, Xizhou qingtong niandai zonghe yanjiu [A comprehensive study of the bronzes from the Western Zhou dynasty], Chengdu, 2003, p. 267 (vessel recorded).

Yang Kuan, Xizhoushi [The history of Western Zhou], Shanghai, 2003, p. 557 (vessel recorded).

Wang Xiantang, Guoshi jinshi zhigao [A record of bronze and stone inscriptions in Chinese history], vol. 3, Qingdao, 2004, p. 1672, no. 367.

Wu Zhenfeng, Jinwen renming huibian (Compilation of the names from bronze inscriptions), Beijing, 2006, p. 282 (vessel discussed).

The Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, ed., Yinzhou jinwen jicheng [Compendium of Yin and Zhou bronze inscriptions], Beijing, 2007, no. 03976.

Wang Xinyi, ed., Shangzhou tuxing wenzi bian [Dictionary of the pictograms from the Shang and Zhou dynasties], Beijing, 2007, no. 171.

Liu Yu et. al., Shangzhou jinwen zong zhulubiao [Comprehensive list of recorded Shang and Zhou bronze inscriptions], Beijing, 2008, no. 4355 (vessel recorded).

He Jingcheng, Shangzhou qingtongqi zushi mingwen yanjiu [Study of the clan pictograms on the bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties], Jinan, 2009, p. 305 (vessel recorded).

Rong Geng xueshu zhuzuo quanji [The complete collection of the academic works by Rong Geng], vol. 9, Beijing, 2011, p. 89, fig. 9.

Wu Zhenfeng, Shang Zhou qingtong qi mingwen ji tuxiang jicheng [Compendium of important inscriptions and images of bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties], vol. 10, Shanghai, 2012, no. 04895.

Zhao Qingmiao, 'Zhaowang nanzheng er bufu zhi lice / A Conquest of Failure to the South in King of Zhao during Western Zhou dynasty,' Xueshu yuekan / Academic Monthly, no. 5, Shanghai, 2015, p. 152 (vessel recorded).

Wang Qi, 'Xizhou zaoqi nanzheng qingtongqiqun ji xiangguan shishi kaocha [A survey of the bronze group relating to the south expeditions from the early Western Zhou and the related history],' Chutu wenxian / Excavated Documents, no. 2, Shanghai, 2016, p. 43 (vessel recorded).

ExhibitedExhibition of Early Chinese Bronzes, Oriental Ceramic Society, London, 1951, cat. no. 34.

The Journey of the King: An Important Documentary Bronze Gui

This masterfully cast bronze vessel is not only remarkable for its powerful presence, but also for its extremely important documentary inscription. The nineteen-character inscription records that during the period of King Zhao of the Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1046-771 BC), Yi Yu, the owner of this bronze, followed the king to conquer the south by mounting a military campaign against the Chujing 楚荊 clan. Yi Yu was rewarded for his military success and used his new wealth to make this precious vessel for his father Wu 戊. The last pictogram from the inscription indicates that Yi Yu belonged to the Wu 吳 clan. The military expedition initiated by King Zhao to the south was a major event in the Western Zhou period. The event marked a critical turning point in the fate of the Zhou dynasty, from a flourishing empire to one of gradual decline.

"The magnificent and virtuous King Zhao, gloriously disciplined the Chujing and majestically paraded the South." Inscription from the Shi Qiang pan

King Zhao's military expedition to the south has been widely documented in Chinese classical literature, including Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) and Zhushu jinian (Bamboo Annals). The more direct records, however, come from the inscriptions of a small group of highly important archaic bronzes. In addition to the present gui, the group includes some world-famous bronzes, such as 'The Six Vessels of Anzhou 安州六器', a set of bronzes discovered in Xiaogan, Hubei province during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), recorded in one of China's first systematic catalogues of bronze and stone inscriptions, Jinshilu (Catalogue of archaic bronzes) by the Northern Song scholar, Zhao Mingcheng (vol. 13, Northern Song dynasty, Yayutang edition, Qianlong 27th year (1762), pp 1-2); the Shi Qiang Pan 史牆盤, a national treasure of China, discovered in 1976 in Shaanxi, now in the Zhouyuan Museum, Baoji, published in Zhang Tianen, Shaanxi jinwen jicheng [Compendium of bronze inscriptions from Shaanxi], vol. 2, Xi'an, 2016, no. 0167; and the Lai Pan 逨盤, a masterwork with an extraordinarily long inscription, excavated in 2003 in Shaanxi, currently preserved in the Baoji Bronze Ware Museum, Baoji, published in ibid., vol. 6, no. 0668.

King Zhao (fig. 1), as the fourth king of Zhou, inherited a prosperous empire from his predecessors. His great grandfather, King Wu (fig. 2), conquered the Shang after the epic battle of Muye and founded the Zhou dynasty. Learning from his predecessor, who was weakened by prolonged conflicts with the Dongyi 東夷, hostile tribes to the east, King Wu's primary objective upon establishing the Zhou empire was to solidify the eastern border by launching attacks on the Dongyi. His son and successor King Cheng (fig. 3) followed in his footsteps. Together with his loyal regent and mentor, the Duke of Zhou 周公, King Cheng expanded the border into the east by conquering the tribes of Dongyi. During the period of the third King Kang (fig. 4), another major campaign was launched against the Dongyi, which concluded with the grand victory of the Zhou empire. In addition to the successes on the eastern front, King Kang also launched military actions to stabilize the northern and the western borders of the Zhou territory (see Yang Kuan, 2003, pp 549-555).

 

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Left fig. 1 Portrait of King Zhao, Qing dynasty, Anonymous Artist, illustrated in Zhongguo Lidai Mingren Huaxiangpu / Ancient Portraits of China, Fuzhou, 2003, p. 21

Right fig. 2 Portrait of King Wu, Ming dynasty, Anonymous Artist, illustrated in Zongguo Lidai Mingren Huaxiangpu / Ancient Portraits of China, Fuzhou, 2003, p. 18

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Left fig. 3 Portrait of King Cheng, Qing dynasty, Anonymous Artist, illustrated in Zhongguo Lidai Mingren Huaxiangpu / Ancient Portraits of China, Fuzhou, 2003, p. 19

Right fig. 4 Portrait of King Kang, Qing dynasty, Anonymous Artist, illustrated in Zhongguo Lidai Mingren Huaxiangpu / Ancient Portraits of China, Fuzhou, 2003, p. 20

With the northern, eastern and western frontiers already secured upon ascending the throne, King Zhao turned his focus to the south. He initiated two military campaigns to the south, one on the 15th year of his reign, against the Chujing, and the other on the 17th year, against the Hufang 虎方, in combination with a southern inspection tour, which ultimately led to his tragic death.

The stability of the south had always been a strategic focus of the Zhou rulers. Not long after the founding of the Zhou, a number of hou 侯 (marquis) were conferred by the Zhou kings at the southern border. These marquises were military officials in charge of guarding and expanding Zhou land in the south (see Zhu Fenghan, 2013, p. 10). The metal-rich lands of the south were another reason for King Zhao's investment in this region (see Yang Kuan, 2003, p. 637). As indicated by bronze inscriptions, many of the personnel who participated in King Zhao's military campaigns were rewarded with materials which were then used to cast bronze vessels, including the owner of the present lot. Zhao Yanjiao and Wu Weihua further suggest that one of the important factors contributing to the development of the Zhou bronze style is the abundant supply of bronze material resulting from King Zhao's southern expeditions (2018, p. 58).

At the beginning of the Western Zhou dynasty, Chujing, or Chu, was one of the clans in the south of the empire. According to Shiji: Chushijia (Records of the Grand Historian: the family history of Chu), King Cheng of Zhou conferred Xiong Yi 熊繹 at Chu, with the clan name Mi 羋. He was given a hereditary title and land to live in Danyang 丹陽, which some scholars believe to be near today's Zigui county, Hubei province (see Yang Kuan, 2003, pp 629-630). The Chu clan started as a humble subordinate to the Zhou court. The ancient Chinese literature Guoyu: Jinyu (Discourses of the States: Discourses of Jin) records that King Cheng of Zhou called for an important meeting at Qiyang with leaders of his vassal states and the neighboring clans. Xiong Yi was assigned to prepare the seats for the leaders. During the meeting, he was positioned to guard the fire at the meeting place. The Chujing people were considered by the Zhou as barbarians from the south and were not respected by the noble classes in the north. Therefore, Yang Kuan concludes that the Chujing's loyalty to the Zhou court was only temporary and never strong (2003, pp 632-633).

By the reign of King Zhao, the submission of Chujing to the Western Zhou court came to an end. The inscription of the Guo Bo Gui 過伯簋, which was included by Wang Qi in a list of bronzes pertaining to the two military campaigns of King Zhao, affirms the Chujing's betrayal (see Wang Qi, 2016, p. 43). This had provoked the king's first military action to the south. Zhushu jinian records 'On the 16th year, the king mounted a military campaign against the Chujing'. Li Xueqin has been able to produce a timeline of the campaign by reconstructing its progress through the inscriptions of related bronzes. Li established that the campaign began on the 9th month of the 15th year of King Zhao and ended by the 8th month of the 16th year (2006, pp 130-131). Based on the studies by Li Xueqin (2006, p. 130), Zhao Yanjiao and Wu Weihua (2018, p. 51) on several locations recorded in the related bronze inscriptions, it is possible to outline an approximate route taken by the king's army which started at Chengzhou (today's Luoyang) (fig. 5).

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fig.5 A map indicating the possible route taken by King Zhao’s army in conquering the Chujing, original version of the map illustrated in Michael Loewe & Edward L . Shaughnessy, Eds, The Cambridge History of Ancient China. From The Origins of Civilisation to 221 B.C., Cambridge, 1999, p. 313

Yi Yu, the owner of the present bronze, was among the very few recorded individuals who participated in King Zhao's conquest of the Chujing. While little is known about Yi Yu's identity, he was undoubtedly an important military official who served under the king and contributed in the attack against the enemy. As a result, he was rewarded and subsequently ordered the present bronze to honor his father. In addition to this gui, a bronze gong cover is recorded to have been commissioned by him. The cover was excavated in 1966 from a Western Zhou hoard in Famen town, Fufeng county, Shaanxi province, now in the Fufeng County Museum, Baoji, published in Zhang Tianen, op. cit., vol. 3, no. 287. Zhao Pingan (2001, p. 80) interprets the inscription (fig. 6) as a record of Yi Yu's successful completion of an assignment to purchase horses and cast this bronze to commemorate his father. It is possible that his assignment was ordered by King Zhao in preparation for his military expedition.

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fig. 6 A rubbing of the Yi Yu Gong cover's inscription illustrated in Zhang Tianen, Shaanxi jinwen jicheng [Compendium of bronze inscriptions from Shaanxi], vol. 3, Xi'an, 2016, no. 287

Shortly after his first success in the south, King Zhao initiated a more ambitious second campaign from the Zhou capital, Zongzhou (today's Xi'an). Little did he know that this was a one-way journey to a dramatic ending of his life, which was to "have lasting and far-reaching repercussions" to the future of his empire, as stated by Edward Shaughnessy (1999, p. 322).

"The light of five colors penetrated the Ziwei star at night. This year, the king never returned." Bamboo Annals.

The Chu were accused of the death of King Zhao. Zuozhuan : Xigong sinian (The Commentary of Zuo : 4th year of Duke Xi) includes a famous conversation between Guan Zhong, a renowned politician of the Qi State during the Spring and Autumn period, and a messenger of the Chu. Guan Zhong questioned the messenger about King Zhao's death during his southern expedition. The messenger, however, retorted that Guan Zhong should be asking the rivers instead. Regardless of whether the Chu were responsible for the death of King Zhao, the event was devastating for the Western Zhou empire. The Six Armies that were lost in the Han River were the main military force of the Zhou and were estimated to be around 75,000 soldiers (see Liu Litang, 2000, p. 69). As Edward Shaughnessy notes, "the Zhou state never really recovered from this loss" (1999, p. 323).

"King Zhao conducted his grand inspection. He traveled far into the south. What did he benefit from it? Just for the white pheasants?" Qu Yuan,, Songs of Chu, Questions to Heaven.

The weakening of the Zhou provided a welcome opportunity for the Chu to grow in power. Li Yushao states that after the reign of King Zhao, there were no bronze inscriptions recording any further confrontations between the Zhou and the Chu, and it was not until more than a century later, during the reign of King Xuan, that another military campaign was launched against the Chu (2011, p. 285). By the time of King Yi, the Chu, under the leadership of an enlightened ruler, Xiong Qu 熊渠, had grown into a powerful state. ShijiChushijia records that Xiong Qu received support from the people of the Jianghan regions. He conquered the lands of Yong 庸 and Yangyue 揚越 and reached E 鄂, and he granted his three sons lands to be kings. The fall of the Western Zhou in 771 BC gave an even greater opportunity for the Chu to shine in the history of China. During the Eastern Zhou dynasty, the Chu state developed into a superpower. The famous King Zhuang of Chu was one of the Five Hegemons during the Spring and Autumn period, and the Chu state was regarded as one of the Seven Powerful Kingdoms during the Warring States period.

Literature: Liu Litang, 'Guanyu zhou zhaowang nanzheng jianghan diqu youguan wenti de tantao [Discussion on King Zhao's expedition to the Jianghan region]', Jianghan kaogu / Jianghan archaeology, no. 3, Wuhan, 2000.

Li Xueqin, 'Jimei bowuguan suocang ling gui de niandai [Dating of the Ling Gui in the Guimet Museum]', Faguo hanxue [French Sinology], no. 11, Beijing, 2006.

Li Xueqin, 'Lun wei yan ming ji zhou zhaowang nanzheng [A discussion on the inscription of Wei Yan and King Zhao's south expedition]', Xinchu qingtongqi yanjiu [Studies of recently excavated bronzes], Beijing, 2016.

Li Yushao, 'Xinchu tongqi mingwen suojian zhaowang nanzheng [A study of King Zhao's south expedition based on the recently discovered bronzes]', Xinchu jinwen yu xizhou lishi [Recently discovered bronze inscriptions and the history of Western Zhou], Shanghai, 2011.

Michael Loewe & Edward L . Shaughnessy, eds, The Cambridge History of Ancient China. From the Origins of Civilisation to 221 B.C., Cambridge, 1999.

Wang Qi, 'Xizhou zaoqi nanzheng qingtongqiqun ji xiangguan shishi kaocha [A survey of the bronze group relating to the south expeditions from the early Western Zhou and the related history]', Chutu wenxian / Excavated Documents, no. 2, Shanghai, 2016.

Yang Kuan, Xizhoushi [The history of Western Zhou], Shanghai, 2003.

Zhang Maorong, 'Lufang Hufang kao [The study of Lufang and Hufang]', Wenbo / Relics and Museology, no. 2, Xi'an, 1992.

Zhao Pingan, 'Shi guwenzi ziliao zhong de "yu" ji xiangguan zhuzi [Interpreting "yu" from the ancient Chinese and the related characters]', Zhongguo wenzi yanjiu / The Study of Chinese Characters, Shanghai, 2001.

Zhao Yanjiao and Wu Weihua, 'Jinwen suojian zhaowang nanzheng luxiankao / Examination of the Route of the Southern Emperor', Zhongguo lishi dili luncong / Journal of Chinese Historical Geography, vol. 33, no. 2, Xi'an, April 2018.

Zhu Fenghan, 'Lun xizhou shiqi de "nanguo" / On the "Southern States" in the Western Zhou period', Lishi yanjiu / Historical Research, no. 4, Beijing, 2013. 

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© Sotheby's 2022

Following is Dharma & Tantra, a carefully curated auction of 41 sculptures, paintings and ritual works of art that encapsulate the development and diffusion of Buddhist art in Asia. The journey originates in the ancient region of Gandhara, progressing through Pala India, Kashmir, Nepal and Tibet, traversing the Silk Road from the Tang empire to the Silla kingdom, and finally culminating in the Imperial palaces of Ming and Qing dynasty China.

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 Lot 108. A large silver-inlaid copper alloy figure of Avalokiteshvara, Western Tibet, 11th century. Height 23½ in., 59.7 cm. Himalayan Art Resources item no. 13805. Estimate: 2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD. © Sotheby's 2022

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Lot 123. A large inscribed gilt-bronze figure of Panjarnata Mahakala, Ming dynasty, dated Zhengde jiaxu year, corresponding to 1514. Height 12 in., 30.7 cm. Estimate: 1,200,000 - 1,500,000 USD© Sotheby's 2022

the top of the base incised with a horizontal fifteen-character inscription reading Daming Zhengde jiaxu nian yumajian taijian wuliang zao

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Lot 127. A gilt-bronze figure of Kasyapa, Liao Dynasty (907–1125). Height 9½ in., 24 cm; wood standEstimate: 500,000 - 700,000 USD. © Sotheby's 2022 

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The  signature live auction Important Chinese Art will feature exceptional Chinese porcelains, early ceramics, jades, and other works of art from distinguished private collections. Leading the sale will be a superb and rare turquoise-ground famille-rose and gilt-decorated vase, seal mark and period of Qianlong. Other highlights include a group of remarkable Ming dynasty blue and white porcelains from the collection of Albert Y.P. and Sara K.S. Lee, an extremely rare ‘Guan’ hexafoil tripod censer, a superbly carved Qianlong period white jade ‘dragon’ vase, a rare and important Liao dynasty gilt-silver filigree 'phoenix' crown, a selection of Chinese paintings from the collection of Chou Wen-Chung, and more Ming and Qing porcelains as well as early ceramics from Japanese private collections.

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 Lot 213. A superb and rare gilt-decorated famille-rose turquoise-ground vase, Seal mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795). Height 9½ in., 24 cm; wood stand. Estimate: 250,000 - 350,000 USDLot sold: 340,200 USD. © Sotheby's 2022 

the base with a six-character seal mark in gold enamel.

Provenance: Christie's New York, 3rd June 1988, lot 304.

 Cloisonné Imitation for the Emperor

Meticulously painted with confronted chilong amidst a turquoise-blue ground, the present vase demonstrates the playful emulations that were the result of technical mastery and experimentation at the Imperial workshops during the Qianlong period. The vase belongs to a group of vessels commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) in imitation of cloisonné enamel. The Qianlong Emperor was particularly fond of cloisonné enamel work, which he revived on a grand scale after a period of disregard under the Yongzheng Emperor. Cloisonné-imitation works were commissioned in both enameled porcelain, such as the present vase, and copper, where the wires separating the cloisons of different colors were mirrored by finely painted golden lines.

Although the idea of imitating other materials through porcelain had existed well before the 18th century, the craftsmen of the Qianlong period advanced the technique to a new level of perfection, sometimes creating ingenious trompe l'oeil works virtually indistinguishable from the actual medium they were simulating. Other Qianlong period porcelains imitating cloisonné enamel include a Tibetan-style ewer, duomuhu, gifted to the Hong Kong Museum of Art by Dr. K.S. Lo, included in the exhibition The Wonders of the Potter's Palette : Qing Ceramics from the Collection of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1984, cat. no. 70; a baluster vase with a simulated 'ribbon' tied around the body, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Qing Porcelain of Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Periods from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, pl. 40; a handled 'lotus' vase, also in the Palace Museum, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains with Cloisonné Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 119; and a double-gourd 'lotus' vase in the Shanghai Museum, illustrated in Qingdai Yongzheng - Xuantong Guanyao Ciqi [Qing Dynasty Official Wares from the Yongzheng to the Xuantong Reigns], Shanghai, 2014, pl. 5-39. A handled vase with lotus scroll formerly in the W.W. Winkworth and Robert Chang Collections has sold several times at auction, first in our London rooms, 12th December 1972, lot 175, and more recently in our Hong Kong rooms, 26th October 2003, lot 121. See also a vase with lotus and the Eight Daoist Emblems, first sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 24th-25th November 1987, lot 182, and again at Christie's Hong Kong, 3rd December 2008, lot 2566.

The composition of circular medallions formed by chilong or bats framed by floral sprays highlighted with gilt against a vibrantly-enameled ground is found on other porcelains from the reign, and was possibly inspired by contemporaneous textile designs. Compare a much larger (73.7cm high) ruby-ground vase with bat and lotus medallions, from the collection of Benjamin Altman, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (accession no. 14.40.406), illustrated in Suzanne G. Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, New York, 1989, pl. 278.

An extremely rare blue and white pouring vessel (Yi), Ming dynasty, 15th century

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Lot 201. An extremely rare blue and white pouring vessel (Yi)Ming dynasty, 15th century. Length across spout 8¼ in., 21 cmEstimate: 60,000 - 80,000 USDLot sold: 113,400 USD. © Sotheby's 2022

Property from the Collection of Albert Y.P. and Sara K.S. Lee.

Provenance: C.C. Lai, Hong Kong, 1971.

Note: Finely potted, the present piece is extremely rare in terms of form and design, and only one other example appears to be recorded. See a closely related vessel of similar size in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (accession no. 故瓷012298N000000000), attributed to the 'official kilns' of the Ming dynasty. 

Painted in a deep, rich cobalt, the interior is decorated with lappets enclosing a whorl, surrounded by lingzhi on the cavetto while a band of floral scrolls encircle the exterior of the vessel and extend to the underside of the spout. Compare the similarly painted floral scrolls on two blue and white bowls, attributed to the period between Zhengtong and Tianshun, excavated in 2014 and exhibited in Zhuoshuo chongxian: shiwu shiji zhongqi Jingdezhen ciqi teji / Lustre Revealed: Jingdezhen Porcelain Wares in Mid Fifteenth Century China, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2019, cat. nos 136 and 138. Painted in a deep, rich cobalt, the interior is decorated with lappets enclosing a whorl, surrounded by lingzhi on the cavetto while a band of floral scrolls encircle the exterior of the vessel and extend to the underside of the spout. Compare the similarly painted floral scrolls on two blue and white bowls, attributed to the period between Zhengtong and Tianshun, excavated in 2014 and exhibited in Zhuoshuo chongxian: shiwu shiji zhongqi Jingdezhen ciqi teji / Lustre Revealed: Jingdezhen Porcelain Wares in Mid Fifteenth Century China, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2019, cat. nos 136 and 138. 

According to Geng Baochang in Ming Qing ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain], Hong Kong, 1993, p. 48, blue and white vessels of this form, known as yi, were first produced in the Yuan dynasty at the Jingdezhen kilns. See several pouring bowls of this form and decorated with various floral designs attributed to the Yuan dynasty, illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji, vol. 11, Shanghai, 2000, pls 213-217. For fifteenth century examples of the same yi form, but with an unglazed base, see three decorated with dragons to the exterior, each of blue and white, red or green enamel, exhibited in op. cit., cat nos 193-195.

A blue and white 'dragon' dish, Mark and period of Zhengde

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Lot 202. A blue and white 'dragon' dish, Mark and period of Zhengde (1506-1521). Diameter 9½ in., 24.2 cmEstimate: 100,000 - 150,000 USDLot sold: 163,800 USD. © Sotheby's 2022

the base with a four-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle.

Property from the Collection of Albert Y.P. and Sara K.S. Lee.

Provenance: Christie's London, 6th June 1994, lot 117.

NoteThe design of five-clawed dragons among dense lotus scrolls is perhaps the most characteristic pattern of the Zhengde period (1506-21) and appears on dishes, bowls and jars of zhadou shape. Although the dragon-and-lotus design was popular throughout the Ming period, this dense and even distribution of the decorative elements, and the soft tone of cobalt blue, are particular to the Zhengde period.

The design may be based on a Xuande prototype, although no exact counterpart is known. For the most closely related Xuande design, compare a dish centered with two dragons facing forward among peony scrolls, or one with very similar dragons among lotus scrolls, both illustrated in Mingdai Xuande guanyao jinghua tezhan tulu / Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, cat. nos 188-189; an example of the latter design was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 4th April 2012, lot 3156. Compare also a Chenghua mark and period blue and white dragon dish from the Sir Percival David Collection in the British Museum, London, which represents a much more loosely composed forerunner to this design, illustrated in in Oriental Ceramics: The World’s Great Collections,  vol. 6, Tokyo, New York, and San Francisco, 1980, col. pl. 32.

On Zhengde dishes of this type, there are two variations in the placement of the dragons on the cavetto, which are oriented either vertically or, as is the present case, horizontally. The present dish also represents the larger dimension of the variations. Two similarly large dishes are in the British Museum, London, one with the dragons arranged as on the present dish, both illustrated in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, pls 8:15 and 16. Another dish similar to the present piece in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, is published in Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan cangpin yanjiu daxi / Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections: A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 3-78. A dish of similar design but slightly smaller in size in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (II), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 63. Another example, from the Eumorfopoulos Collection, illustrated in R.L. Hobson, The George Eumorfopoulos Collection of Chinese, Corean and Persian Pottery and Porcelain, London, 1925-8, vol. IV, pl. VII, no. D 18, was sold in our London rooms, 29th May 1940, lot 211.  For recently sold examples, see two similar dishes of slightly smaller dimension, the first, previously sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 28th October 1992, lot 41; Christie's Hong Kong, 3th December 2008, lot 2542 and again at Christie’s Hong Kong, 30th November 2011, lot 2979 and another sold in these rooms, 11th September 2019, lot 679. Such was the fame of these dishes that an example is illustrated in the sixth scroll of the Guwan tu (Pictures of Ancient Playthings) depicting treasured artifacts of the Yongzheng Emperor, now in the Percival David Collection at the British Museum, London.

zhadou, a dish, and three different bowls with similar dragon motifs are in the Palace Museum, Beijing, see op. cit., pls 57, 63 and 69-71, one of the bowls with the Zhengde reign mark replaced by a mark in Phags-pa script. A matching zhadou also in the Meiyintang Collection, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. 2, pl. 686, was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 7th April 2011, lot 60.

A blue and white 'tri-cloud' dish, Mark and period of Wanli

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Lot 203. A blue and white 'tri-cloud' dish, Mark and period of Wanli (1573-1620). Diameter 7⅜ in., 18.6 cmEstimate: 10,000 - 15,000 USDLot sold: 12,600 USD. © Sotheby's 2022

the base with a six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle.

Property from the Collection of Albert Y.P. and Sara K.S. Lee.

Provenance: Acquired in Hong Kong.

A blue and white 'immortals' cylindrical vase, Transitional period, circa 1640

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Lot 204. A blue and white 'immortals' cylindrical vase, Transitional period, circa 1640. Height 13½ in., 34.3 cmEstimate: 20,000 - 30,000 USDLot sold: 50,400 USD. © Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: Acquired in the 1980s.

An extremely rare ‘Guan’ hexafoil tripod censer, Hangzhou kilns, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279)

An extremely rare ‘Guan’ hexafoil tripod censer, Hangzhou kilns, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279)

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Lot 226. An extremely rare ‘Guan’ hexafoil tripod censerHangzhou kilns, Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). Width 4⅜ in., 11 cmLot sold: 390,600 USD (Estimate: 50,000 - 70,000 USD). © Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: The Mount Trust Collection. 

Christie's London, 19th April 1983, lot 35. 

China House of Arts, New York.

ExhibitedThe Mount Trust Collection of Chinese Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1970, cat. no. 74. 

Archives. Ancient Chinese Arts, China House of Arts, New York, 1984, cat. no. 26. 

NoteGuan yao, the fabled ‘official ware’ specially created for the imperial court of the Southern Song (1127-1279) in Hangzhou in south China, is amongst the most desirable and certainly one of the rarest types of Chinese ceramics. Its elegant, unassuming simplicity belies its technical sophistication, and showcases Chinese potters at the height of their ingenuity, technical capabilities and aesthetic vision.

When the Southern Song court looked to commission a new official ware, the forms of archaic ritual bronzes or jades provided the most important inspiration. During this time, archaic bronzes and jades had begun to be excavated, researched and collected as symbols and witnesses of a blessed era of Chinese history, due to their central function in important state rituals in antiquity.

The present incense burner is not directly copied, but clearly based on an archaic bronze li vessel. The exquisite, unctuous glaze of the present vase with its smooth pleasing texture, milky-blue tint and subtle gloss was achieved through gradual application of multiple layers and presumably successive firings. The dark blackish-brown body visible on the feet adds depth to the glaze and gravitas to the whole object, as it subtly accentuates the shape.

Guan ware is mentioned and lauded already in contemporary texts of the Southern Song period. According to those texts, Xiuneisi, the Palace Maintenance Office, set up a kiln in the new capital, present day Hangzhou, to produce wares modeled on the official ware of the Northern Song. Somewhat later, another kiln at Hangzhou produced a similar but lesser ware. The basic message of these reports appears to be supported by archaeological research, since two different kiln sites have been explored at Hangzhou, one at Wuguishan, south of the former imperial city, the other at Laohudong on the site formerly occupied by the imperial city. Because of their locations and the different qualities of the sherds recovered, the Wuguishan kiln has been interpreted as the (lesser) Jiaotanxia kiln; the Laohudong kiln as the exalted Xiuneisi manufactory. It is difficult, however, to link the best examples of guan ware to either kiln site.

The form of the current incense burner is extremely rare, but two closely related examples are published: one from the Heeramaneck Collection, illustrated in Warren Cox, The Book of Pottery and Porcelain, vol. I, New York, 1970, fig. 292, and another from the collection of Richard Bryant Hobart, sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York, 12th December 1969, lot 201, and included in the exhibition Ju and Kuan Wares. Imperial Wares of the Sung Dynasty, Related Wares and Derivatives of Later Date, Oriental Ceramic Society, London, 1952, cat. no. 52. A guan tripod incense burner also modeled after an archaic bronze li vessel, but of more rounded ovoid form, formerly in the collections of Enid and Brodie Lodge and J.T. Tai, was sold in these rooms, 22nd March 2011, lot 183, and more recently at Christie's Hong Kong, 29th May 2018, lot 2902.

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Lot 283. A superbly carved white jade ‘dragon’ vaseQianlong period (1736-1795). Height 7⅛ in., 18.1 cmEstimate: 800,000 - 1,200,000 USDSold for $756,000. © Sotheby's 2022

Property from the Morgan Foundation Collection.

Provenance: Private Collection, acquired by 1925. 

Christie's London, 14th May 2012, lot 80.

NoteExquisitely carved, the present vase is testament to the technical perfection achieved by the imperial workshops during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. The five-clawed dragons carved on each side, amidst scrolling clouds and enclosed within central medallions, are juxtaposed with the vase’s refined and simple form, subtly alluding to the unquestionable and imperial authority of the Qianlong Emperor.

During the Qing dynasty, especially during the reign of Qianlong, the production of imperial jade carvings in China soared to new heights. Through successful territorial expansion, political stability and soaring economic growth, the Empire acquired an unprecedented amount of wealth and the imperial workshops recruited the best artisans to cater to the increasing demands of the Emperor and the court. In 1759, the 24th year of Qianlong, the Qing Empire's victory over the Dzungar and Muslim rebellions marked a pivotal point in the production of jade carvings. The victory allowed access to the jade-rich territories in Khotan and Yarkant, where the geological setting was extremely favorable for the formation of high-quality nephrite. Khotan jade, renowned for its translucency and extreme hardiness, was highly prized. The Emperor’s passion for jade and the court’s access to unprecedented quantities of the raw material ushered in a new age of jade carving, pushing the craftsmen’s technical and creative capacities to new heights.

An erudite scholar and passionate collector of antiques, the Qianlong Emperor’s love for the past was grounded in his admiration for Chinese history and influenced by Confucian philosophy, which emphasized the study of history in the pursuit of virtue. The Qianlong Emperor actively influenced jade production, criticizing the ‘vulgar’ style popular in the 18th century as excessively ornate, and urged craftsmen to study ancient vessels to incorporate archaic elements into their own creations. The Xiqing gujian [Catalogue of Xiqing antiquities], which was compiled by court artists between 1749 and 1755, comprised line drawings of some 1,500 objects in the imperial collection, and was circulated among the craftsmen who were encouraged to take inspiration from it.

Skillfully adapted to suit the refined taste of the Emperor, the elegant form of this vase draws inspiration from archaic bronze wine vessels, hu, flanked with lug handles to each side. The robust shape of the bronze prototype was transformed into a graceful silhouette, acting as a canvas for the central medallions. The bold, powerful dragon carved in relief fills up the space, whereas the rest of the vase is void of decoration. The result is a vessel that appears modern yet steeped in classical symbolism.

Ferociously portrayed and coiled around the 'Flaming Pearl', the frontal dragon exerts its forceful presence. Able to control the rain and breathe clouds and fire in Chinese mythology, the dragon became associated with imperial power as early as the Han dynasty. From the Ming dynasty onwards, the imagery of a five-clawed dragon became inseparable from the association of imperial might. The fearsome portrayal of the dragon on the present vase is, thus, indicative of the artistic language adopted by the workshop to reinforce Qianlong’s rule as imperial, powerful, legitimate and ubiquitous.

Compare a closely related spinach-green jade vase and cover, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (accession no. 故玉002725N000000000). Similarly carved with a five-claw dragon amidst the clouds in a central medallion, but with mythical beast handles suspending loose rings, the vase is inscribed with a six-character Daqing Qianlong fanggu mark to the base. For other closely related examples, see three covered vases, all with handles suspending loose rings, one formerly in the Collection of Hebert R. Bishop, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (accession nos 02.18.606a, b); another, previously in the Vint Family Collection, exhibited in International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935, cat no. 2839, sold at Christie’s New York, 3th December 2008, lot 2606; the third, sold at Christie's London, 29th June 1959, lot 53. See one, lacking a cover, included in the 75th Anniversary Exhibition of Post-Archaic Chinese Jades from Private Collections, S. Marchant & Son, London, 2000, cat. no. 14. Lastly, a covered example of similar decoration, but with loose rings suspending from elephant-head handles, was sold at Christie’s New York, 2nd December 1989, lot 250. 

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Lot 261. A rare and important gilt-silver filigree 'phoenix' crown, Liao dynasty (907-1125). Height 12 in., 30.4 cmEstimate: 150,000 - 200,000 USD. Sold for $189,000© Sotheby's 2022

Provenance: Gisèle Croës, Brussels, 2005.

Note: This dazzling and lavish crown is distinguished by its complex, sculptural form and extraordinarily fine openwork. The striking silhouette is created by overlapping thinly hammered, ruyi-shaped gilt-silver plates of various heights. The intricate coin designs were sensitively and painstakingly cut out from the metal sheets. The finial, in the form of a phoenix spreading its wings up high, is also uncommon. This crown is a testimony of the technical perfection achieved in gilt metalwork during the Liao dynasty (907-1125).

See two closely related Liao dynasty crowns of similar sculptural form and delicate openwork, one in the Mengdiexuan Collection, exhibited in Adornment for the Body and Soul: Ancient Chinese Ornaments from the Mengdiexuan Collection, University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong, 1999, cat. no. 92, the other in the Gansu Provincial Museum, Lanzhou, illustrated in Jia Xizeng, 'Liao dai jin guan [Liao Dynasty Gilt Crowns]', Zijincheng, November 2011, fig. 3-2. Similar to the present lot, both crowns are topped in the center with finials in the form of a phoenix spreading its wings. Compare also two in the Inner Mongolia Museum, Hohhot, similarly structured with overlapping cloud-shaped openwork plates but lacking phoenix finials, illustrated in ibid., figs 3-4 and 3-5. As Jia suggests, during the Liao dynasty, these crowns were solely reserved for the court and the royal family during important ritual rites, ceremonies and funerary practices, attesting to the historical importance of these elaborate headdresses (see ibid., pp 96-113). 

For further related examples, compare a pair of gilt-silver crowns excavated in 1986 from the tomb of the Princess and Prince Consort of the State of Chen (c. 1018), now in the Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot, and illustrated in Zhang Jingming, Zhongguo beifang caoyuan gudai jinyin qi / The Ancient Gold and Silver Wares from the Northern Steppe of China, Beijing, 2005, pls 121-2. One crown, mounted with twenty-two individual small roundels of phoenixes, birds, parrots and flames on cloud-shaped metal sheets, was placed next to the Prince Consort. Compare also another pair of headdresses in the Musée Cernuschi, Paris (accession nos M.C. 2001-8 and M.C. 2001-5), one of related form to the present piece and constructed by combining scallop-edged openwork panels.

The dating of this lot is consistent with the results of Laboratoires Serma microanalyses test no. SE 70-OA. 

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Sotheby's is also delighted to present a single-owner online auction SUBLIME BEAUTY: Korean Ceramics from a Private Collection, comprising over 20 elegant Korean ceramics of superb craftsmanship. This is the first sale in this category in recent years.

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Closing the sale week is the CHINA / 5000 YEARS online auction, which comprises a diverse selection of over 200 pieces of Qing porcelains, jades, early ceramics, bronzes, furniture, and other Asian works of art. Highlights include a group of jades from the Estate of Doris Ley, a large blue and white ‘lotus’ vase from the Collection of Victor Shaw, and Chinese furniture from the Collection of Loyd and Linda Crawley.

Concurrent with Sotheby's Asia Week exhibitions is a special preview of HOTUNG | 何東 The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung, a four-part sale series taking place in Hong Kong and London later this year. The preview will feature a superb selection of Chinese works of art and Impressionist paintings from this esteemed collection.