Treasures for sale during Asia Week, part 3 – Archaic Chinese Bronzes – UPDATED WITH SALE RESULTS
Chinese bronzes are one of those extraordinary accomplishments in human artistic creativity and Sotheby’s had a fine array at their sale today of Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art included this rare item, a 12th century BC, Shang Dynasty “Double Owl” ritual food vessel.
A RARE ARCHAIC BRONZE ‘DOUBLE OWL’ RITUAL FOOD VESSEL (YOU) SHANG DYNASTY, 12TH CENTURY BC — of oval section, in the form of two addorsed owls, their rounded bodies supported on four stout legs, and crisply cast in low relief with four wings of simple curvilinear outline sweeping back to a pair of rings attached to a rope-twist handle, the domed cover cast on each side with a well-defined mask or owl face with two raised round eyes with recessed pupils, a prominent blunted beak and angular ‘C’- scrolls defining the facial features, all below a central pyramidal knop decorated with cicada blades, the mottled green patina with some malachite and cuprite encrustation (2)
You vessels of this type belong to two groups – those with highly articulated surface decoration and those plainly decorated. The present lot belongs primarily to the latter but with some notable elements that distinguish it within the form.
Compare a very similar one in Robert W. Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Washington D.C.,1987, p. 368, no. 63. Bagley describes the evolution of the form from “notably primitive and inarticulate” (p. 370) to “painstakingly naturalistic” (p. 371) in reference to the archetypal form with intense surface decoration to final edition of the “perfect oval-bodied you” of a type similar to the example on offer. Bagley describes the appearance of taotie masks on the lid and the innovative design change from downward curved beaks to upturned blunted hooks. The present double-owl you represents an interesting final step on the evolutionary ladder of this intriguing form.
Other fine bronzes in today’s sale included the following:
A PAIR OF ARCHAIC BRONZE RITUAL WINE VESSELS (JUE) SHANG DYNASTY, 12TH / 11TH CENTURY BC: each cast with a deep ‘U’-shaped body, raised on three blade-form tapering legs, two pictographs cast beneath the loop handle on one side issuing from a bovine head and centered on two finely cast taotie masks divided by low vertical flanges forming a continuous frieze around the sides, a band of finely cast upright blades rising beneath the flared rim extending towards the edges of the rim from which rise two capped upright posts, with a mottled green patina and some encrustation (2).
Additional bronzes will be sold at Christie’s on May 22, including this respectable group from a collection in Washington, DC. Complete catalogue.
The inscription cast within the foot of the vessel, zi long, may be literally translated as ‘son dragon.’
In terms of shape and design, this imposing vessel belongs to a small group of late Shang zun which features two lower registers of taotie and animal designs in low relief while the neck and flaring mouth are devoid of decoration and flanges except for the double bow-string bands just above the midsection. Another zun of this general type, but cast with taotie masks on the splayed foot rather than pairs of confronted birds such as those seen on the current example, is illustrated by S.D. Owyoung, Ancient Chinese Bronzes in the Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 1997, p. 70, no. 14. Another related zun is illustrated by J.K. Murray, A Decade of Discovery: Selected Acquisitions, 1970-1980, The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1979, no. 6, where it is dated to the Shang dynasty, late Anyang period, based on a similar vessel excavated at Cangshan, Xi’an, Shandong province and illustrated in Wenwu, 1965:7, p. 30, fig. 13.
The inscription cast in the bottom of the vessel reads Shi Bei zuo Fu Xin, which may be translated as ‘Cast by the scribe Bei for Father Xin.’
The inscription consists of the graph che followed by the characters Fu Xin (Father Xin). A variation of the graph che can be seen incorporated into an inscription cast on a late Shang gu, formerly in the collection of R.D. Minett, which was sold at Sotheby’s, New York, 11 March 1965, lot 92.
The yi was a water vessel that was often used in conjunction with a pan for the ritual washing of hands, which is confirmed by the two having been found together in tombs, usually with the yi in the pan. It was a late Western Zhou adaptation of the gong and the he, and continued into the Eastern Zhou period.
A yi of similar proportions and raised on four similar flat dragon-form legs, but of smaller size (26.5 cm. long) and cast below the rim with a band of stylized dragons as opposed to the angular scroll seen on the current vessel, is in the Shanghai Museum and illustrated in Zhongguo Qingtongqi Quanji – 6 – Xi Zhou (2), Beijing, 1997, p. 143, no. 147, where it is dated late Western Zhou.
The inscription cast on the interior of the present yi may be translated, ‘  of the Fu Family made this precious object. Their descendents for the next ten thousand years will cherish and enjoy it forever.’
Bells (zhong) of this type with a large loop handle formed by the addorsed bodies of dragons or birds are known as bo. They come in various sizes, as they were made in graduated sets, and with variations in their decoration.
Several bo zhong of this general type are illustrated by J. So, Eastern Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1995, pp. 372-7, no. 77 and figs. 77.1-.5. The decoration on all of the examples is similarly arranged but varies in pattern and detail.
Lavishly decorated bells, such as the present example, were an important component of larger ceremonial functions within Shang and Zhou dynasty ritual culture. Signifiers of wealth and power, bronze bells served as markers of cultural sophistication and erudition. Archaeological excavations have found sets of bells placed within elaborate burial chambers accompanying prominent figures. Sumptuary laws determined the number of bells alotted to the deceased. The most famous and possibly most spectacular example is an assemblage of 65 bells from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng dated to the 4th century BC discovered in Hubei, illustrated by J. So, ed.,Music in the Age of Confucius, Freer Gallery of Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington DC, 2000, p. 37.