The House of Props was one of Los Angeles’ oldest and renowned prop houses. Founded in 1948 by Alexander Torf, former prop master for United Artist Studio Corporation, and later run by his nephew Philip and his wife Millicent, the House of Props worked behind the scenes of television shows and movie sets worldwide supplying rare art objects for over 70 years.
Sacrificial ceremonies were among the most important rituals of the Qing court, with the emperor attending, if not performing, all of the major rites. Buddhism was the primary religion of the Qing dynasty and there were numerous Buddhist shrines and temples, as well as altars, in the private quarters of the emperors and empresses. All of these necessitated ritual paraphernalia, including altar sets, which were made in various materials including bronze, porcelain and cloisonné enamel of varying size.
This magnificent pair of censers and covers exemplifies the artistic excellence and technical quality of bronze ritual vessels cast for the imperial court in the 18th century. The present pair is particularly exceptional as each censer retains its original cover, and no other examples retaining their covers appear to have been sold at auction. The creation of such lavish vessels was a tremendous undertaking, with each vessel being cold-worked with a hammer and chisel after the initial casting to bring out the intricate and crisp details, such as the individual scales on the dragons’ bodies. Two related bronze censers with their covers are illustrated by Wan Yi, et al., in Daily Life in the Forbidden City, New York, 1988, pls. 473 and 474, pp. 302-303, where they are shown in situ in the shrine in the interior of the rear Hall of the Imperial Ancestral Temple and in the rear part of the Hall of Ancestral Worship. Wang Yi points out that "this was the family temple of the Qing imperial house." The emperor himself would have visited or sent a relative on the day of the new moon with the most recently available foods for offerings to express his filial piety and to ensure that his ancestors would "enjoy the greatest range of delicacies as soon as they were available."
A Qianlong-marked bronze five-piece altar set including a nearly identical censer, but lacking a cover, is illustrated by R. D. Mowry in China's Renaissance in Bronze: The Robert H. Clague Collection of Later Chinese Bronzes 1100-1900, Phoenix Art Museum, 1993, p. 180, no. 38. Mowry explains that "both the style of the dragons and the relatively small number of clouds (compared to those on later Qianlong bronzes) indicate that this altar set was made early in the reign, probably before 1750." See, also, the Qianlong-marked bronze five-piece altar set sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 11 April 2008, lot 2826, which included a censer of similar broad proportions to the current example. However, unlike the current censer, which features a front-faced dragon protecting a flaming pearl over one of the lion-mask legs, the Sotheby’s censer, as well as the other vessels of the garniture, are cast with pairs of dragons confronted on flaming pearls. Another Qianlong-marked bronze censer with a design of pairs of dragons, of slightly smaller size (37 cm. high) and of taller, less broad proportions than the current example, and also lacking a cover, was sold at Christie's New York, 22 March 2007, lot 201. Similar cast decoration of pairs of dragons confronted on flaming pearls can be also seen on a pair of Qianlong-marked bronze vases sold at Christie's London, 15 May 2012, lot 188.