Major Chinese Treasures at Christie’s – UPDATED WITH SALE RESULTS
UPDATE: The first half of this sale, which concluded with lot 1210, was a huge success for Christie’s and the Springfield Museums, which deaccessioned dozens of works that drew great interest and active bidding – especially lot 1183 (below), a pear-shaped vase that blew through its $300,000-500,000 estimate to sell for a hammer price of $3.3 million ($3,819,750 with the buyer’s premium). Only one lot did not sell and many lots sold well beyond their high estimate. The sale continues on March 22. 2013.
My most memorable class as a college undergraduate was Connoisseurship in Chinese Art (and I was getting a political science degree!), during which half of our class time was spent in a store room of the Freer Gallery of Art, an elegant oasis on Washington, DC’s National Mall and a jewel of the Smithsonian Institution. Ever since then, I’ve been particularly fascinated by Neolithic Chinese pottery and works from the Great Bronze Age.
Christie’s will be offering some impressive treasures in their March 21, 2013 sale of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, among them a large assortment of bronzes, including a group from the Raymond A. Bidwell (1876-1954) Collection, which are being deaccessioned by the Springfield Museums in Springfield, MA – this should assuage concerns about a lack of dated pre-1970 provenance (other works, including Lot 1220 – below – with an “Estimate on Request”, do not have a dated pre-1970 provenance – we’ll see how the market reacts to that one).
Part of my fascination with ancient Chinese bronzes is the exceptional iconography, among them the nearly ubiquitous taotie mask (left) on the fangyi above. According to the catalogue notes for this lot:
The decoration on all fangyi is arranged in registers, with a large taotie mask on the body, small dragons or birds on the foot and above the mask, and either a large taotie repeated on the cover or, in at least one instance, a bird.
For those not familiar the taotie device, here’s an explanation courtesy Britannica.com:
The taotie characteristically consists of a zoomorphic mask in full face that may be divided, through the nose ridge at the centre, into profile views of two one-legged beasts (gui dragons) confronting each other. A ground pattern of squared spirals, the “thunder pattern” (lei-wen), often serves as a design filler between and around the larger features of the design.
Typical features of the mask include large, protuberant eyes; stylized depictions of eyebrows, horns, nose crest, ears, and two peripheral legs; and a line of a curled upper lip with exposed fangs and no lower jaw. The name taotie (“glutton”), which came into use by the 3rd century bc, was probably inspired by the fact that the monster is usually portrayed as an ever-devouring beast. The function of the taotie motif has been variously interpreted: it may be totemic, protective, or an abstracted, symbolic representation of the forces of nature. The motif was most common during the Shang (18th–12th century bc) and early Zhou (1111–c. 900 bc) dynasties. After the early Zhou period, thetaotie mask motif was supplanted by a monster that was similar but depicted with diminished power and in a more literal manner.
One determined bidder – with the lucky paddle #888 – purchased lot 1125 (above) for a hammer price of $80,000 ($99,750 with the buyer’s premium). The bidder came back a few minutes later and pushed the price on lot 1137 (below) from an estimate of $60,000-80,000 to a hammer price of $550,000 ($663,750 with the buyer’s premium).
And late in the sale, the bidder with paddle #888 purchased lot 1192 (below).
According to the lot notes: “Only one other Qianlong-marked vase of this rare combination of shape and decoration appears to have been published … [and is now] in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England.”
The remaining lots are from various collections.
According to the lot notes: “Vessels of this unusual addorsed owl form appear to have been made primarily during the Shang dynasty, and are of two different types; those covered all over with dense decoration and those of more austere, simplified design, exemplified by the present magnificent example.”
The second, plain group, which includes the present you, shares the same basic form, but has a smooth surface decorated only with simplified wings and facial details cast in crisp relief creating an elegance of form devoid of unnecessary distractions.
The closest comparable you to the present vessel appears to be one of approximately the same size (25 cm. high) in the Hubei Yingcheng Wenhuaguan which is illustrated in Zhongguo Qingtongqi Quanji – 4 – Shang(4), Beijing, 1998, p. 152, no. 156. Like the present you, the heads of the owls on the Hubei Yingcheng example exhibit unusual ‘eyebrows’ with a combed, hair-like texture. Another unusual feature of the present vessel is the inclusion of the pair of confronted dragons behind the owl heads, rather than the more usual C-shaped horns that appear on most of the other published examples. A smaller (18.5 cm. high), but other otherwise very similar you to the present vessel and the Hubei Yingcheng example, but lacking the ‘eyebrows’, as well as the pair of confronted dragons behind the owl heads, is in the Shanghai Museum and illustrated ibid., no. 157.
According to the lot notes:
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.
Unlike the suspending zhong bells from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, nao bells, such as the present bell, would have been mounted on the tubular shank with its mouth open to the player.
Here’s a portion of the lot notes:
[T]he origins of the dou shape can be traced back to shallow ceramic tazza of the Longshan culture in the late Neolithic period. The ceramic form continued to be used throughout the Shang and Zhou periods, but in the Western Zhou period attempts were made to give the modest ceramic form a more ornamental appearance by fashioning it from lacquer over a wood core or casting it in bronze. Early in the Eastern Zhou period the dou shape acquired a lid, and by the sixth century BC it had acquired lug handles on the bowl.