1,400-year-old Chinese silver 'animals' vessel sold at Christie's New York for US$1.1 million dollars

New York continues to raise eyebrows during this week’s Asian Art Week auctions.

In Christie’s Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale, a Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) silver vessel with floral and animal depictions performed the most brilliantly. The lot's hammer price reached the lower estimate at US$900,000 dollars, and was sold at US$1.1 million dollars with commission. It was one of the three top lots of the night. 

The other two lots sold for more than US$1 million dollars with commission. Both also have historical significance – the second one comes from the Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1046 BCE), and the third one originates from the Tang dynasty as well. 

In this article's first section, the top three lots of the sale on 23 September will be discussed. 

Lot 709Silver ‘Animals’ Bowl

Created in Tang dynasty (618-907 CE)
Diameter: 16.5 cm
Weight: 331 g
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Dr. Johan Carl Kempe (1884-1967) Collection, Sweden, before 1953.
  • Sotheby’s London, Masterpieces of Chinese Precious Metalwork. Early Gold and Silver, 14 May 2008, Lot 44. (Sold at £446,100)

Estimated Price: US$900,000 1,200,000
Hammer Price: US$900,000
Sold: US$1,100,000


This silver bowl originates from Tang dynasty in China. The vessel was ultimately inspired by by luxury goods crafted in precious metals that were reaching Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an), the Tang capital, from ancient Persia via the fabled Silk Route. Those imported Persian goods themselves were inspired by gold and silver vessels crafted in ancient Rome.

The decoration, all of which appears against the punched, ring-mat ground is known as "fish-roe pattern" in Chinese.

Silver and gold vessels from the Hejiacun hoard are believed to have been made in workshops in the Xinghua Square area of Chang’an, or one closely allied with them.

Carl Kempe

This silver vessel formerly belonged to Swedish collector, Dr. Johan Carl Kempe (1884-1967). Kempe purchased 250 items of Chinese Art following his travels to China with his wife in the 1920s. The Swedish collector became part of Chinese connoisseur club in Stockholm (Oriental Ceramic Society in London) during the 1930s.   

His collection consisted of three main categories, namely Chinese gold and silver from the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Qing dynasty polychrome porcelains and Chinese glass.

The British Museum set up a special page to introduce Kempe’s collection status.

Exotic animals and peach-shaped medallions decorate the silver bowl's exterior 


Four tiers of recurring, heart-shaped medallions encircle the bowl’s exterior. Tucked within heart-shaped medallion, many animals are recognisable. A camel, elephant, boars, foxes and wolves are some examples. This decoration was possibly inspired by the vine scrolls, popular in the arts of ancient Rome and that were disseminated along the Silk Route.

This bowl was shaped from a single piece of silver hammered into shape over a matrix, probably of wood. The decorative motifs were either engraved or chased on the exterior, after which the background areas were punched to create the ring-matted ground.

Lot 703 | Large Jade Tiger Pendant

Created in late Shang dynasty (13th-11th century BCE) | Anyang
11.6 cm long (maximum, ear to tail)


  • Tonying & Company, Inc., New York, prior to 1939
  • C. F. Yau (Yau Chang Foo, 1884-1963) Collection, New York
  • Dorothy Yau (Sze Zoh Yao, b. 1913) Collection, New York, acquired from the above, 10 November 1946
  • By descent to George Tsoo-Ying Young (1935-2002), New York

Estimated Price: US$300,000 – 500,000
Hammer Price: US$880,000 
Sold: US$1,086,000


This tiger pendant had a positive reaction amongst bidders. Its hammer price was US$880,000 dollars  nearly three times more than its estimated price. 

It once belonged to Lady Fu Hao, a principal wife of Shang dynasty King Wu Ding (reigned circa 1250-1192 BCE). She was a military leader and it is believed that she led troops into battle. There were around 2,000 items buried with Lady Fu – including bronzes, jades and semi-precious stones.

This exquisite jade tiger pendant has a distinguished pedigree that can be traced back to its first publication in 1939. It was loaned by Chang Foo-yau, President of the prominent Chinese art dealer Tonying & Company, Inc., to an exhibition of Chinese jade carving at Arden Gallery in New York.


The tiger, called hu or laohu in Chinese, originated in China and northern Central Asia. The tiger was known to the earliest Chinese, who likely feared, admired, and respected it for its strength, ferocity, and regal bearing. Though its precise meaning in Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1046 BCE) remains unknown, the tiger played a protection or talismanic role. 

This object would have been suspended by means of a cord, possibly made of silk. that was secured via the circular opening at the top the tiger’s head. It likely hung from the wearer’s belt, perhaps alone but possibly linked together with beads and other pendants.

This pendant is made of nephrite jade, known as ruanyu in Chinese. It was the preferred hardstone among Chinese by the Shang dynasty. In its midsection, the jade is a warm, brownish green. Many areas show a deep brown colour, maybe due to surface accretions that accumulated over time or possibly due to exposure to heat or fire. 

The silver vessel's front side 

The silver vessel's flip bottom side 

Lot 708Parcel-Gilt Silver ‘Rhinoceros’ Dish

Created in Tang dynasty (618-907 CE)
Diameter: 15.2 cm
Weight: 315 g
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Dr. Johan Carl Kempe (1884-1967) Collection, Sweden, before 1953.
  • Sotheby’s London, Masterpieces of Chinese Precious Metalwork. Early Gold and Silver, 14 May 2008, Lot 59. (Sold at £390,100)

Estimated Price: US$1,000,000 – 1,500,000
Hammer Price: US$850,000
Sold: US$1,050,000


At US$850,000 dollars, this object's hammer price was US$150,000 dollars below its estimated price of US$1 million dollars.   

Exotic animals, including rhinoceros (this silver bowl’s main feature), were typically offered to the Chinese Emperor as tribute by foreign states, nations in Southeast Asia often presenting rhinoceros horns and hides as gifts and occasionally presenting live animals, as well, which were kept in imperial parks in the capital.

Both archaeological and literary evidence show that rhinoceroses lived in China, even in northern China, in early times. Due to over-hunting the rhinoceros had become extinct in northern China by Tang times but was still known in parts of southern China.

This silver vessel also belonged to Swedish collector, Dr. Johan Carl Kempe.


A rhinoceros is depicted in bas-relief at the centre of the vessel. It faces the viewer’s left-hand side.

Three stylised blossoms, displayed on a lotus petal stand, is on the rhinoceros’ back. The animal’s body is divided into three parts and covered with scales. The rhinoceros’ form and bulk are accurately captured, despite being stylistically represented. Two horns, a long tail and four short legs with three toes on each foot are shown.

A raised bowstring line encircles the floor’s central medallion, while a pair of raised bowstring lines accentuate the dish’s lip. The walls of this relatively shallow vessel expand outward in a gentle S-curve, uncommon to Tang silver dishes.

In this second section, a wide range of objects – made in a variety of materials (such as white marble, copper-inlaid bronze and ceramics) are discussed.

These upcoming three objects' were the dark horses of the night. Despite having low estimated prices, their hammer prices were 7, 57 and 13 times more than their original estimated prices respectively. 

They also have been put in order of their final prices. 

Lot 711 | Copper-inlaid Bronze Jar (Hu, hammer price sold for 7 times more than estimated price)

Created in Warring States period (5th-early 4th century BCE)
Height: 33cm 


  • Nagatani, Inc., Chicago, 1958
  • Stephen Junkunc, III (circa 1905-1978) Collection

Estimated Price: US$60,000 – 80,000
Hammer Price: US$420,000
Sold: US$525,000

Lot 716 | White Marble Figure of Lion (Hammer price sold for 57 times more than estimated price)

Period of creation not shown 
27.2 cm long 


  • Stephen Junkunc, III (circa 1905-1978) Collection

Estimated Price: US$7,000 – 10,000
Hammer Price: US$400,000
Sold: US$500,000

Lot 869 | Lemon-yellow enameled 'Chrysanthemum' Bowl (Hammer price sold for 13 times more than estimated price)

Yongzhen six-character mark in undergalze blue within a double circle and probably of the period
Diameter: 18.4 cm 


  • By repute, acquired prior to 1980, and thence by descent within the family

Estimated Price: US$20,000 – 30,000
Hammer Price: US$260,000
Sold: US$325,000

There are two days of the Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sales – the first one on 23 September and the second one on 24 September. 

The Value will keep everyone updated, if there are any particular lots sold in the second sale worth mentioning on. 

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie's New York
Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Auction Date: 23-24 September 2021
Number of lots: 336