Pair of Shang Chinese archaic bronze ritual food vessels sold for US$1.89 million dollars

New York kick started the Asian Art Week Autumn Auction this week. It also delivered some surprising results.

In Sotheby’s Important Chinese Art sale, archaic bronzes caused fierce bidding. The three-legged tripod with an inscription sold for more than US$1 million dollars.

Among the four archaic bronzes in the sale, a pair of ritual food vessels believed to belong to a prince of the Shang dynasty performed the most brilliantly. The hammer price was at US$1.55 million dollars, and the final price was US$1.89 million dollars with commission. This was far beyond the original estimated price at US$200,000 to 300,000 dollars. 

Lot 1 | A pair of archaic bronze ritual vessels (Ding)

Created in the Late Shang dynasty (circa 1250-1046 BCE)
Height: 16.5 cm


  • Private Collection
  • Christie's New York, 22nd March 1999, Lot 188

Estimated Price: US$200,000 – 300,000
Hammer Price: US$1,550,000
Sold: US$1,895,000


It is very uncommon to find pairs of archaic bronze vessels preserved together. The present pair is particularly remarkable since the inscriptions seem to be deliberately rendered partly in mirror image, thus making these two vessels a complementary pair.

The ding is the most important vessel in Chinese tradition and history. Since the origin of Chinese civilization, the ding has been considered the symbol par excellence of the legitimacy of supreme royal power. Thus, the ability to produce or obtain a ding, and to continue to possess a ding was considered a concrete sign of heaven-bestowed legitimacy and continuing heavenly protection and favour.


Inscriptions on ding bronze vessels are to depict important figures, including royalty and nobility. 

The present pair of vessels is recorded since 1957 and its inscriptions are included in many publications. Reading ‘zi gong’, the inscriptions comprise the graphs for ‘son’, zi, and ‘to offer as tribute’, gong, but are here probably used as a title and name, ‘Prince Gong’. They are written with the pictographic ‘dragon’ element in the graph gong drawn in mirror image on the two vessels, the confronting pair of dragons emphasizing the firm bond between the twin vessels.

The pair of vessels are decorated around the exterior with three pairs of a common motif called taotie (Chinese mythological monster) masks against a leiwen (thunder) ground. Each detailed with bulging eyes and centred by a vertical flange, all above a row of pendent cicada motifs.

Casting technique

The earliest Chinese bronzes were made by the method known as piece-mould casting, unlike the lost-wax method used in all other Bronze Age cultures. In piece-mould casting, a model is made of the object to be cast, and a clay mould taken of the model. The mould is then cut in sections to release the model, and the sections are reassembled after firing to form the mould for casting.

An advantage of this method of casting bronze was that the decorative patterns could be carved or stamped directly on the inner surface of the mould before it was fired. This technique enabled the craftsman to achieve a high degree of details in even the most exquisite designs, which contribute to its high price and admiration amongst collectors.

Similar works

This type of ding is similar to the one found Lady Hou's tomb, a queen and military figure during the Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1046 BCE). 

Lot 27 | An archaic bronze ritual food vessel (Ding)

Created in the Western Zhou dynasty (circa 827 to 782 BCE)
Diameter: 32.9 cm


  • Excavated at Ren village, Famen town, Fufeng county, Shaanxi province, prior to Guangxu 16th year, corresponding to 1890
  • Collection of Duan Fang (1861-1911)
  • Yamanaka & Co., Osaka, by 1923
  • Jan W. A. Kleijkamp, New York
  • Harold G. Wacker, New York
  • American Private Collection 

Estimate Price: US$300,000-500,000
Hammer Price: US$1,500,000
Sold: US$1,835,000

Duan Fang (1861-1911) was one of the most important political figures during the late Qing dynasty 


This present ding has travelled across the world since its discovery more than 130 years ago.

It first entered the collection of Duan Fang (1861-1911). He was one of the most important political figures of the late Qing dynasty and a major collector of archaic bronzes.

After Duan’s death, the ding was acquired by Yamanaka & Co. and was included in the company’s 1923 exhibition in Osaka, Japan. It later entered the collection of the art dealer Jan W.A. Kleijkamp, whose inventory was purchased by the New York art dealer Harold G. Wacker.

It also belonged in Chinese scholar, Chen Mengjia’s book during the 1940s. The inscription on this vessel has also been extensively published by major scholars and collectors since the late Qing dynasty.

17 characters are inscripted on this bronze vessel


The 17-character inscription on this ding may be translated as ‘Zhong Yi Fu made this precious vessel for xinke, for the eternal use of sons and grandsons, Hua’.

Xinke (new guests) can be interpreted as qinke (close guests), which suggests this vessel was likely made by Zhong Yi Fu to host banquets for close members of the clan or associated officials. The last character Hua is a clan symbol, which indicates that Zhong Yi Fu belonged to the Hua clan.

Zhong Yi Fu’s name follows closely the male naming tradition of a Western Zhou aristocrat, which usually consists of three characters. The first character identifies the seniority within the family, followed by the zi of the person and ending with the fu character.

A similar ding bronze vessel is exhibited in the Palace Museum, Beijing

Similar works

There are around 120 bronze vessels excavated from the Ren village during the 19th century.

The most important discoveries from the Ren village hoard are the ‘Ke’ vessels, including the famous Da Ke ding and Xiao Ke ding, and the ‘Zhong Yi Fu’ vessels, which include two sets of ding, each comprising five vessels of the same form.

The present ding and four other vessels are inscribed with a seventeen-character inscription. The other set of five ding are each inscribed with a shorter version of six characters. Both sets of Zhong Yi Fu ding were dispersed and are now mostly preserved in major museums in China – five are in Shanghai Museum and three are in the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Lot 31 | Inscribed archaic ritual bronze food vessel (Ding)

Created in Late Shang dynasty (13-11th century BCE)
Height: 26 cm

  • Collection of David A. Berg (1904-1999)
  • Collection of Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, received as a bequest from the above
  • Christie's New York, 21st September 2000, Lot 160 (US$82,250)
  • Sotheby's London, 19th June 2002, Lot 73
  • Asian Private Collection
  • Sotheby's New York, 17th March 2015, Lot 107 (US$586,000)

Estimated Price: US$800,000 – 1,200,00
Hammer Price: US$1,200,000
Sold: US$1,472,000


Ding are among the most significant ritual vessels associated with authority and supremacy. Owners of ding were of elite social status – high officials or clan leaders. Late Shang dynasty (13-11th century BCE) oracle bone inscriptions record a person named Quan Hou, who was an important noble of the period. He was likely a senior military leader who had served in the Shang king’s conquest of the enemy tribes.

This object was also part of the Harvard University Art Museums' Collection.

Inscriptions of the bronze vessel


Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1046 BCE) bronze inscriptions longer than three or four characters are uncommon.

This vessel has a deep rounded body supported on three cylindrical legs. The lipped rim with two large upright loop handles, while the body is cast with three large taotie (Chinese mythological monster) masks. Its bulging eyes are intersected by vertical flanges, all against a fine leiwen (thunder) ground and are below a band of six serpents.

This ding vessel has a six-character inscription reading Quan zuxin zugui xiang cast on the side of the interior. The present vessel is most remarkable for the content of its inscription. The inscription identifies that Quan was the person who commissioned the vessel, and zuxin and zugui were the ancestors to whom ritual offerings were made. The last character, xiang, should be a clan emblem, which can also be seen on other Shang bronzes. The quan (dog) character on Shang dynasty bronzes may refer to the title of an official responsible for organising hunts and participated in warfare.

Lot 58 | Gold-ground famille-rose five-piece altar set (Wugong)

Seal marks and period of Qianlong period (1736-1795), Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Height of tallest altar piece: 37.3 cm

  • Collection of Dr. Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935), acquired in China
  • Collection of John Arthur MacLean (1879-1964), received as a gift from the above circa 1920, and thence by descent

Estimated Price: US$600,000 – 800,000
Hammer price: US$800,000
Sold: US$988,000


This object is the fourth most expensive lot in the sale, sold for US$988,000 dollars.

This ritual set was collected a century ago. It was purchased by Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935) in China and later gifted to John Arthur MacLean (1879-1964). Since then, it has been inherited from the latter's family collection to the present day.

Ross was a professor in Harvard University's Art Department. He was also a painter and collector, influential in the art world of the Boston area. He used to be the trust manager of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Professor Ross and MacLean had similar interests in Chinese antiquities, and travelled around China together in 1912.

MacLean was an American scholar. He worked in many renowned American museums, including the Boston Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, Chicago Art Museum. MacLean was responsible for the collection and curation of Asian art in these museums. 


This five-piece altar is a set of five offerings to the Buddha. It consists of a pair of flower goblets, a pair of candle sticks and an incense burner.

The present five-piece combination with gu-shaped vases is believed to be an innovation of the Qianlong period (1736-1795). Sets of the same composition as the present one became popular in many different versions. For example, with various coloured grounds, in fencai (pale coloured Chinese porcelain), in doucai (painting technique in Chinese porcelain), painted in pink enamel only, carved in imitation cinnabar lacquer, cloisonne and glass. 

Some examples can still be seen today – for example in Beijing's historic Tanzhe Temple or the Forbidden City. But complete sets of any type are very uncommon.

This altar set is painted with gold colour, and decorated with tangled lotus and eight auspicious emblems. This includes the Parasol, Shell, Pair of Golden Fish, Knot of Eternity, Vase, Victory Banner, Lotus and Dharma Wheel – collectively called the Eight Treasures of Buddhism.

Apart from the aforementioned Chinese Works of Art, a wide range of objects – made in a variety of materials (such as ceramics, jade and wood) – were sold for decent prices. 

Lot  57 | A Ru-type Meiping (Prunus Vase) 

Seal marks and period of Qianlong period (1736-1795), Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Height: 22.8 cm 


  • Collection of Edward Runge (1847-1916)
  • American Art Association, New York, 7th March 1914, lot 73
  • Collection of Simon F. Rothschild (1861-1936)
  • Collection of Walter N. Rothschild (1892-1960), and thence by descent

Estimated Price: US$50,000 – 70,000
Hammer Price: US$650,000
Sold: US$806,500

Lot 61 | A pale celadon jade figure of Buddha and spinach-green jade stand

Created in the Qianlong period (1735-1796), Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Height of Buddha: 18.5 cm
Height of stand: 27.3 cm


  • Collection of K. Watanabe
  • Ohio Private Collection
  • Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 22nd-23rd October 1947, Lot 247
  • Collection of Dr. Abraham Block (1903-1980), and thence by descent

Estimated Price: US$80,000 – 120,000
Hammer Price: US$550,000
Sold: US$685,500

Lot 111 | A 'huanghuali' recessed-leg table (Qiaotouan) 

Created in the 17-18th century
Size: 80 x 139.7 x 40.6 cm


  • Nicholas Grindley, London 

Estimated Price: US$50,000 – 70,000
Hammer Price: US$120,000
Sold: US$151,200

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: Important Chinese Art
Auction Date: 21-22 September 2021
Sale Total: US$24,172,942 
Sold Lots: 201/244 (82% sale rate)