Rare Bronze Vessel from Warring States Period Sold for US$7m at Sotheby’s New York

The New York Autumn Sales are currently in full swing and have seen some remarkable sales. A gold, silver and glass-embellished bronze vessel (fang hu) was recently hammered down at Sotheby’s for US$7m and sold for a whopping US$8.3m. It will very likely become one of the most expensive lots sold in New York this sale season. 

The sale titled “Important Chineses Art” comprised 317 lots and generated a satisfactory 71% sale by lot with 226 lots sold. The total hammer price surpassed the predicted US$17m and reached US$18.2m which is a shot in the arm for the upcoming Hong Kong Autumn Sales. 

Lot 578|A Gold, Silver and Glass-embellished Bronze Vessel (Fang Hu), Warring States Period, 4th / 3rd Century BC|Top lot

Height: 35.1 cm


  • Collection of Adolphe (1871-1949) and Suzanne (1874-1949) Stoclet, and thence by descent.
  • European Private Collection.

Estimate: US$2,500,000 - 3,500,000
Hammer price: US$7,000,000
Price realised: US$8,307,000

The lot’s estimated price was US$2.5m-3m and the auctioneer began the bidding at US$2m with increments of US$100,000. There were lots of interests from telephone bidders as well as bidders from the saleroom but it wasn’t much of a bidding war. 

Things took a turn when only three telephone bidders were left bidding for the lot. Increments rose to US$400,000, US$500,000 and such, and the hammer was put down finally at US$7m. A burst of applause came from the saleroom for the bronze vessel that was sold for US$8.3m. 

The vessel will most likely become the ‘champion’ lot of the New York Asia Week.

The 35.1cm vessel, made in the Warring States Period, has one of the highest estimates in the sale week. The complex design involves surrounding the vessel by wide bands of enlaced lines and volutes inlaid in silver, with raised circular bosses embellished with gold-sheet set at regular intervals. Bronzes with such rare craftsmanship are extremely rare and were probably created for royal patrons. 

Inlaid bronzes began to be made in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC). While the early copper inlays that were added to the mold before the bronze was cast, were limited to fairly stiff cut-out silhouettes, other techniques were soon experimented with in order to create more vivid designs.

The present piece is inlaid with complex silver designs, consisting of lively enlaced lines and volutes. They can be seen as the bronze craftsmen’s masterful answer to the concurrent fashion for fluid painted decoration on contemporary lacquer wares, which are here superbly echoed in bronze.

More than 300 turquoise-inlaid bronze plates were found at Erlitou Culture in Luoyang, Henan province.

More than 300 turquoise-inlaid bronze plates were found at Erlitou Culture|Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

In addition to the use of gold, silver and copper to enrich the monochrome bronze surface, Warring States vessels were sometimes inlaid with pieces of malachite and turquoise which provided bright colour, but were very small. 

This bronze vessel is embellished in gold, silver and polychrome glass. Glass beads with ‘eye’ motifs in contrasting colors had been made particularly in Egypt but also in many other Central, Middle, Near Eastern and Western countries from the mid-second millennium BC onwards and were universally popular as talismans. At least since the Warring States period, some of these foreign beads had found their way into China, and it did not take long before they were reproduced locally.

Visually, Chinese glass beads are difficult to distinguish from those made abroad, but since they differ in composition, chemical tests have confirmed that both existed side by side in the Warring States period.

The present bronze’s triangular and lozenge-shaped plaques with contrasting ’eye’ patterns must have been custom-made near the bronze foundry to suit the requirements of the vessel.

The basic shape of the vessel is well known from late Warring States and early Western Han (206 BC – AD 9) bronzes, although its depressed, bulging proportions and its pointed, pyramidal cover are unusual. 

Of only three other known bronze vessels with related glass inlays, only one piece, excavated in China, but of slightly later date, has been made widely public and has thus become famous; the other two came onto the market around 1930, entered Japanese collections, but have hardly been publicly shown ever since. 

Left: a gold, silver and glass-embellished hu, warring states period. |Eisei Bunko Museum; Right: A gilt and silvered bronze jar with glass inlays, excavated in the Mancheng Han tombs. Western Han Dynasty|Hebei Museum

Left: The fang hu photographed in the Stoclet Palace, Brussels; Right: The fang hu illustrated in the catalogue for the international exhibition of Chinese art, Royal Academy of Arts, London

A century ago, the present fang hu was in the collection of Adolphe Stoclet (1871-1949), a Belgian industrialist, banker and famous art collector, whose villa in Brussels had been commissioned, down to the last detail, from Josef Hoffman (1870-1956), important architect and co-founder of the influential art and design cooperative, Wiener Werkstätte. The piece is visible in a photograph of a room in Stoclet’s house.  

Stoclet’s house, named “Stoclet Palace”, is a mansion in Brussels. It was built between 1905 and 1911 in the Vienna Secession style, using designs including mosaic friezes by Gustav Klimt. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Stoclet Palace

The house uses mosaic friezes by Gustav Klimt

One of Klimt’s works for the house

Lot 648|A pair of large, bronze figures of Daoist officials, Ming Dynasty, 16th / 17th century|Second top lot

Height: 172.7 cm


  • Collection of Vilhelm Meyer (1878-1934).
  • Collection of William Boyce Thompson (1869-1930), acquired in Beijing, 1917, and thence by descent.

Estimate: US$400,000 - 600,000
Hammer price: US$900,000
Price realised: US$1,109,000

The pair of bronze figures which measure at 172cm in height was hammered down at US$900,000 and sold for US1.1m. 

It is extremely rare to find such life-size standing figures in bronze, particularly Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) bronze figures of officials. Ming bronze figures are more commonly known in a religious context and are then of much smaller size and often in a seated position. 

The skill of the sculptor is further patent in the way the clothing is depicted. There is a sense of movement in the drapery of the long flowing robes and voluminous sleeves, while the rich texture of the cloth is fully palpable as a result of the exquisite rendering of the embroidered motifs.

The hu or tabula, now missing in the hands of the present figures, symbolized high office and were often made out of ivory. The specific function is explained in the Former Han dynasty Book of Rites (Liji) as an official tool for writing down the emperor’s orders during audiences.

The figures belonged in the collection of Vilhelm Meyer. Vilhelm Meyer (1878-1934) was born in Denmark and settled in Shanghai in 1902. He was a founding partner of Andersen, Meyer & Co., a Danish engineering firm that imported Western technology as a means to encourage industrial development in 1900s China.

The company’s success was assured in 1907 when it gained exclusive rights to represent General Electric in China. Meyer and his wife Kristen Bramsen were great admirers of Chinese art and culture, amassing a varied and impressive collection.

Lot 596|A gilt-bronze figure of Vairocana, Liao Dynasty|Third top lot

Height: 21.9 cm
Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000
Hammer price: US$800,000
Price realised: US$988,000

This rare and richly gilded figure belongs to a small group of exquisitely modeled Buddhist gilt-bronze sculptures of the Liao dynasty characterized by their round faces and tall crowns festooned with ribbons, similar to those worn by the Khitan rulers. 

Liao River valley, along the frontiers of the Chinese empire, had been vassals of the Tang dynasty. Through this relationship, they had become familiar with Buddhism. 

Lot 544|An underglaze-blue and copper-red 'lotus' bottle vase, Qianlong seal mark and period|Top four lot

Height: 39.8 cm
Provenance: Collection of Katharina (1867-1967) and Joachim S. (1863-1932) Van Wezel, acquired in Asia prior to 1932, and thence by descent.
Estimate: US$150,000 - 200,000
Hammer price: US$680,000
Price realised: US$842,800

Lot 686|A white jade 'red cliffs' table screen, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period|Top 5 lot

Height: 21 cm
Provenance: European Private Collection. 
Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000
Hammer price: US$450,000
Price realised: US$564,500

Auction summary

Auction house: Sotheby’s
Sale: Important Chinese Art 
Sale date: 2020/9/23
Number of lots: 317
Sold: 22
Unsold: 91
Sale by lot: 71%
Sale total: US$22,358,004