A Chinese marble frog dating back to 3,000 years ago sells for US$1.2m in New York

Last autumn's auction season saw a rare 3,000-year-old Chinese marble frog soar past its low estimate of HK$3 million and change hands for a staggering HK$28.8 million (US$3.67 million).

To date, only three examples of similar marble frogs are known.

A year later, one of these examples has just been auctioned at Sotheby's New York. More than doubling its pre-sale low estimate of US$400,000, it was hammered down for US$950,000 and achieved US$1.2 million with fees, becoming the top lot of the Vestiges of Ancient China Sale

Lot 219 | An archaic marble sculpture of a recumbent frog
Shang dynasty (circa 16th - 11th century B.C.)
Length: 25 cm

  • New York Private Collection
  • Offered at Sotheby's New York, 19th November 1982, lot 88

Estimate: US$400,000 - 600,000
Hammer Price: US$950,000
Sold: US$1,206,500

As the Shang believed in the 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 three known marble frog carvings of this size and form from the Shang dynasty: one from the collection of Richard Bull, which was sold at Sotheby's New York in 1983; one once owned by "the Godfather of Chinese antiques" Giuseppe Eskenazi, changed hands for HK$28.8 million (around US$3.67 million) at Sotheby's Hong Kong last autumn; and the present one, which last appeared in public 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 merely by small indented holes set in squared platform sockets.

The marble frog that sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2022

The marble frog from the Richard Bull Collection 

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

Since the Shang associated some creatures with mythology, animal designs are common motifs in works of art from this period, 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 of 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. 

Lot 225 | The Luo Ji Gui, A pair of archaic bronze ritual pedestaled food vessels (Fang Zuo Gui)
Early Western Zhou dynasty, circa King Zhao period (circa 995 - 977 B.C.)
Width: 26 cm

  • Anthony Carter, London
  • Offered at Christie's New York, 21st September 2004, lot 156

Estimate: US$800,000 - 1,200,000
Hammer Price: US$620,000
Sold: US$787,400

As with preceding dynasties, ritual bronze vessels were of vital importance in Zhou society. At the time, bronze vessels would be used during sacrificial ceremonies to offer food and wine to ancestors to obtain their protection. Only the most powerful families of the time, however, were allowed to possess bronze vessels due to the extensive manufacturing costs. As such, they became also a symbol of power and wealth.

And Gui, a bowl-shaped bronze with loop handles, was primarily used to hold cooked rice, millet, or soybeans in state and burial rites. It was used together with ding to symbolize status – 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. 

Gui cast with an integral square podium is a special bronze form that was popular during the Western Zhou dynasty, the owner of which was usually nobility and the wealthy elite. Today, there are about 100 surviving examples from that era. 

Each gui is cast with the same eleven-character inscription, which identifies the owner of the vessels as Luo Ji

Luo (𩂣) is an ancient ideographic character that originally denotes "rain", but it later extended to also convey the meaning of "fall". In the catalogue, Sotheby's suggests that luo is synonymous with Lu (潞), a state in the early Spring and Autumn period, yet eventually conquered by its neighbouring powerful state, Jin, in the late 6th century B.C..

So the question comes up: Given that the Lu state had already collapsed by the time this pair of gui were produced, who is the Luo Ji mentioned in the inscription?

*Remarks: Some digital devices may not be able to display the character 𩂣. It is written as 雨 on top of 各.

An eleven-character inscription on each vessel

According to scholars cited by Sotheby's, there is a significant connection between the Lu state and the Ba state.

Based on this, the auction house further speculates that the owner of this pair of gui was an aristocrat related to the Zhou royal family, who was likely married to the leader of the Ba state. She was once rewarded by the king and subsequently commissioned this pair of ritual vessels to commemorate such an honourable event.

The lot was formerly in the collection of Anthony Carter, an antique dealer who has over forty years of experience in the trade of Asian works of art, particularly Chinese. Before running his own business, he worked at the famous Bluett and Sons in London, where he developed a deep knowledge of antiques first as an assistant and finally as Managing Director.

Lot 215 | A silver-inlaid bronze crossbow casing and trigger
Late Warring States period - Han dynasty (475 B.C. - A.D.220)
Length: 21 cm

  • Japanese Private Collection
  • Kochukyo & Co, Tokyo

Estimate: US$500,000 - 600,000
Hammer Price: US$400,000
Sold: US$508,000

This Vestiges of Ancient China Sale is dedicated to China's antiquity through a selection of archaic bronzes, jades and sculptures. Among them, this silver-inlaid crossbow mechanism is particularly intriguing. 

Bronze crossbow mechanisms first appeared in the 6th century B.C. and were widely used as military weapons in the Qin and Han dynasties. The basic crossbow usually comprised several main components: a tumbler which includes a release to hold the bowstring and an aiming element, a sear, and a trigger. 

A metal casing, as seen on this piece, was introduced in the late Warring States period, to cover the trigger mechanism and serve as a means of protection from recoiling, therefore increasing the accuracy, as well as the durability of the weapon.

Compared to traditional bows and arrows, it is easier for soldiers to handle since they would not have to aim and draw the string simultaneously. However, a drawback is that it takes longer to load the arrow.

A Qin crossbow portrayed in The Revived Army, a documentary on Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV)

The structure of a crossbow from the Qin dynasty (221- 207 B.C.)

The present crossbow mechanism is sumptuously decorated in silver inlay, particularly notable for the two extensions on the rear side resembling an abstract animal head.

With such elaborate decorations, it is clearly commissioned for a ruler or high-ranking aristocrat and likely made only for ceremonial rather than military use.

A silver-inlaid crossbow mechanism from the Warring States Period (475 - 221 B.C.) | Taipei Palace Museum

This 62-lot auction achieved a solid result, with 47 lots finding new buyers, yielding a sale total of US$4.59 million and a sell-through rate of nearly 76%. Below are other highlights from the sale:

Lot 210 | An archaic green jade 'chilong' disc, bi
Han dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 220)
Length: 15.4 cm

  • Acquired prior to 2000

Estimate: US$300,000 - 500,000
Hammer Price: US$380,000
Sold: US$482,600

Lot 224 | An archaic bronze ritual tripod pouring vessel and cover, he
Late Shang / early Western Zhou dynasty (circa 16th - 11 century B.C.)
Height: 21 cm

  • Japanese Private Collection, acquired in the 1980s and 1990s

Estimate: US$70,000 - 90,000
Hammer Price: US$95,000
Sold: US$120,650

Lot 203 | The Ran Gui
Late Shang / early Western Zhou dynasty (circa 16th - 11 century B.C.)
Width: 30 cm

  • Fritz Low-Beer, New York, acquired by circa 1945
  • Collection of Richard Bryant Hobart (d. 1968)
  • Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, 23rd May 1969, lot 39
  • Collection of J.J. Klejman (1906-1995), and thence by descent

Estimate: US$60,000 - 80,000
Hammer Price: US$80,000
Sold: US$101,600

Lot 243 | A large bronze and amber-glazed pottery 'money tree'
Eastern Han dynasty 
Height: 145 cm

  • Acquired in the 1980s

Estimate: US$50,000 - 70,000
Hammer Price: US$65,000
Sold: US$82,550

Lot 240 | A pair of gold and silver-inlaid masks and ring handles
Eastern Zhou Dynasty, Warring States Period
Width: 13 cm

  • Mandala Fine Arts, Hong Kong, late 1990s

Estimate: US$20,000 - 30,000
Hammer Price: US$48,000
Sold: US$60,960

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: Vestiges of Ancient China
Sale Date: 19 September 2023
Number of Lots: 62
Sold: 47
Unsold: 15
Sale Rate: 75.8%
Sale Total: US$4,590,034