Symbols of Power and Prestige: Chinese Ritual Bronzes to Lead Christie’s New York Asia Week

Chinese archaic ritual bronzes ranging from the Shang dynasty (1600-100 BC) to the Han (206 BC- 220) played an important role in Chinese history and culture. They were produced in huge quantities in a range of shapes, each of which has a specific name. More than just vessels and containers, they were considered as symbols of power and prestige in the ancient periods. Let's take a look at some examples here.

A Rare and Important Bronze Rectangular Ritual Food Vessel, Shao Fangding, Late Shang Dynasty, Anyang, 11th Century BC

Ding (鼎) is one of the most important shapes used in Chinese ritual bronzes. Ding are prehistoric and ancient Chinese cauldrons, standing upon legs with a lid and two facing handles. They are commonly seen in two shapes: round vessels with three legs and rectangular ones with four, the latter often called fangding.

The base is cast with a single clan sign, Shao

Symbolizing royal power, fangding vessels had great significance for Shang ruling elites. One example is a shao fangding from the late Shang Dynasty, 11th century BC, which will be offered at Christie’s New York sale. With a height of 20cm, the fangding is cast in the base with a single clan sign, Shao.

The body is cast in high relief on each side with a large taotie mask with dragon-shaped horns divided by a notched flange repeated at the corners and above to divide a pair of kui dragons, all reserved on leiwen grounds. Taotie mask is commonly found on ancient Chinese bronze vessels. The name taotie is probably inspired by the taotie monster, an ever-devouring beast.

The present Shao Fangding published by Huang Jun in Ye Zhong pianyu sanji (Treasures from the Ye[Anyang] Series III), Beijing, 1942, vol. 1, p.13.

The provenance of the Shao Fangding can be traced back to 1942, when it was first published by Huang Jun (1880-1951) in his Ye zhong pianyu sanji (Treasures from the Ye [Anyang] Series III). Huang Jun graduated from the late Qing government school for teaching Western languages, Tongwen Guan. He spoke German, English, and French, and served as a translator in a German bank after graduation while working part-time in his uncle’s antique shop, Zungu Zhai. He later became manager of Zungu Zhai and one of the most prominent figures in the antique trade in Beijing.

Huang Jun not only handled some of the most important archaic bronzes and jades, but also published them in catalogues such as the Yezhong pianyu series. Most of the 133 bronze vessels included in the series are now in museum collections, with only a few remaining in private hands. Huang Jun probably sold the Shao Fangding directly to Hans Jürgon von Lochow (1902–1989), a German collector who lived in Beijing.

Edward T.Chow (right) was a renowned Chinese art collector

Eskenazi, the Godfather of Chinese antiques

The fangding was later owned by other legendary collectors such as Edward T. Chow (1910-1980), Bella and P.P. Chiu, and Eskenazi. Now the Shao Fangding is offered at Christie’s New York with an estimate between US$1m and 1.5m.

A rare bronze ritual tripod wine vessel and cover, Ran Fu Bin He, Late Shang-early Western Zhou dynasty, 11th Century

He (盉) is a ritual wine vessel and cover, supported on either two or three legs with a spout rising diagonally from the shoulder, opposite a C-form handle. The tripod he form is based on Neolithic pottery prototypes, seen as early as the Erlitou culture (19th-17th century BC) and was being made in bronze by the Erligang culture (16th-14th century BC).

One example is a bronze ritual tripod wine vessel and cover, Ran Fu Bin He, from the late Shang-early Western Zhou dynasty, 11th century. The inscription cast below the handle and repeated on the interior of the cover is a single clan sign, Ran, followed by two characters fu bing (Father Bing), indicating that this vessel was made for Father Bing of the Ran clan. Such dedicatory inscriptions appear on sacral vessels that were used in ceremonies honouring ancestral spirits.

Its current owner, Anthony Carter, is a London-based art dealer who has been involved in the trade in Chinese art for thirty years. The ritual tripod wine vessel and cover is estimated at US$500,000-US$700,000.

A Large Bronze Ritual Food Vessel, Ge Zu Ji Gui, Early Western Zhou Dynasty, 11th-10th Century BC

Gui (簋) was a ritual vessel for serving cooked millet, sorghum, rice or other grains. Gui of this type, which were used to hold offerings of grain, were popular during the early Western Zhou period.

They typically feature a broad register comprising two taotie masks above a narrower register of dragons, snakes or birds that encircles the foot above the bevel, and is sometimes repeated in a narrow register below the rim of the vessel. The handles of these gui are usually surmounted by animal heads with either blunt horns or prominent C-shaped horns that lay flat against the side of the head, such as those seen on the present vessel. The sides of the handles are cast with simplified curved wings, while claws and hooked tails are cast on the pendent tabs below.

The interior base is inscribed with a single clan sign, Ge, followed by two characters, zu ji

The three-character inscription cast in the interior base consists of a single clan sign, Ge, followed by two characters, zu ji. Zu ji is a dedication which means 'dedicate this vessel' to Zu Ji (Ancestor Ji). The Ge clan is one of the oldest and most extensive clans in the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

It came from the collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, a celebrated American art dealer of Asian paintings and furniture from the Ming dynasty. It is expected to fetch between US$500,000 and US$700,000.

A Very Rare and Finely Cast Pair of Bronze Ritual Wine Vessels,  Tie Zhu Gu. Late Shang Dynasty, 12th-11th Century BC

Gu (觚) is a ritual wine vessel with a slender silhouette. The gu is the quintessential vessel type in Shang ritual paraphernalia, and together with a jue or jiao it forms the basic wine vessel set for aristocrats to perform rites.

The clan sign cast inside the foot of each gu may be read as tie zhu

The clan sign cast inside the foot of each gu may be read as tie zhu. The graph tie consists of a pair of ears and the graph zhu is in the shape of bamboo branches. The gu was acquired by Bluett and Sons, a prominent London-based art dealer in oriental art and antiques in 1982. Now it comes onto the market with an estimate of US$400,000-600,000.

Selected highlights

The Shao Fangding a Rare and Important Bronze Rectangular Ritual Food Vessel
Late Shang Dynasty, Anyang, 11th Century BC

Lot no.: 1506
Height: 20.7cm

  • Huang Jun (1880-1951), Zungu Zhai, Beijing, prior to 1942.
  • Hans Jürgon von Lochow (1902–1989) Collection, Beijing, by 1943.
  • The Edward T. Chow (1910-1980) Collection.
  • Sotheby's London, 16 December 1980, lot 339.
  • Bella and P.P. Chiu Collection, by 1988.
  • Eskenazi Ltd., London, 1996.

Estimate: US$1,000,000 - 1,500,000

The Ran Fu Bin He a Rare Bronze Ritual Tripod Wine Vessel and Cover
Late Shang-early Western Zhou Dynasty, 11th Century BC

Lot no.: 1505
Height: 33cm
Anthony Carter, London, 1998.
Estimate: US$500,000 - 700,000

The Ge Zu Ji Gui a Large Bronze Ritual Food Vessel
Early Western Zhou Dynasty, 11th-10th Century BC

Lot no.: 1508
Size: 38cm
Robert H. Ellsworth, New York, 1998.
Estimate: US$500,000 - 700,000

The Tie Zhu Gu a Very Rare and Finely Cast Pair of Bronze Ritual Wine Vessels
Late Shang Dynasty, 12th-11th Century BC

Lot no.: 1504
Height: 31cm

  • Sotheby's London, 19 July 1949, lot 97.
  • The Mr. and Mrs. R.E.R. Luff Collection, London.
  • Bluett and Sons, London, 1982.

Estimate: US$400,000 - 600,000

Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Power and Prestige: Important Early Chinese Ritual Bronzes from a Distinguished European Collection
Lots offered: 11
14-16 March 2019|10am - 5pm
17 March 2019|1pm - 5pm
18-20 March 2019|10am - 5pm
Auction date: 22 March 2019|10am