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Left: A Fine and Rare Ru-Type Beaker Vase, Gu, Qianlong Seal Mark and Period, Estimate £100,000-200,000. Right: An Impressive Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel, Gu, Late Shang Dynasty, 13th-11th Century BC, Estimate £100,000-200,000. Photo: Sotheby’s.

LONDON– On 5 November 2014 in London, Sotheby’s will sell two revered and equally sought after Chinese artefacts that although produced over 3,000 years apart, are in direct dialogue with each other across the intervening dynasties in their timelessness of form.

An archaic bronze ritual gu wine vessel dating from the late Shang dynasty, 13th-11th century BC, is of a type that only the wealthiest of patrons could afford. These vessels are one of the oldest forms in the Chinese archaic bronze repertoire and were produced specifically for rituals. They were originally glittering and golden brown in colour, and their robust shapes and bold designs were purposefully created to increase the dramatic effect in which they would appear from the billowing smoke during rituals performed by the priest from the front altar. The crisp decoration on this particular piece is remarkably preserved.

In the eighteenth century, such exquisite bronze vessels inspired artistic production during the Qing dynasty, particularly under the Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795) emperors who were avid collectors. Bronze shapes and design elements entered the general repertoire of Qianlong porcelain and provided a stimulus for vessels otherwise unrelated to the ancient metal versions. The example presented for sale is a rare Ru-type Beaker Vase from the Qianlong period, which also references a further celebrated tradition in its glaze, that of Ru ware of the Song dynasty, the finest, rarest and most prized ware produced for the court.

Monochrome vessels required the highest level of skill and precision in every stage of their production. The slightest irregularity would result in the rejection and destruction of the piece, thus pushing the craftsmen to the limits of their abilities in the pursuit of perfection. By stripping back all the decorative elements, the vase highlights the elegance of the archaic form while also signifying the emperor’s all encompassing role as preserver of Chinese cultural traditions.

Both the bronze vessel and the porcelain vase were acquired by a European Vice Consul in Shanghai in the early 1940s. Collectors today pursue such objects with equal passion and the two examples to be offered in Sotheby’s sale of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art are each estimated at £100,000-200,000.

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An Impressive Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel, Gu, Late Shang Dynasty, 13th-11th Century BC. stimate £100,000-200,000. Photo: Sotheby’s.

the slender middle section rising from a flaring foot to a trumpet neck, crisply cast around the central bulb with stylised taotie masks centred and divided by notched flanges, the neck with four upright triangular blades decorated with dissolved taotie masks in relief against a leiwen ground above a band of angular serpents, the foot similarly decorated with taotie masks and cicadas in relief against a leiwen ground, with two bowstrings and two crosses dividing the waist and foot, the bronze with an attractive olive patina with malachite encrustations, the base with an inscription reading Hu ju (Tiger chariot); 33cm., 13in.

PROVENANCE: Purchased by a European Vice Consul in Shanghai in the early 1940s.

Notes: Outstanding for its remarkably preserved crisp decoration, which compliments the elegant silhouette of the sweeping neck, this gu is characteristic of ritual bronze vessels of the final stage of the development in Anyang. This late style is characterised by the high-relief motifs against dense ground patterns. The most refined examples, such as the present piece, feature intaglio designs on the main taotie masks and a ground interspersed with leiwen-spirals. The two pictograms cast inside the foot may be translated as hu ju (tiger chariot), and is likely to be a clan name.

A closely related gu, from the Sackler collection in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Washington D.C., is illustrated in Robert W. Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collection, Washington D.C., 1987, pl. 38; another, unearthed in 2001 from Huayuanzhuang village, Anyang city, Henan province, is published in Yinxu xunchutu qingtongqi [Ritual bronzes recently excavated in Yinxu], Kunming, 2008, pl. 62; and a third, from the collections of H.E. Alexandre J. Argyropoulos and Julius Eberhardt, and included in the exhibition Mostra d’Arte Cinese, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, 1954, cat. no. 6, was sold in our New York rooms, 17th September 2013, lot 1.


A Fine and Rare Ru-Type Beaker Vase, Gu, Qianlong Seal Mark and Period. Estimate £100,000-200,000. Photo: Sotheby’s.

cf. my post of october 24th.

Further Highlights:

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A Fine Pale Celadon Jade ‘Quail and Millet’ Ruyi Sceptre, Qing Dynasty, 18th-19th Century. Estimate: £40,000-60,000. Photo: Sotheby’s.

the large ruyi-shaped terminal carved in low relief with two quails sheltered amongst leafy millet and lingzhisprays on a rocky ledge beside flowing waters, the arched shaft framed with interlocking ruyi and foliate strapwork, the reverse carved with scrolled geometric motifs near the terminal, pierced at the bottom edge for threading a tassel, the translucent stone of an even pale celadon tone with icy-white inclusions, wood stand. Quantity: 2 – 40cm., 15 ¾ in.

PROVENANCE: Collection of T.Y. King (by repute).
Collection of Dr Ernst Winkler, acquired in the 1940-1950s.

Notes: This sceptre is notable for the delicately carved scene of quails standing among millet sprays. It is rare to find depictions of birds adorning sceptres and the carver of this piece has skilfully achieved a sense of naturalism through the softly rendered features of the quails, which contrasts with the jagged ground on which they stand and the curving millet reeds. The large size of this piece is also impressive, and such high-quality boulders were only made available from the 18th century when large boulders were presented to the Qianlong emperor as tributes from Khotan.

Symbolic of the wish suisui ping’an (‘May you have peace year after year’), the quail and millet motif is found on a white jade sceptre, encrusted with precious stones, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Jadeware (III), Hong Kong, 1995, pl. 30. Sceptres with scenes of birds and plants include one from the T.Y. Chao collection, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 18th November 1986, lot 191; and a smaller example from the Robert H. Blumenfield collection, sold at Christie’s New York, 22nd March 2012, lot 1229

The history of sceptres dates back to the pre-Tang (518-907) times, with its origins possibly connected to Buddhism. Originally used as back-scratchers, which are often depicted in the hands of Buddhist holy figures, the ruyi sceptre became a talisman that was presented to bestow good fortune. Its shape changed over time and from the latter half of the Tang dynasty, when there was a temporary decline in Buddhism, Daoist followers adopted it as their auspicious object. From that time onwards, the heart-shaped head was often rendered as a lingzhi fungus, a symbol of longevity. It was during the reign of the Yongzheng emperor (1722-1735), that the auspicious tradition of the ruyi (literally meaning ‘as you wish’) was revived and became an imperial object. Since the sceptre had no practical function and could take on any shape of form deemed suitable to express good wishes, it was the perfect imperial gift. For a more detailed discussion of the history of this good luck charm see the exhibition catalogue Auspicious Ju-I Sceptres of China, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1995, pp 86-90.


A Gilt-Bronze Figure of Manjushri, Yongle Mark and Period. Estimate: £100,000-150,000. Photo: Sotheby’s.

cf. my post of october 27th


A Rare Pair of Green-Ground Famille-Rose Bottle Vases, Qianlong Seal Marks and Period. Estimate: £200,000-300,000. Photo: Sotheby’s.

cf. my post of october 24th