Masterpieces of early Chinese gold and silver

Ahead of the sale of 101 early Chinese gold and silver works of art at Christie’s in New York, specialist Michelle Cheng takes a look at some of the highlights

Ancient China is famed for its love of bronze and jade, but gold and silver also have a tale to tell. In the short film above, Christie’s Chinese Works of Art specialist Michelle Cheng showcases an array of luxurious gold and silver objects that were created in China between the 6th century BC and the 9th century AD. 

A very rare gold headdress, Tang dynasty, 7th-9th century AD. 12¼  in (31  cm) wide. Estimate $60,000-80,000. Offered in Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver on 12 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A very rare gold headdress, Tang dynasty, 7th-9th century AD. 12¼ in (31 cm) wide. Estimate: $60,000-80,000. Offered in Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver on 12 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Picking up a gold headdress, above, dating to the 7th-9th century AD, the specialist explains that it represents a high point in gold craftsmanship. ‘It is a really amazing example of the cross-cultural exchanges that are happening in China during this time period.’

Pointing to the galloping horse motif at each end of the headdress, Cheng says that they reference the nomadic culture of tribes that lived on the steppes of central Asia. The hooves of the powerful steed barely touch the ground — indeed, it has been elevated to mythical status, with antlers and flames leaping from its haunches. In contrast, the floral patterns on the band are evocative of Tang-dynasty woven textiles. ‘It’s really the marriage of two cultures seen in one object,’ says Cheng.



A superb and extremely rare turquoise-inlaid gold openwork chape, Northwest China, 6th-5th century BC. 2⅛  in (5.3  cm) high. Estimate $300,000-500,000. Offered in Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver on 12 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A superb and extremely rare turquoise-inlaid gold openwork chape, Northwest China, 6th-5th century BC. 2⅛ in (5.3 cm) high. Estimate: $300,000-500,000. Offered in Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver on 12 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Turning to an exquisite openwork object, which is approximately 2,500 years old, Cheng explains that it is a chape — a type of ornament that would be fixed to the tip of a scabbard.

This ancient chape from northwest China depicts 11 interlaced dragons framed by the heads of birds of prey. It would have been cast in a two-piece mold and then inlaid with turquoise. ‘From the Shang dynasty (circa 1600-1100 BC) onwards, Chinese craftsmen were masters of piece-mold casting techniques,’ says Chen. The value of the material and the exquisite design of this chape suggests that ‘it would have been used for ceremonial purposes, and not taken into battle,’ adds the specialist. 

A very rare and important parcel-gilt silver bowl, Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). 9⅝ in (24.5 cm) diameter. Estimate $2,000,000-3,000,000. Offered in Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver on 12 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A very rare and important parcel-gilt silver bowl, Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). 9⅝ in (24.5 cm) diameter. Estimate: $2,000,000-3,000,000. Offered in Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver on 12 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Another highlight Cheng discusses is a remarkable and large parcel-gilt silver bowl in the form of an open lotus blossom, above. The lotus design is likely a reference to Buddhism for in Buddhist art a fully blooming lotus flower emerging from murky water is a symbol of purity. 

The vessel was made from a heavy lump of silver, which was hammered into a rough bowl shape, and then further hammered over a matrix or mold, probably made of wood, to create the elegant lotus-petal form. The interior and petals were then chased with designs of birds and peonies, traditional emblems of wealth and good fortune. 

Also coming to auction is a pair of charming gilt hairpins, below, depicting mandarin ducks in flight. Unlike the large and heavy lotus bowl, whose size and weight emphasise its importance, these hairpins were made from thin sheets of silver cut with a stencil so as to be feather-light. ‘Elaborate up-dos were the height of fashion at the Tang court, as we know from court paintings,’ says Cheng. ‘As they walked, you would have this wonderful effect of [the hairpins] shimmering in the light.’

A rare pair of parcel-gilt silver hairpins, Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). Each 11  in (28  cm) long. Estimate $40,000-60,000. Offered in Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver on 12 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York
A rare pair of parcel-gilt silver hairpins, Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). Each 11 in (28 cm) long. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. Offered in Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver on 12 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

These precious objects were all formerly in the collection of the Swedish connoisseur Dr. Johan Carl Kempe (1884-1967), and represent one of the foremost collections of Chinese gold and silver in private hands. 

The collection was published in 1953. In the preface, Kempe explained his attraction to Chinese art: ‘Somehow or other I found myself steeped in humble respect and admiration before this art so pure and yet stimulating for the imagination in its variety of aspects and forms.’ 

Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver will be on view at Christie’s in New York 6-11 September, ahead of the auction on 12 September.