The pictograph cast inside the vessel and cover, which consists of a rectangle with paired lines projecting from the two long sides, is a clan sign.
Vessels of this unusual addorsed owl shape appear to have been made primarily during the Shang dynasty, and were of two different types; those covered overall with dense decoration and those of a more austere, simplified design, exemplified by the minimalism of the present example.
Examples of the first, ornate type, densely cast with fine scale-like feathers, leiwen grounds and sometimes additional small bird motifs, are represented by three examples illustrated by R.W. Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Washington, DC, 1987: one in the Freer Gallery of Art, fig. 154; one in the Sumitomo Collection, Kyoto, p. 115, fig. 154; and one in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, p. 371, fig. 63.3.
The present vessel belongs to the second, plain group. However, it diverges from these vessels as it does not have the smooth simplified wings on the body or the large eyes and horns usually found on the covers of this group. The most famous of these vessels is the you and cover excavated in 1957 from Shilou, Shanxi province, included in the exhibition, The Genius of China, Royal Academy of Art, London, 29 September 1973 - 23 January 1974, no. 81. Like the present vessel it has a small taotie mask on either side where the handle would have been attached and it has a similar faceted finial on the cover. Both of these features are also found on the you in the Metropolitan Museum of Art illustrated by K.E. Foster, A Handbook of Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Pomona College, Claremont, California, rev. ed., 1949, p. 69, no. 28. A you included in the Kaikodo autumn exhibition, New York, 1996, no. 49, also has a faceted finial, but loops on the shoulder for the attachment of the handle, rather than taotie masks. The Kaikodo vessel has remains of a rope-twist-form handle, which, if it remains at all, is the kind of handle also found on other published owl-form you, as well as on the example from the Doris Duke Collection sold in these rooms, 21 September 2004, lot 145. Most likely the present you would have had the same type of handle.
This charming owl-form you differs from the various published examples, whether of the ornate or plain type, in that there are no wings, with the only decoration being the tiny bosses on the sides, the bow-string bands on the shoulder and cover and only tiny bosses to indicate the eyes.