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More than $30 Million for Massive Ancient Chinese Bronze Wine Vessel at Christie’s

March 19, 2014
Lot 1888. A MAGNIFICENT AND HIGHLY IMPORTANT MASSIVE BRONZE RITUAL WINE VESSEL, FANGLEI LATE SHANG/EARLY WESTERN ZHOU DYNASTY, 12TH/11TH CENTURY BC  The decoration on each of the four sides of the broad, tapering body is arranged in horizontal registers divided by vertical hooked flanges which are repeated at the corners. The lowest and widest register is cast in relief with large taotie masks, one of which is centered by a D-shaped handle surmounted by a horned dragon mask cast on the underside of the upturned lower jaw with a cicada. In the register above a smaller taotie mask is flanked by a pair of birds, which are repeated on the rectangular neck and on the flared pedestal foot where they flank a short, hooked flange. The rounded shoulder is cast with pairs of dragons separated on two sides by a horned dragon mask with curved tusks cast in high relief, and on the other two, narrower sides, with a pair of dragon-mask-surmounted, D-shaped handles that suspend loose rings cast with abstract, attenuated dragons with large eyes. All of the decoration is cast in crisp relief and reserved on leiwen grounds. A six-character inscription, min, followed by Fu Ji zuo zun yi (Father Ji made (i.e., commissioned) this sacred vessel), is cast inside the neck. The vessel has an olive-toned patina with some areas of malachite encrustation. 25 in. (63.6 cm.) high  92.5 lbs. (41.9 kg.)  Estimate on Request.

Lot 1888. A MAGNIFICENT AND HIGHLY IMPORTANT MASSIVE BRONZE RITUAL WINE VESSEL, FANGLEI
LATE SHANG/EARLY WESTERN ZHOU DYNASTY, 12TH/11TH CENTURY BC
The decoration on each of the four sides of the broad, tapering body is arranged in horizontal registers divided by vertical hooked flanges which are repeated at the corners. The lowest and widest register is cast in relief with large taotie masks, one of which is centered by a D-shaped handle surmounted by a horned dragon mask cast on the underside of the upturned lower jaw with a cicada. In the register above a smaller taotie mask is flanked by a pair of birds, which are repeated on the rectangular neck and on the flared pedestal foot where they flank a short, hooked flange. The rounded shoulder is cast with pairs of dragons separated on two sides by a horned dragon mask with curved tusks cast in high relief, and on the other two, narrower sides, with a pair of dragon-mask-surmounted, D-shaped handles that suspend loose rings cast with abstract, attenuated dragons with large eyes. All of the decoration is cast in crisp relief and reserved on leiwen grounds. A six-character inscription, min, followed by Fu Ji zuo zun yi (Father Ji made (i.e., commissioned) this sacred vessel), is cast inside the neck. The vessel has an olive-toned patina with some areas of malachite encrustation.
25 in. (63.6 cm.) high
92.5 lbs. (41.9 kg.)
Estimate on Request (approximately $15 million).

UPDATE: ArtNet.com‘s Eileen Kinsella reports that “Christie’s Asian Art Department staff are furious” at the company’s CEO Steven Murphy for selling the “Min” Fanglei privately, rather than at auction. The report also revises up the selling price to $30 million from $20 million.  According to Kinsella:

The Asian art department staff had been working on the sale for over a year and believed the price of the vessel could climb as high as $50 million on the auction block. Now the deal won’t be reflected in the department’s auction coffers.

[ … ]

According to an inside source, Christie’s CEO Murphy was “panicked” over the possibility of a repeat of the the fiasco that occurred during the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé sale in Paris in 2009. That sale included two rare bronze Chinese zodiac sculptures, a rabbit and a rat, that had been looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace during the 1860s and passed through several hands before coming into the collection of the Parisian fashion designer. Prior to the sale, Chinese state media officials referred to the objects as “war plunder.”

Murphy’s fears are not unfounded. A report by the Chinese Association of Auctioneers “found that about half the sales of artworks worth more than $1.5 million between 2010 and 2013 were not completed because the buyer failed to pay what was owed.”

Kinsella also reports:

[I]nternal sources at Christie’s suggested … fear of buyer default drove the decision-making and overrode specialists. “I think people here are upset because they worked so hard on this consignment, marketing, catalogs, views, vetting, etc.,” said one inside source. “It’s anti-climactic.”

“Of course the specialists have every right to be angry unless senior leadership has compensated for it in their goals” for that department, said a former senior executive at Christie’s who asked not to be named. “Historically I’ve seen there always be a disconnect between senior leadership and how they drive and motivate specialists. They tend to put all this pressure on the specialists, and then come in and make these types of decisions, which dilutes the holistic approach to the business.”

Good stuff!

ArtNet.com‘s Eileen Kinsella reports the “Min” Fanglei, a massive ancient Chinese bronze vessel, was just sold at Christie’s in a private transaction for more than $20 million, and that tomorrow’s scheduled auction of the work has been cancelled.  The bronze had been estimated to sell for approximately $15 million and ealier in the day ArtNet.com‘s Ben Genocchio wrote the work might make $40 million.  According to the more recent report: “A group of private collectors from China’s Hunan provence bought the  famed “Min” Fanglei,  a massive bronze ritual vessel that dates from the Late Shang/Early Western Zhou dynasty (12th–11th century BC), and agreed to donate the object to the Hunan Provincial Museum where the cover of the object is currently located.” This is the second major ancient Chinese bronze vessel at auction during Asia Week 2014 – the first, wine vessel with an owl head, failed to sell at Sotheby’s.

In his earlier article, Genocchio wrote:

Christie’s New York offered the work in March 2001, when it sold for US$9 million and set a then–world record for an Asian artwork. This remains a world auction record for any archaic Chinese bronze sold at auction. Who won it? Christie’s is not saying, but a New York Asian art dealer told me privately it was an Italian man, who just died, and his wife has put it back up for sale.

[…]

I can’t confirm these details, but this work was the talk of many Asia Week dinners and receptions over the weekend. I was told the vessel is well known in China and that several prominent Chinese museums want it back. Shanghai Museum has sent a delegation to attend the auction and presumably bid on items.

[…]

The vessel is missing its lid, or cover, which may be in the Hunan Provincial Museum, Changsha, in China. I have been in touch with the museum to verify, but have not received confirmation. The Christie’s sale catalog mentions this possibility as well. If this is indeed true, then it is a fair bet that the Hunan Museum will be bidding on it.

Here’s a selection from the lot notes and there’s also a three-minute video:

Bronze ritual vessels produced in China in the late Shang and Early Western Zhou periods-in the twelfth and eleventh centuries BC-rank among the most beautiful, most accomplished, and most technically sophisticated examples of bronze casting ever seen. The ritual vessels’ bold forms, brilliant designs, and perfect casting reflect both the sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities and the technological prowess of early China, just as they also convey insight into the culture that produced them.

Arguably the largest wine storage jar known from ancient China, the present magnificent fanglei embodies all of the characteristics associated with the finest and most impressive bronzes from the late Shang and early Western Zhou periods. Its massive scale, robust, tapering form, forceful decoration with clearly defined motifs and superbly articulated details, combined with casting so flawless as to demonstrate consummate mastery of the bronze caster’s art produce a truly phenomenal display of aesthetic inventiveness and casting proficiency.

Bronze casting came fully into its own during the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 BC- c. 1050 BC) with the production of sacral vessels intended for use in ceremonies honoring the spirits of deceased ancestors. These include vessels for food and wine as well as vessels for water; those for food and wine, the types most frequently encountered, group themselves into storage and presentation vessels, heating and cooking vessels, and serving vessels. Vessels for storage and presentation, such as this majestic fanglei wine vessel, typically assume one of a variety of jar forms.

Lot 1888. Detail.

Lot 1888. Detail.

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