The Review with Christian Deydier|Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel (YOU) from Shang Dynasty

In the coming sale of Important Chinese Art at Sotheby's New York, featuring on the catalogue's cover is the top lot — an Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel and Cover (YOU) from the Yinxu period of Shang Dynasty.

The rarity and value of that YOU are further bolstered by its impeccable provenance, having previously kept in the collection of Dr. A.F. Philips (1874-1951), former CEO of the Philips Company, and in the collection of J.T. Tai (1910-1992), a Chinese antiques dealer best known for the great quality of works he collected.

The Value talked to Christian Deydier, a specialist in archaic Chinese bronzes, who once handled the rare vessel. He said, "J.T. Tai was my good friend so I was able to see the piece in his house. He sold it to me much later, in around 1987 or 88."

An Extremely Rare and Important Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel And Cover (YOU)
Shang Dynasty, Yinxu Period

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Important Chinese Art
Date: 21 March 2018
Lot no.: 583

Height: 28.7cm
Provenance: (consolidated by The Value)

  • Collection of Huang Jun (1880-1952), Beijing.
  • Collection of Dr. A.F. Philips (1874-1951).
  • Sotheby's London, 30th March 1978, lot 13.
  • Collection of J.T. Tai (1910-1992), New York.
  • Christian Deydier, Paris. 
  • Collection of Wahl-Rostagni, Rome.
  • French Private Collection.

Estimate: US$1,500,000 - 2,500,000

Q: What’s the function of "YOU"?

Deydier: In Shang dynasty, the piece was used to keep wine. It was used in rituals for ancestors or ceremonies for the wind, the sun or the spirits. They came in different shapes in Shang dynasty. And this one was used to keep wine. This shape was quite rare at the time, at the beginning of Anyang period or Yinxu period.

Q: Is it an important piece?

Deydier: Out of all pieces that I sold during my life, I think it’s one of the most important bronzes of its shape. The decoration of the vessel is all-rounded. And the body of the bronze is full of decoration with large taotie marks background. It’s very rare. It’s exceptional in terms of its casting, its patination and the quality of design

Q: When did you first meet this wine vessel?

Deydier: I first met this piece at Sotheby’s London in the 1978 when they sold the collection of Dr. Philips. Then the piece was bought by J.T. Tai (1910-1992), a major dealer in the States at the time. He was my good friend and one of my teachers. So I was able to see the piece in his house. He later sold me the piece in around 1987 or 1988.

J.T. Tai

Q: How did you feel when you held the piece at the time?

Deydier: The casting is wonderful. The weight is perfect and the design is so deep and the taotie marks are all over the vessel. You can see the dragons, together with the taotie. And the patination is the best for such bronze. So it’s one of the rare pieces that being offered for this spring sale. When you hold the piece and touch it, you can feel the heart, as well as the religion, of the craftsmen who made the piece. The vessel was made for their ancestors and the spirits so it was an important piece in Chinese culture.

Q: Was it difficult to make this vessel in Shang dynasty?

Deydier: It was very difficult to make it during that time as they were using the technique of piece mold casting. In a much later period in China, around 5th-6th century BC, they used the lost-wax technique, which is much easier. In Europe, we only used lost-wax technique. You make the mold in wax and cast the bronze.

Illustration of piece mold casting

Deydier (continue): While piece mold casting requires shaping the pottery, then make a clay model of it. These clay pieces were removed in sections to form the piece-molds. The model was then shaved down to become the core and the piece-molds were reassembled around the core. Molten bronze would then be poured into the space between the mold and the core in order to make the piece. So it was a sophisticate technique.

Illustration of the present lot in [Feathers from Yezhong series II], vol. 1, Beijing, 1937.

Q: It is estimated at US$1.5m-2.5m. Do you think the price is fair or attractive?

Deydier: I think it’s an attractive price because most of the YOU vessels on the market are of periods much later than the Shang Dynasty or Zhou dynasty. For collectors of bronzes, they would prefer Shang bronzes.

Q: Any other examples that are similar to the YOU?

Deydier: Some of them are now in Japan or Taiwan but very few of them are in museums. I think we can count them all with two hands.

Archaic Bronze Ritual Wine Vessel (YOU) from Shang Dynasty|Collection of Nara National Museum