5 minutes with… A 3,000-year-old bronze ram-form wine vessel

Specialist Vicki Paloympis explains why this magnificent ram-form vessel — the rarest form of Chinese archaic bronze — sold for $27,127,500 on a record-breaking night in New York

A new world auction was set for an archaic bronze with the sale of a magnificent and highly important bronze ritual wine vessel, Fangzun (late Shang dynasty, 13th-11th century BC), which realised $37,207,500 / HK$287,756,347 in New York on March 15. Collectively the six ritual wine vessels offered in Christie’s dedicated Evening Sale of Important Chinese Art from the Fujita Museum totalled $125,785,000. The grand total for the sale was $262,839,500, which alone surpassed the previous record for any Asian Art Week series in auction history.

In a thrilling stretch, four of the top lots of the night, all ritual bronze wine vessels from the late Shang dynasty, soared above their estimates. Beginning with the bronze ritual wine vessel, fangzun, the series continued in quick succession with the wine vessel, fanglei, which realised $33,847,500 (estimate: $5-8 million); the wine vessel and cover, pou, which realised $27,127,500 (estimate: $4-6 million); and the wine vessel, gong, in ram-form, shown above, which also sold for $27,127,500 (estimate: $6-8  million).

‘This is an exceptionally rare piece,’ says specialist Vasiliki Paloympis of the intricate bronze ram-form wine vessel that may be the only one of its kind in the world. Cast in the form of a ram, the piece dates from the 13th-11th century BC.


A highly important and extremely rare bronze ritual ram-form wine vessel, Gong. Late Shang Dynasty, 13th-11th century BC. 8⅝ in (22 cm) long, Japanese double wood box. Sold for $37,207,500 in Important Chinese Art from the Fujita Museum on 15 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A highly important and extremely rare bronze ritual ram-form wine vessel, Gong. Late Shang Dynasty, 13th-11th century BC. 8⅝ in (22 cm) long, Japanese double wood box. Sold for $37,207,500 in Important Chinese Art from the Fujita Museum on 15 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

‘This vessel was made during the Shang Dynasty, and is likely to have been cast in the Yangtze River region,’ continues Paloympis, who describes the object as one of several ‘masterpieces’ to come to Christie’s from the Fujita Museum in Osaka, Japan, whose collection comprises more than 5,000 Japanese and Chinese works of art.

Animal-form vessels are the rarest form of Chinese archaic bronze: ‘Only a handful of comparable pieces are known to exist, although none are rams that are this elaborate, or in such good condition,’ says the specialist. This piece is particularly remarkable for the exceptional detail with which the ram’s features have been rendered — from its carefully ridged horns, to the ‘comma’-shaped nostrils.

‘It’s likely that this vessel was used during ritual offerings to the ancestors to appease the spirits, and thus to gain good fortune,’ says Paloympis. Aspects of this ram, including the diamond-shaped pattern on its forehead, indicate that the craftsmen who made it intended to represent a sacred creature, rather than a real animal. On its back, a mythical kui  dragon is typical of Southern bronzes. 

‘As a specialist, I’ve handled a lot of Chinese bronze, but this example really stands out,’ Paloympis states. ‘It’s just 22cm [8⅝ in] long, but it has an incredible presence — a buyer isn’t ever likely to find a piece as good as this on the market.’