The illustrious provenance of the Shao Fangding can be traced back to 1942, when it was first published by Huang Jun (1880-1951) in his Ye zhong pianyu sanji (Treasures from the Ye [Anyang] Series III). Huang Jun, who goes by his literary name, Bochuan, graduated from the late Qing government school for teaching Western languages, Tongwen Guan. He spoke German, English, and French, and served as a translator in a German bank after graduation while working part-time in his uncle’s antique shop, Zungu Zhai. He later became manager of Zungu Zhai and one of the most prominent figures in the antique trade in Beijing. Huang Jun not only handled some of the most important archaic bronzes and jades, but also published them in catalogues such as the Yezhong pianyu series, Zungu Zhai suo jian jijin tu chu ji, and Guyu tulu chuji (First Collection of Ancient Chinese Jades), which is almost unique for his generation of Chinese dealers. The Ye zhong pianyu series has great academic importance, since most of the pieces are believed to be from the late Shang capital Anyang (ancient name Ye). Most of the 133 bronze vessels included in the series are now in museum collections, with only a few remaining in private hands. Huang Jun probably sold the Shao Fangding directly to Hans Jürgon von Lochow (1902–1989), a German collector who lived in Beijing. Von Lochow amassed a carefully selected, world-class collection of archaic bronzes, and the Lochow Collection was published by Gustav Ecke, another German who lived in Beiing and collected and studied ancient Chinese art. Upon von Lochow’s return to Germany, he donated most of his collection to the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Cologne, while only a few of his pieces, including the Shao Fangding, went back on the market, passing through the hands of some of the most important dealers and collectors.
Symbolizing royal power, fangding vessels had great significance for Shang ruling elites. The largest extant Shang bronze ritual vessel is the Si Mu Wu fangding, measuring 133 cm. high and weighing 875 kilograms, found in Wuguan village, Anyang city, in 1939, and now in the National Museum of China, and illustrated in Zhongguo qingtongqi quanji: Shang 2 (Complete Collection of Chinese Bronzes: Shang), vol. 2, Beijing, 1997, p. 48, no. 47. While massive fangding vessels were made exclusively for kings and queens, fangding of regular size were reserved for high-ranking aristocrats. The Shao Fangding’s superb proportions and elaborate decoration, especially the dragon motifs cast on the outer sides of the handles, an area that is usually left undecorated, demonstrate the sophistication of bronze design and casting in the late Shang capital, Anyang. There appear to be only a few published examples that may be cited as parallels. A similar, but smaller, late Shang fangding (18.7 cm. high) in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, is illustrated by R. Bagley in Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Washington, D. C., 1987, p. 475. It is interesting to note that the Nelson-Atkins fangding is also from the collection of Huang Jun, and is illustrated in the Yezhong pianyu erji, Beijing, 1937, vol. 1, p. 3. Another similar fangding (20.8 cm. high), lacking the relief taotie masks at the top of the legs, is also illustrated by R. Bagley, ibid, pp. 472-74, no. 88. A larger example (26 cm. high) in the Pillsbury Collection, is illustrated by B. Karlgren in A Catalogue of the Chinese Bronzes in the Alfred R. Pillsbury Collection, Minneapolis, 1952, pl. 1, no. 1. Compare, also, the Ya Yi Fangding, sold at Christie’s New York, 14-15 September 2017, lot 907. The taotie motifs on these four similar examples have regular C-shaped horns rather than the rare dragon-shaped horns on the present Shao Fangding.