Four ancient Chinese bronzes created quite a buzz among global treasure hunters when they sold for more than $125 million in total at a Christie's auction in New York on Friday. One wine vessel in particular sold for $37 million, setting a new record for the sale of an archaic bronze.
This is not the first time that Chinese bronzes have managed to grab headlines. For years, ancient Chinese bronzes have cast a mysterious spell on global collectors, with sales continually breaking records.
The majority of ancient Chinese bronze wares sold for exorbitant prices at auctions around the world in recent years have been vessels used in rituals during the Shang (C.1600-1046BC) and Zhou (1046-256BC) dynasties, periods when the creation of bronze vessels reached a peak in ancient China.
The four bronze wares sold on Friday were no exception. Originally part of the collection at the Japanese Fujita Museum, an Osaka-based museum founded by Japanese entrepreneur Denzaburo Fujita (1841-1912), these late Shang Dynasty ritual vessels have a value that goes far beyond their market price.
Political and religious connections
"Judging from the shapes, patterns and manufacturing skill involved, these four pieces are definitely first-class relics that were made for individuals belonging to the time period's upper class," Xu Lianggao, an associate director with the Department of Xia, Shang and Zhou Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Archaeology, told the Global Times on Monday.
"Bronze ritual vessels were symbols of power and status during the Shang and Zhou. There were strict rules to follow when it came to what type of bronzes could be used for certain rituals," Xu said. "In the past, they were normally made for and owned by royalty and aristocrats."
Bronze ritual vessels were often referred to as "national vessels" in ancient China, especially during the Shang and Zhou dynasties when ritual practices and military operations were consistently the top two priorities for the kingdoms of the time.
During the Shang and Zhou periods, the title of king was passed down from father to eldest son, as such the worship of one's ancestors was given exceptional significance. Xu explained that this is why so much importance was attached to rituals during the two dynasties and lead to the increase in the creation of bronze ritual vessels.
"Many of the bronze wares sold for high prices at global auctions are square-shaped vessels, such as the famous Si Yang Fang Zun [Square Wine Vessel with Four Goats, now at the National Museum of China], as they are more rare," he said.
"They commonly feature animal designs and patterns, which suggest a religious significance, since ancient shamans believed animals such as goats and oxen were holy mediums that could help people communicate with the gods."
According to Xu, even though other ancient civilizations of the same period also had bronzes, the political and religious functions of Chinese bronzes as well as the way they were created made them completely unique.
Recovery of relics
Right now, how these vessels ended up at the Fujita Museum remains a mystery. Some speculate they were purchased by Yamanaka & Company, a U.S.-based antique company founded by Japan-based art dealer Yamanaka Sadajiro (1866-1936), from the royal family during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
"I tend to agree with this. This makes this case different from the examples of illegal looting and trafficking of relics during the late Qing," Xu said.
Though U.S. art news platform artnet.com reported on Friday that their sources say a majority of the items on auction on Friday were sold to Chinese buyers, Chinese netizens and media reports have continued to discuss whether the Chinese government should step in to stop the sales of these "national wares" at overseas auctions.
While such international intervention would most likely be extremely difficult, there have been cases, however, where Chinese buyers have struck pre-sale deals with auction houses to purchase valuable Chinese bronze vessels prior to them going under the hammer.
In 2014, the repatriation of a Shang Dynasty vessel known as the Minfanglei (皿方罍) was the result of pre-sale negotiation between private Chinese buyers and Christie's. The bronze vessel, now at China's Hunan Provincial Museum, is the largest fanglei, a kind of square-shaped wine vessel, ever discovered to date.
During an interview in September 2016, Zhang Jianxin, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage's Museum and Social Relics Department, told the Global Times that the Chinese government does not encourage private individuals or institutions to bring artifacts back home in this way, since its stance is that the recovery of plundered relics should be carried out by the central government.