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Rare Archaic Chinese Bronze Owl Tanks at Sotheby’s

March 18, 2014
Lot 18. A VERY RARE AND IMPORTANT BRONZE OWL-HEADED RITUAL WINE VESSEL (HU) EARLY EASTERN ZHOU DYNASTY, 8TH-7TH CENTURY BC the stoutly cast pear-shaped body encircled by thirty horizontal grooves and supported on a straight ring foot, underneath a plain neck tapering on one end to a short channeled spout, the cover shaped as the head of a beaked raptor, with large eyes gazing upwards, two upright tab-shaped ears set in a shallow scrolled recess and the sharp down-curved beak separately hinged to the center of the mask, further set with a pair of loops supporting two large rings linked to a high swing handle made of movable sections, the lower-most sections secured by  a pair of nail-like knobs issuing from the shoulders, connected to the middle section by rotating hinge-like devices, in turn joined with a single yoke-shaped section over the top by the same devices as the lower-most joint, the interior of the cover engraved with a nine-character inscription, the patination of overall olive-green color, with light malachite encrustations   Height 18 1/4  in., 46.5 cm Estimate: $4-6 million.

Lot 18. A VERY RARE AND IMPORTANT BRONZE OWL-HEADED RITUAL WINE VESSEL (HU)
EARLY EASTERN ZHOU DYNASTY,
8TH-7TH CENTURY BC
the stoutly cast pear-shaped body encircled by thirty horizontal grooves and supported on a straight ring foot, underneath a plain neck tapering on one end to a short channeled spout, the cover shaped as the head of a beaked raptor, with large eyes gazing upwards, two upright tab-shaped ears set in a shallow scrolled recess and the sharp down-curved beak separately hinged to the center of the mask, further set with a pair of loops supporting two large rings linked to a high swing handle made of movable sections, the lower-most sections secured by a pair of nail-like knobs issuing from the shoulders, connected to the middle section by rotating hinge-like devices, in turn joined with a single yoke-shaped section over the top by the same devices as the lower-most joint, the interior of the cover engraved with a nine-character inscription, the patination of overall olive-green color, with light malachite encrustations
Height 18 1/4 in., 46.5 cm
Estimate: $4-6 million. Bidding on this lot stopped at $3.7 million and it failed to sell.

The auctions during Asia Week 2014 include two highly important Ancient Chinese bronzes – the first this morning at Sotheby’s, a rare, Early Zhou Dynasty Owl-Headed Wine Vessel, estimated at $4-6 million, bombed, unable to surpass a chandelier bid of $3.7 million. It was preceded by mostly spirited bidding for the first dozen lots in the sale, including the late 19th century Wu Dacheng Jijintu Qing Dynasty scroll, estimated at $100,000-150,000, which bid up swiftly to $260,000 before a bidder in the room offered $500,000, which effectively ended the battle (the final price inclusive of buyer’s premium was $605,000).

As for the owl wine vessel – appropriately known as a hu – it is a unique surviving example of its type with a clear provenance dating back at to the 1800s.

According to a Sotheby’s press release:

The piece dates from the Early Eastern Zhou Dynasty (c. 8/7th century BC) and is the only surviving owl bronze of this caliber. In addition to its extraordinary rarity, the vessel boasts a distinguished provenance dating back to the early 19th century, having at various times been in some of the world’s most illustrious private collections of Chinese Art.

[…]

Dr. Tao Wang, Head of the Chinese Works of Art Department at Sotheby’s New York commented: “This bronze owl from the collection of Sakamoto Goro is one of the rarest examples of early Chinese bronze culture to have appeared at auction. With a history that includes some of the most renowned 19th and 20th century collections of Chinese Art, the provenance, form, iconography, and condition combine to make this one of the greatest objects I’ve handled in my career.”

The Owl In Chinese Art
The owl has a unique and enormously significant place in early Chinese culture where it was perceived as a deity by the Shang people. The screech call and nocturnal behavior fit perfectly a perception of abnormality in ritual and magic while the physical appearance is warrior-like. Indeed, it has even been suggested that Xuanniao, the mythical black-bird from which the Shang people originated can be associated with an owl.

A Distinguished History
The bronze and its inscription was published by Wu Yun, one of the most accomplished Chinese connoisseurs of the 19th century, one of over 100 ancient bronzes in his precautious collection. The bronze vessel was first collected by Li Meisheng, an eminent scholar-official in Suzhou and was allegedly rescued from a metal recycling store in Shanghai in 1861. In the 20th century the owl belonged to two renowned collectors of Chinese Art – Lionel Edwards and Baron Paul Hatvany. In the late 1970s it entered the collection of the British Rail Pension Fund from whom Sakamoto Goro acquired it at the landmark auction at Sotheby’s London in 1989.

Lot 18. Detail.

Lot 18. Detail.

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