US$2.1 million archaic bronze ritual wine jar shines in Sotheby’s New York Sale

Asia Week at Sotheby’s New York continues to shine with favourable results in their Important Chinese Art Sale.  

Amongst 208 lots offered, 179 were sold and 29 were unsold. In the end, an 86 per cent sale rate was achieved, while the sale total was US$13.6 million dollars.

An archaic bronze ritual wine jar was the sale’s most expensive lot – it garnered US$2.1 million dollars, with buyer’s premium. This piece was owned by three prominent Chinese bronze connoisseurs from the 19th to 20th century – Wu Yun, Li Hongyi and Zou An.

Lot 233 Guo Ji Shi Zi Zu Hu

Created during late Western Zhou dynasty (circa 1045-771 BCE)
Height: 42.5 cm

  • Discovered in Fengxiang county, Shaanxi province, in the Qing dynasty, perhaps in the late Qianlong period (by repute)
  • Collection of Wu Yun (1811-1883), prior to 1872
  • Collection of Li Hongyi (1831-1885)
  • Collection of Zou An (1864-1940)
  • American Private Collection

Estimate: US$800,000 – 1,200,000

Hammer Price: US$1,700,000

Sold: US$2,107,000

The auctioneer started the bidding at US$420,000 dollars. After more than 15 bids, the hammer was dropped at US$1.7 million dollars – more than double of its low estimate. The winning bid was by Tiffany Chao (Specialist, Asian Art) with paddle number L0008. In the end, it was sold at US$2.1 million dollars with buyer’s premium.

This ritual wine jar, known as the Guo Ji Shi Zi Zu Hu, is an impressive example of archaic bronze art.

It bears a seventeen-character inscription inside the neck, reading Guo Ji shi Zizu zuo bao hu zizi sunsun yong bao qi yong xiang, which can be translated as: “Zizu of the Ji clan of the Guo state made this precious hu vessel; may his sons and grandsons forever treasure it and enjoy its use.”

The Guo state was one of the most powerful regional vassal states of the Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BCE). The rulers of Guo, who were closely related by birth to the Zhou royal house, held key positions in the entourage of the Zhou kings. States such as Guo were not independent political entities, but rather strategically important territories overseen by a clan installed to support Zhou rule. Their importance for the Zhou royal house found expression among other things in tombs particularly richly furnished with ritual bronzes and jades.

A rubbing of the present lot's inscription in Wu Dacheng's Kezhai Jigu Lu (Kezhai's Record of Collecting Antiquities), 1896
By virtue of its historically significant inscription, the vessel was owned by three prominent bronze connoisseurs during the 19th to 20th centuries.

The present hu was first published in Wu Yun’s Liangleixuan yiqi tushi (Illustrated study of the ritual vessels in the Liangleixuan) with a woodcut illustration of both the vessel and its inscription. His study, Liangleixuan (Study of the two lei), was named after an important pair of bronze lei vessels.

Yun formed part of an important circle of bronze collectors, which included Pan Zuyin (1830-1890), Wu Dacheng (1835-1902), Chen Jieqi (1813-1884), Li Hongyi (1831-1885) amongst others. They frequently met or exchanged letters and discussed and swapped pieces. Later, he gave this pot to his friend, Li Hongyi.

Li Hongyi was a bronze connoisseur. After serving in military campaigns in his earlier years, Li later retired in Suzhou and occupied himself with gardening and collecting antiques.

Zou An (1864-1940), literary name Shilu, was the third recorded owner of this vessel and also a learned bronze connoisseur. He published several books on archaic bronzes during the Republican period (1911-1949). His Shuangwang Xizhai jinshi tulu (Illustrated record of bronzes and stelae in the Two Kings’ Seals Studio) was the first archaic bronze catalogue to use photography in China, which set a new standard for catalogue publication.

At least eight other late Western Zhou bronze vessels are similarly inscribed and appear to have been cast by the same Guo Ji shi Zizu as our hu: three li tripods, three gui food vessels, one you wine vessel, and one pan water basin, although the you is lacking the character shi in the name. The Palace Museum, Beijing has a li and a you; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London has a gui with cover; and the Shanghai Museum has a cover.

The present lot illustrated in Wu Yun, Liangleixuan Yiqi Tushi (Illustrated Study of the Ritual Vessels in the Liangleixuan), 1872

This present lot illustrated in Zou An's Shuangwang Xizhai jinshi tulu (Illustrated record of bronzes and stelae in the Two Kings’ Seals Studio), 1916

Lot 253 Blue and White ‘Dragon’ ‘Dice’ Bowl (Bo)

Seal mark and of the Xuande period (1425-1435)
Diameter: 26.5 cm

  • Collection of Leon (d. 1961) and Max (d. 1942) Friedman, acquired in China between the 1920s and 1940s, and thence by descent

Estimate: US$600,000 – 800,000

Hammer Price: US$1,000,000

Sold: US$1,260,000

The second most expensive lot was Chinese Imperial porcelain bowl from early 15th century. 

The auctioneer started bidding at US$420,000 dollars. After around 20 bids, the hammer was dropped at US$1 million dollars. In the end, this lot netted US$1.26 million dollars with buyer’s premium.

This present bowl exemplifies the celebrated aesthetics of blue and white porcelain produced during the Xuande period (1425-35). Following the Yongle Emperor’s (r. 1402-1424) initiation of unprecedented control of the kilns in Jingdezhen, the Xuande Emperor’s short but prosperous reign saw further refinement and innovation – elevating the level of blue and white porcelain production to new heights.

A devoted patron of the arts and an artist himself, the Xuande Emperor took great interest in the production of porcelain at the Imperial kilns of Jiangxi, southeast China. Under the scrutiny of court officials and eunuchs sent to Jingdezhen to supervise production, the kilns’ capacity was vastly increased while improving the standard of workmanship.

Representative of the many remarkable technical and artistic advances made during this period, the bowl is masterfully drawn – the powerful dragons emerge from the waves in an extraordinary range of rich blue tones derived from the sumali cobalt. Imported from the Middle East with steady supply during the Yongle and Xuande period, the cobalt produced a deep blue pigment, allowing for the famous heaping and piling effect, celebrated and extensively imitated on later blue and white porcelains.

The bowl's middle section is adorned with a dragon motif 

Leon and Max Friedman
This present bowl comes from the Collection of Leon and Max Friedman – aviation pioneers who later established an automobile empire in China in the early 20th century. The two brothers emigrated from Romania to the United States during their adolescences and soon found themselves in the business of promoting and organising aviation shows, which became popular.

Looking to the East, the brothers brought these shows to Japan and China and noticed the huge opportunity of growth in China during their visits. In 1919, the brothers moved to Shanghai, this time with their eyes fixed on the flourishing automobile industry in China. They quickly established China Motors Fed., Inc. USA, and became American automobile manufacturing company, Chrysler’s largest export dealer in the world. The pair set up public showrooms all over the country – including in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing – supplying automobiles to the government and army.

In 1940, and due to the turbulent situation in China, the brothers returned to the United States. This blue-and-white bowl was acquired when they lived in China and has since been passed down by descent.

Lot 263 Ming-style Blue and White ‘Fruits’ Vase (Meiping)

Seal mark and period of Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796)
Height: 32.4 cm

  • Acquired in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and thence by descent

Estimate: US$400,000 – 600,000

Hammer Price: US$670,000

Sold: US$884,200

This porcelain vase was the sale’s third most expensive lot. It was hammered at US$670,000 dollars, and sold at US$884,200 dollars.

The Qianlong Emperor admired 15th century blue and white porcelain – for their quality, innovative and artistic prowess.

Originally used as a wine storage device, it is tall – with a narrow base spreading gracefully into a wide body. This is followed by a sharply rounded shoulder, a short and narrow neck and a small opening. Since the 10th to 13th century, it also became popular as a plum blossom vase – thus its name meiping.

Small flowers are found on the neck and lotus petals on the shoulders. The vase’s belly is adorned with flowers and fruits – including peach, pomegranate, lychee, peony, plum and chrysanthemum. The blue and white have darker glaze spots, which is an replication of Xuande's blue and white porcelains.

Other highlight lots:

Lot 269 Yangcai Reticulated Revolving Vase

Seal mark and period of Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796)
Height: 37.5 cm

  • New York Private Collection

Estimate: US$50,000 – 70,000

Hammer Price: US$580,000

Sold: US$730,800

Lot 236 Inscribed Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel (Zun)

Created during early Western Zhou dynasty (circa 1045-771 BCE)
Height: 27.5 cm

  • Collection of Z.I. Yang, until 1951
  • C.T. Loo, New York
  • Frank Caro, successor to C.T. Loo, New York, 1954
  • Collection of Mr. John Frederick Lewis Jr. (1899-1965) and Mrs. Ada Haeseler Lewis (1900-1967)
  • Philadelphia Private Collection
  • Sotheby's New York, 14th September 2011, Lot 298

Estimate: US$400,000 – 600,000

Hammer Price: US$560,000

Sold: US$705,600

Lot 230 │ Inscribed Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel (Gu)

Created during late Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1046 BCE)
Height: 32 cm

  • Collection of Cao Zaikui (1782-1852)
  • Collection of Fei Nianci (1855-1905)
  • European Private Collection

Estimate: US$80,000 – 120,000

Hammer Price: US$380,000

Sold: US$478,800

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s New York

Sale: Important Chinese Art

Sale Date: 23 March 2022

Number of lots: 208

Sold: 179

Unsold: 29

Sale Rate: 86%

Sale Total: US$13,653,892