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Collecting guide: Chinese archaic bronzes

Katie Lundie, specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at Christie's in London, explains what to look for when building a collection of Chinese archaic bronzes

1. Familiarise yourself with the different forms

Made in sets to furnish the tombs of China’s elite, Chinese archaic ritual bronzes were used to hold offerings of food and drink to the ancestors of the past. They were produced in huge quantities in a range of shapes, each of which has a specific name. When looking to build a diverse collection, it is important to familiarise oneself with the names of the different forms. Some of the more popular archaic bronze forms include:

You:  A ritual wine vessel (see main image) with a stout oval body and an overhead handle, usually with a cover.

A bronze ritual wine vessel, Zun, early Western Zhou dynasty (12th century BC). 10¾  in (27.4  cm) high. Estimate £30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November at Christie’s in London

A bronze ritual wine vessel, Zun, early Western Zhou dynasty (12th century BC). 10¾ in (27.4 cm) high. Estimate: £30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November at Christie’s in London

Zun:  Another ritual wine vessel (above), flared and with a bulbous mid-section.

A bronze ritual wine vessel, Gu, Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC). 10¾  in (27.4  cm) high. Estimate £20,000-40,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November 2017  at Christie’s in London

A bronze ritual wine vessel, Gu, Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC). 10¾ in (27.4 cm) high. Estimate: £20,000-40,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November 2017 at Christie’s in London

Gu:  Also a ritual wine vessel, similar to the zun  but with a slender silhouette (as above).

A bronze ritual wine vessel, Jue, Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC). 8⅜  in (21.3  cm) high. Estimate £10,000-20,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November at Christie’s in London

A bronze ritual wine vessel, Jue, Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC). 8⅜ in (21.3 cm) high. Estimate: £10,000-20,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November at Christie’s in London

Jue:  One of the more striking vessels (above) of the archaic ritual bronze assembly — another ritual wine vessel, with a prominent spout, whorl-capped posts, flared tail and long tripod legs.

A bronze tripod vessel, Ding, late Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC). 7⅛  in (18.2  cm) high. Estimate £20,000-40,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November at Christie’s in London

A bronze tripod vessel, Ding, late Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC). 7⅛ in (18.2 cm) high. Estimate: £20,000-40,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November at Christie’s in London

Ding:  A ritual cooking vessel (above) with a globular body, tripod legs and a pair of upright handles.

A bronze ritual food vessel, Gui, late Shang-early Western Zhou dynasty, 11th century BC. 10¾  in (27.6  cm) wide across the handles. Sold for $199,500 on 17 March 2017  at Christie’s in New York

A bronze ritual food vessel, Gui, late Shang-early Western Zhou dynasty, 11th century BC. 10¾ in (27.6 cm) wide across the handles. Sold for $199,500 on 17 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A bronze ritual food vessel, Gui, early Western Zhou dynasty (11th-10th century). 9¼  in (23.5  cm)  diameter. Estimate £40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November at Christie’s in London

A bronze ritual food vessel, Gui, early Western Zhou dynasty (11th-10th century). 9¼ in (23.5 cm) diameter. Estimate: £40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November at Christie’s in London

Gui:  A ritual food vessel (above) with a compressed globular body, raised on a waisted foot, with a pair of loop handles usually decorated with animal heads.

Square forms: Many of the standard shapes also appear in ‘square’ or fang  versions, including the fangzun, fanghu and fangding. Of great significance to the ancient ruling elites, square vessels are much more rare.

2. Look out for inscriptions

From the latter part of the Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC) onwards, some Chinese bronze ritual vessels were marked with inscriptions which can indicate for whom the object was made, when, and for what purpose. 

A bronze ritual wine vessel and cover, You, early Western Zhou dynasty (11th-10th century BC). 11  in (28  cm) high. Estimate £80,000-120,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November 2017  at Christie’s in London

A bronze ritual wine vessel and cover, You, early Western Zhou dynasty (11th-10th century BC). 11 in (28 cm) high. Estimate: £80,000-120,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November 2017 at Christie’s in London

Inscriptions on the above bronze ritual wine vessel and cover, You, early Western Zhou dynasty (11th-10th century BC).
Inscriptions on the above bronze ritual wine vessel and cover, You, early Western Zhou dynasty (11th-10th century BC).
Inscriptions on the above bronze ritual wine vessel and cover, You, early Western Zhou dynasty (11th-10th century BC).
Inscriptions on the above bronze ritual wine vessel and cover, You, early Western Zhou dynasty (11th-10th century BC).

Late Shang-dynasty and early Western Zhou-dynasty (11th-10th century BC) vessels tend to have simpler inscriptions, while those on Western Zhou-dynasty vessels (9th-8th century BC) tend to be longer and more complex. Inscriptions make a vessel more rare, and add to its value.

Dating these markings is key: in some cases, they will have been added by a collector long after the piece was originally produced.

3. Consider for whom the vessel may have been made

Chinese archaic bronze vessels often have extensive provenance, with ownership dating back hundreds of years. It makes sense that the finest examples often come from important and well-known collections, because they would have been commissioned by China’s most powerful figures.

These vessels are often inscribed with significant clan marks, indicating the calibre of the patronage surrounding their manufacture. They are surviving symbols of China’s royalty and elite.

4. Take note of condition

The condition issues of archaic bronzes are not always immediately obvious. It is always important to take an X-ray of a bronze to check for hidden damage, because cracks or corrosion may have been carefully concealed using sophisticated restoration techniques.

5. Familiarise yourself with the different periods associated with ancient bronzes

Objects that fall under the category of ‘ancient Chinese bronzes’ span a period ranging some 1,800 years — from the Shang dynasty (1600-100 BC) to the Han (206 BC- 220 AD). It is important to understand the different styles associated with each period. The more ‘classic’ vessels — those most closely associated with archaic Chinese bronzes — were typically produced in the Shang (1600-1100 BC) and Western Zhou (1100-771 BC) dynasties.

A very rare and important silver-inlaid bronze corner mount, Warring States period, 4th-3rd century BC. 4⅛ x 3⅛  in (10.5 x 7.9  cm). Sold for $271,500 on 17 March 2017  at Christie’s in New York

A very rare and important silver-inlaid bronze corner mount, Warring States period, 4th-3rd century BC. 4⅛ x 3⅛ in (10.5 x 7.9 cm). Sold for $271,500 on 17 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

New and more elaborate shapes, techniques and decoration were introduced in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC), Warring States period (475-221 BC) and Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Advancements in metalwork led to the use of intricate gold, silver and turquoise inlay in Warring States vessels, ornaments, fittings and blades. Complex designs including scrolls and interlocking animals were also a common feature in later periods.

6. Look out for bronze mirrors

Mirrors made in bronze, highly polished on one side, were also popular in ancient times. Although the earliest bronze mirrors date to Neolithic times, they only began to be mass-produced from the Warring States period (475-221 BC) onwards, with the finest examples dating to the Han (206 BC-220 AD) and Song (960-1279) dynasties.

A bronze circular mirror with deities and animals, China, mid-late Eastern Han dynasty, late 2nd-3rd century AD. 5½  in (14  cm) diameter, box. Sold for $37,500 on 20 March 2015  at Christie’s in New York

A bronze circular mirror with deities and animals, China, mid-late Eastern Han dynasty, late 2nd-3rd century AD. 5½ in (14 cm) diameter, box. Sold for $37,500 on 20 March 2015 at Christie’s in New York

Bronze mirrors were produced right up until the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), so it is important to identify the age of a mirror. Pay attention to the quality of casting and the style of design on the non-polished side.

7. Ornaments and ritual weapons

Bronze was also used to make ritual weapons including blades and axe heads, and elaborate ornaments such as belt hooks, which were an indication of status when worn by the elite. 

A gilt bronze chilong belt hook, Warring States period (475-221 BC). 5⅞  in (15  cm) long. Estimate £6,000-10,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November at Christie’s in London

A gilt bronze chilong belt hook, Warring States period (475-221 BC). 5⅞ in (15 cm) long. Estimate: £6,000-10,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November at Christie’s in London

These were used in ceremonies, or were buried in the tombs of the elites for use in the afterlife.

8. Be wary of ‘archaistic’ pieces from later periods

‘Archaism’ is perhaps the most prominent theme in Chinese art throughout its long history. It is very common to find ancient bronze forms and motifs imitated in later periods, both in bronze and other materials such as jade and ceramics.

Ming and Qing-dynasty bronzes can often appear very similar to their predecessors, and this must be considered when dating a piece. Later Chinese bronzes should be regarded as fine artworks in their own right, paying tribute to China’s ancient masterpieces.