The inscription cast inside the vessel consists of the character zi ('son') and a graph depicting a horned animal mask (a clan sign). This vessel was examined by Chen Mengjia when he was in the United States from 1944 to 1947. In 1962 The Academia Sinica, Beijing, published his manuscript of the bronzes he had studied during this period under the title Mei diguo zhuyi jielue di woguo Yin Zhou tongqi tulu, and it is illustrated as no. A570.
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 all over with dense decoration and those of more austere, simplified design, exemplified by the Duke example.
Those of the first, ornate type, densely decorated 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, Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, 1987: one in the Freer Gallery of Art, p. 371, fig. 63.4; one in the Sumitomo Collection, Kyoto, p. 115, fig. 154; and another in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, p. 371, fig. 63.3. Another in the Avery Brundage Collection is illustrated by d'Argencé, Ancient Chinese Bronzes, San Francisco, 1966, pl. XVIII (B).
Two other vessels appear to be a bridge between the first and second types. These bodies are completely decorated with small scale-like feathers and leiwen, but the decoration is more flat-cast and the shape of the wings is very similar to those of the second plain group. One is an excavated example from Zhuzhou, Hunan province, illustrated in Wenwu, 1960:3, p. 29, fig. 2, the other is in the Winthrop Collection, Fogg Art Museum, illustrated by Bagley, op. cit., p. 115, fig. 153. The beak of the former is hooked, while that of the latter is upturned, but both have a rope-twist handle similar to that of the Duke example.
The second, plain group, which includes the present vessel, shares the same basic form, but has a smooth surface decorated only with simplified wings and facial details cast in crisp relief creating an elegance of form devoid of unnecessary distractions. The most famous of this group is the vessel 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 another example excavated from Zhuzhou, Hunan, illustrated in Wenwu, 1960:3, p. 29, fig. 3, it is missing its handle. Another similar example included in the Kaikodo exhibition of 15 September - 26 October 1996, New York, no. 49, retains part of a rope-twist handle, but like the two previous vessels it does not have the small C-scroll ears of the present example and has a faceted rather than a conical knob. The small C-scroll ears are also missing from the vessel in the Art Museum, Princeton University, illustrated by E. von Erdberg, "Chinese Bronzes from the Collection of Chester Dale and Dolly Carter", Artibus Asiae, Supplementum XXXV, 1978, no. 47. The strap handle on this vessel, however, cast with dragons and terminating in large animal masks, is unlike that of any of the published examples, which were obviously rather fragile and were replaced on later Shang and early Western Zhou double-owl you with sturdier strap handles. Yet one more related vessel is illustrated by E. B. Avril, Chinese Art in the Cincinnati Art Museum, 1997, pp. 15 and 33, no. 7.
Two related vessels with similar bodies have taotie-like masks rather than owl masks on the cover. One in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections is illustrated by Bagley, op. cit., pp. 368-9, no. 63 and another is illustrated by Chen Peifen, Ancient Chinese Bronzes in the Shanghai Museum, London, 1995, p. 43, no. 16. Like the Duke vessel, it has a rope-twist handle attached to plain rings and a similar conical knop.
Technical examination report available upon request.
The result of Oxford Authentication Ltd. thermoluminescence test no. C103z14 is consistent with the dating of this lot.