Beautiful and deadly: a pair of museum-quality bronze fittings from an imperial chariot

‘We don’t often see such exquisite openwork casting on the market’ — Cecilia Zi, Kate Hunt and Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti on a pair of gold- and silver-inlaid bronze chariot fittings fashioned in the region of 2,400 years ago

‘These archaic bronzes are extremely beautiful, but they were likely made to hold a killing machine,’ says Cecilia Zi, Christie’s specialist in Chinese Art.

Intricately decorated with gold and silver inlay, the bronze chariot fittings are cast in the shape of a dragon pursuing a phoenix. They would have been used to support a crossbow — ‘with the charioteer using the dragon’s mouth to draw the string of the bow,’ explains Zi.

The bronzes were created during the Eastern Zhou dynasty, which saw a flourishing of gold- and silver-inlaid bronzes in the 3rd and 4th centuries BC, and were almost certainly destined for an emperor. ‘The quality, size and exceptional artistry suggest that they were made for someone very special,’ says Zi.

‘Zhou dynasty emperors associated themselves with dragons, while the phoenix often symbolised an empress’ — specialist Cecilia Zi

The mythical creatures also indicate imperial ownership and power. ‘Zhou dynasty emperors associated themselves with dragons, while the phoenix often symbolised an empress,’ explains the specialist.

When the tomb of the mighty Qin Shi Huangdi (221-210 BC) — the emperor buried with the Terracotta Army — was excavated in the 1970s, it was found to contain two bronze chariots bearing dragons and phoenixes very like the ones offered for sale at Christie’s.

Zhou dynasty bronzes are particularly coveted due to their sophisticated metalwork and rarity, says Zi. ‘Even so, we don’t often see examples of such exquisite openwork casting in gold and silver on the market.’

To create the intricate design, the artisan would have cast shallow indentations on the original bronze object and then inlaid the gold and silver, which were worked cold.

‘We can only imagine what the rest of the chariot looked like, but it must have been breathtaking,’ Zi adds.

A rare and magnificent pair of gold-and-silver-inlaid bronze chariot fittings, Eastern Zhou dynasty, 4th-3rd century BC. 10¼ in (26 cm) long. Estimate £600,000-1,000,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art on 3 November 2020 at Christie’s in London
A rare and magnificent pair of gold-and-silver-inlaid bronze chariot fittings, Eastern Zhou dynasty, 4th-3rd century BC. 10¼ in (26 cm) long. Estimate: £600,000-1,000,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art on 3 November 2020 at Christie’s in London

The Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC) was the longest-lasting empire in Chinese history, extending for almost 790 years. For many centuries it operated under a feudal system in which disputes between aristocrats were invariably settled with small-scale skirmishes. 

This all changed during the Warring States period (475-221 BC), when warlords became militarised, and iron took over from bronze as the metal of preference, because it was cheaper to manufacture and far deadlier.

‘Bronze was then used for ceremonial purposes, so I suspect this chariot was not tested in combat,’ says Zi. The chariot was more likely used as a mobile command post, like the ones described by the military strategist Sun Tzu (544-496 BC) in his book The Art of War:

‘One chariot carries three mailed officers; 72 foot troops accompany it. Additionally, there are 10 cooks and servants, five men to take care of uniforms, five grooms in charge of fodder and five men to collect firewood and draw water. Seventy-five men to one light chariot, 25 to one baggage wagon, so that taking the two together 100 men compose a company.’

Alternatively, the chariot could have been used for leisure. In Shijing (Book of Odes), a collection of poems from the 11th century BC, there is a description of how chariots were sometimes festooned in multicoloured banners and bells, and ridden around the royal parks.

‘In any case, the vehicle was almost certainly interred with the owner when he died,’ says Zi, explaining that similar pieces were excavated in the late 1920s from tombs in Jincun, Henan Province, where eight mausoleums filled with treasures from the Warring States period were uncovered. There are also examples of chariot fittings from this era in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Japan.

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The archaic bronzes have remarkable provenance, having been owned by both the Comtesse de Béhague (1869-1939) and the manufacturing giant and Sinophile Stephen Junkunc III (circa 1905-1978).

Junkunc was one of the most active collectors of his day, and his landmark collection of Chinese artefacts was serviced by a handful of brilliant dealers. Among them were the legendary C. T. Loo (1880-1957) and Giuseppe Eskenazi (b. 1939), both of whom owned the bronze fittings at one time.

‘They are museum-quality pieces,’ says Zi, ‘and objects people will remember for decades to come.’