An ancient minimalism: marble frog with 3,000 years of history fetches US$3.67m

Sotheby's Hong Kong autumn sales featured an impressive array of Chinese works of art, with all focuses inevitably on the US$22.6 million reticulated vase from Dr. Wou Kiuan's collection, and the record-breaking huanghuali folding horseshoe back armchair.

But other than those big-ticket pieces, it was perhaps a marble frog that dates back to 3,000 years ago that has grabbed the most attention. Exceptionally rare, the figure bears much resemblance to a modern and contemporary sculpture, where the masterful craftsman captured the essence of a frog in simple yet evocative carving.

In yesterday's Important Chinese Art Sale, it was hammered for HK$23.5 million against a low estimate of HK$3 million. After fees, it garnered HK$28.8 million (US$3.67 million) to become the top lot.

Lot 3608 | A carved marble recumbent frog
Created during Shang dynasty (circa 16th - 11th century BC)
25.8 x 17 x 12 cm 

  • Eskenazi Ltd, London, 1991
  • Property from an Important Japanese Collection

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 4,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$23,500,000
Sold: HK$28,810,000 (around US$3.67 million)

As the Shang belived in afterlife, ritual ceremonies and ancestor worship played an essential part in their lives. Works of art from this period, therefore, were mostly bronze vessels made for offerings of wine and food to ancestral spirits. While ritual artworks were also created from jade, bone or ivory, rarely seen were marble carvings as such.

There are only two other known marble frog carvings of this size and form from the mid-Shang dynasty: one from the collection of Richard Bull, sold at Sotheby's New York in 1983; the other also sold in the same rooms in 1982.

A design in line with modern minimalism, the marble block has been skilfully carved in a gentle geometric manner to represent a stylised frog. Only the necessary and most important features of its silhouette are retained – the powerful back legs carefully shaped in shallow flat relief with a central groove, and the pupils of the eyes conveyed by small indented holes.

A marble figure of a frog, circa 16th - 11th century BC | Collection of Richard c. Bull

A stone cicada, circa 16th - 11th century BC, After Tomb of Lady Hao at Yinxu in Anyang

Giuseppe Eskenazi, dubbed as the Godfather of Chinese antiques

Animal designs are common motifs in works of art from this period, as the Shang associated some creatures with mythology, believing that they served as a bridge to communicate with their gods or ancestors.

Owl, a nocturnal bird, for instance, was believed to be the god of night and dreams, and the messenger between human and spirit worlds. The meaning for frog, however, remains a controversial subject among scholars. Some considered it a sign of fertility due to the numerous eggs it lays; while some suggested it a symbol of prosperity as it croaked loudly when rain was imminent. 

Other interesting pieces offered at the sale:

Lot 3612 | A gold and silver-inlaid bronze sword hilt
Created during late Eastern Zhou - early Western Han dynasty (circa 206 BC -220)
17.5 cm

  • Eskenazi Ltd, London, 1993
  • Property from an Important Japanese Collection

Estimate: HK$1,500,000 - 2,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,500,000
Sold: HK$5,670,000 (around US$722,000)

The imaginative design of the present sword-hilt transform an archaic warfare instrument into a status symbol, signifying the wealth and power of the owner. 

The double-horned dragon with alert eyes ascends the hilt with its long tail and sharp claws wrapping around the framework. The muscularity and agility of the mythical beast are highlighted by the gold and silver inlays, as if it could charge at any moment. The scrolling clouds, splendidly decorated, give the present lot an ethereal quality and hint at the desire for immortality of even the most powerful class in ancient China.

This sword-hilt appears to be a unique work of art, as no comparable example appears to be recorded.

Lot 3605 | A yellowish-celadon jade cong
Neolithic period
8.2 cm

  • Susan Chen & Company, Hong Kong, 1993
  • Property from an Important Japanese Collection

Estimate: HK$200,000 - 300,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,200,000
Sold: HK$5,292,000 (around US$674,000)

The Liangzhu culture in the Yangtze River Delta, which flourished from the late 4th to the end of the 3rd millennium BC, was one of the most prominent Neolithic Chinese civilisations. Among the large variety of Liangzhu artefacts, cong stand out as iconic of this culture and were made for the most prestigious ranks in society.

Regarding its purpose and symbolic meaning, scholars still hold different views up to the present – some considered it a ritual vessel, and some a burial tool. 

Most of the cong from the early Liangzhu Culture have one of the following configurations: single-tier (one humanoid-deity mask), double-tier (one humanoid-deity and animal combined mask), or four-tier (two humanoid-deity and animal combined masks). 

Cong could said to be of blue-chip status in the archaic jade market. For instance, a double-tier cong was sold for HK$21.7 million in Bonhams' 2018 spring auction in Hong Kong; the following year, a three-tiered cong fetched HK$31.3 million at Christie's. And this season at China Guardian, a single-tier cong was hammered for HK$14 million against its low estimate of HK$2 million, selling for HK$16.5 million with fees. 

Lot 3620 | A small bronze figure of a rhinoceros
Created in Tang dynasty (618 - 907)
12.2 cm

  • Christie's New York, 28 March 1996, lot 273
  • Property from an Important Japanese Collection

Estimate: HK$800,000 - 1,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$2,700,000
Sold: HK$3,402,000 (around US$433,000)

Bronze figures of rhinoceros from Tang dynasty are exceptionally rare, with only a handful of surviving known examples. Remarkable for its accurate and naturalistic portrayal, the present rhinoceros depicts the two-horned Sumatran rhinoceros, which were once native to ancient China.

Its existence is attested by ancient literature references and archaeological evidence. For instance, rhinoceros bones attributed to 16th - 11th century BC had been unearthed in Henan province, and some of the oracle bone inscriptions mentioned the burning of forests to hunt for rhinoceros. Due to the large-scale hunting, rhinoceros, a wild animal with low fertility, rapidly declined in population and largely disappeared by early first century.

Despite the near local extinction of the rhinoceros by the Tang dynasty (618 - 907),  their images persisted and were considered majestic and auspicious. At the time, tamed rhinoceroses from Southeast Asia were brought by foreign embassies and presented to the Tang court, some were even kept in captivity in the imperial park and trained to perform during palace entertainments.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 3603 | A yellow jade 'mask' ornament
Created during Neolithic period, Shijiahe culture
7.3 cm

  • J.T. Tai & Co., New York, 15th May 1963
  • Collection of Arthur M. Sackler (1913-87)
  • Collection of a private foundation
  • Christie's New York, 13th September 2012, lot 1003

Estimate: HK$150,000 - 200,000
Hammer Price: HK$2,400,000
Sold: HK$3,024,000

Lot 3618 | A pair of embellished gold and silver-inlaid bronze weights
Created during Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period (221 - 207 BC)
6 cm

  • Oriental Bronzes Ltd, London, 1995
  • Property from an Important Japanese Collection

Estimate: HK$240,000 - 300,000
Hammer Price: HK$450,000
Sold: HK$567,000

Lot 3606 | A small jade axe-shaped pendant
Created during Shang - early Western Zhou dynasty (circa 16th - 880 BC)
4.8 cm

  • C.T. Loo, Inc., New York
  • Collection of Richard and Jean Salisbury
  • J.J. Lally & Co., New York, 1994

Estimate: HK$40,000 - 60,000
Hammer Price: HK$350,000
Sold: HK$441,000

Lot 3602 | A jade 'eagle' hair ornament, ji
Created during Neolithic period, Late Shijiahe culture
8.2 cm

  • Galaxie Art & Gift Co., Hong Kong, 1993
  • Property from an Important Japanese Collection

Estimate: HK$160,000 - 200,000
Hammer Price: HK$350,000
Sold: HK$441,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong 
Sale: Important Chinese Art
Date: 9 October 2022
Number of Lots: 113
Sold: 77
Unsold: 36
Sale Rate: 68%
Sale Total: HK$83,289,880 (around US$10.6 million)