Chinese archaic bronze vessels gather US$7.1m in Asia Week New York

During this season’s Asia Week New York, Sotheby’s presented a sale dedicated to the Chinese archaic bronze ritual vessels and weapons, named Power / Conquest: The Forging of Empires. Among 29 lots offered, only two failed to find new buyers, resulting in a sell-through rate of 93 per cent.

With enthusiastic bidding, the sale total achieved US$7.1 million, where many lots were sold beyond their pre-sale estimates. The top lot went to an important Yi Yu Gui from circa 980 BCE, a bowl-shaped vessel which bears witness to a major historical event. After fees, it fetched US$1.08 million.

Lot 9 | The Yi Yu Gui
Created in Western Zhou dynasty, King Zhao period (probably circa 980 BCE)
Height: 30.6 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Toeg
  • Sotheby's London, 3rd December 1963, lot 184
  • Bluett & Son Ltd., London, 6th January 1964
  • Collection of Professor Peter Plesch (1918-2013)
  • Sotheby's London, 20th February 1968, lot 53
  • Spink & Son Ltd., London
  • Collection of a European nobleman
  • Christie's London, 6th June 1994, lot 68
  • Collection of Albert Y.P. and Sara K.S. Lee

Estimate: US$600,000 - 800,000
Hammer Price: US$860,000
Sold: US$1,083,600

The auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd opened the bidding at US$450,000. After around 15 bids, the hammer was dropped at US$860,000, sold to the client with paddle number L0003 represented by Julian King, International Specialist and Head of Sale, Himalayan Art, New York. 

Named after its owner Yi Yu, the present gui is remarkable for its crucial documentary inscription, which records a major military expedition during the Western Zhou dynasty (circa 1046-771 BCE).

King Zhao, as the fourth king of Zhou, inherited a prosperous empire from his predecessors. With the northern, eastern and western frontiers already secured upon ascending the throne, King Zhao turned his focus to the south. He initiated two military campaigns to the south, one on the 15th year of his reign, against the Chujing, and the other on the 17th year.

Yi Yu, the owner of the present bronze, was among the very few recorded individuals who participated in King Zhao's conquest of the Chujing. Little is known about Yi Yu's identity, but he was undoubtedly a key military official who contributed in the attack, as he was rewarded with the present bronze to honor his father.

While the military expedition has been widely documented in Chinese classical literature, the more direct records come from the inscriptions of a small group of archaic bronzes, including the present lot. This Yi Yu gui was formerly kept by renowned collectors, dealers and scholars, such as Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Toeg, Bluett & Son and Professor Peter Plesch. 

Lot 14 | The Tian Min Fu Yi Fang Ding
Created in late Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1046 BCE)
Height: 22.8 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Étude Boisgirard & A. de Heeckeren, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 1980
  • Offered at Sotheby's London, 18th June 1985, lot 222
  • Collection of Abolala Soudavar

Estimate: US$300,000 - 500,000 
Hammer Price: US$720,000
Sold: US$907,200

Ding, standing upon legs with a lid and two facing handles, is a type of ancient Chinese food container or cooking utensil used in divinatory ceremonies for sacrificial offerings. In Chinese history and culture, this bronze vessel was perceived as the pre-eminent symbol of state authority and divine power. 

And fang ding, a variation of ding with a square or rectangular box resting on four legs, was held in even higher regards, where its ownership was strictly regulated. During Shang dynasty (16th - 11th century BCE), massive fang ding vessels were made exclusively for kings and queens, while fang ding of regular size were reserved for high-ranking aristocrats.

The present piece is rendered in a taotie design, composed of broad scrolling bands arranged in almost abstract mask formations around slightly raised oval eyes, both in the center and around the corners of the vessel. At the four corners are prominent flanges which add delicacy to its design. 

A Chinese mythological beast, taotie is a common motif on Shang bronzes. Legend has it that taotie is a voracious eater who never gets satisfied. Therefore, it is cast with a pair of raised eyes but sometimes no jaw area, serving as a reminder for the nobility not to spend extravagantly. 

This fang ding appeared at auctions twice during the 1980s, which took place in Paris and London. 

Lot 6 | The San Bo Gui
Created in Western Zhou dynasty, early 9th century BCE
Height: 32.7 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Reputedly discovered in Fengxiang, Shaanxi Province, during the mid-Guangxu period
  • Collection of a governor of Fengxiang, by 1914
  • Collection of Yu Shengwu (1896-1984)
  • Collection of Count Antoine Seilern (1901-1978)
  • Christie's London, 17th June 1982, lot 6
  • Collection of Albert Y.P. and Sara K.S. Lee

Estimate: US$400,000 - 600,000
Hammer Price: US$720,000
Sold: US$907,200


Like their Shang predecessors, the Zhou (1046 - 221 BCE) produced sets of bronze ritual vessels for use in state rites and burial in tombs. This type of bowl-shaped vessel is known as gui, used to hold offerings of food. 

During Zhou dynasty, gui was used together with ding to symbolize status in ritual ceremonies – the number of the permitted vessels varied according to one's rank in the Chinese nobility: Nine ding and eight gui for the Emperor; seven ding and six gui for feudal lords. 

San Bo Gui was excavated in Fengxiang, Shaanxi province and originally consisted of five vessels, though one of them was lost. Each of these gui is cast with a same twelve-character inscription to both the vessel and cover, which can be translated to 'San Bo made this precious gui for Ze Ji, to be used eternally for ten thousand years'.

Among the four known extant San Bo Gui, the present vessel is the only one available in private hands; the remaining three are preserved in major museums in China and the United States, including Shanghai Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 17 | The Jian Min Fang Zun
Created in Western Zhou dynasty, probably King Mu period (circa 827 to 782 BCE)
Height: 21.5 cm

  • Probably discovered in Henan, circa 1949 (by repute)
  • Collection of Mrs. Walter Sedgwick (1883-1967), by 1954
  • Collection of an English nobleman
  • Sotheby's London, 7th April 1981, lot 72
  • Swiss Private Collection

Estimate: US$800,000 - 1,200,000
Hammer Price: US$600,000
Sold: US$756,000

Lot 10 | The Chu Wang Yin Qian Pan
Created in Warring States period, King Kaolie of Chu period (circa 262 - 238 BCE)
Diameter: 37.8 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Reputedly discovered in Shou county, Anhui province, during the Republic period
  • Shanghai Private Collection
  • Sotheby's London, 11th July 1978, lot 20
  • Collection of Albert Y.P. and Sara K.S. Lee

Estimate: US$120,000 - 150,000
Hammer Price: US$520,000
Sold: US$655,200

Lot 7 | The Wang Zuo Xuan Mu Li
Created in Eastern Zhou dynasty, early Spring and Autumn period (circa 770 - 476 BCE)
Diameter: 18.6 cm

  • Discovered in Qishan county, Shaanxi province, in the early Guangxu period
  • Collection of Duan Fang (1861-1911)
  • Sotheby's London, 19th June 1984, lot 37

Estimate: US$150,000 - 250,000
Hammer Price: US$300,000
Sold: US$378,000

Lot 1 | The Ding Mu Zhi
Created in early Western Zhou dynasty (circa 1045 - 771 BCE)
Height: 17 cm

  • Collection of Qing Gaozong, Aisin Gioro Hongli, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795)
  • Qing Court Collection
  • Collection of Fang Junyi (1836-1899)
  • Collection of Li Hongyi (1831-1885)
  • Collection of Zhang Heng (1915-1963)
  • New York Private Collection

Estimate: US$60,000 - 80,000
Hammer Price: US$250,000
Sold: US$315,000

Auction Details:
Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: POWER / CONQUEST: The Forging of Empires
Date: 20 September 2022
Number of lots: 29
Sold: 27
Unsold: 2
Sale Rate: 93%
Sale Total: US$7,090,524