Collecting guide: ancient Chinese bronzes

A guide to archaic bronze vessels, from inscriptions and origins to purpose and provenance — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

chinese bronzes

A very rare bronze ritual food vessel and a cover, Gui, late western Zhou dynasty-early spring and autumn period, 8th-7th century BC. Japanese wood box inscribed by Hata Zoroku the 4th (1898-1984), 1939. 15¾ in (40 cm). Estimate: $150,000-250,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

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.

Bo Zhong: A large bronze bell (below), of elliptical section with a large handle cast with bodies of dragons or birds.

Gong: A ritual wine vessel with cover, often characterised as metamorphic forms of animals.

Fangyi: A ritual wine vessel with tapering body of rectangular section and a roof-shaped cover.

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

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

Gu: Also a ritual wine vessel, similar to the zun  but with a more slender silhouette.

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.

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

Pou: A ritual wine vessel with rounded body, used for storing wine.

He: A ritual wine vessel and cover (above), supported on either two or three legs with a spout rising diagonally from the shoulder, opposite a C-form handle.

Hu: A classic pear-shaped ritual wine vessel, sometimes with a cover.

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

Zhi: Another ritual wine vessel (above), of pear shape and oval section and raised on a splayed foot, sometimes with a cover.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Detail of A bronze ritual food vessel, Gui, western Zhou dynasty, 10th century BC. 10⅝ in (27 cm). Estimate: $30,000-50,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

A bronze ritual food vessel, Gui, western Zhou dynasty, 10th century BC. 10⅝ in (27 cm). Estimate: $30,000-50,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

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.

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.

Familiarise yourself with the different periods

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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Understand ‘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.

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