A late Shang dynasty gong that joins the figures of a tiger and an owl in one archaic Chinese bronze vessel could command $6 million at Christie's.

Update: The Luboshez gong sold for $8.6 million.

What you see: The Luboshez Gong, an archaic Chinese bronze vessel dating to the late Shang dynasty, Anyang, 13th to 12th century before common era (BCE). Christie’s estimates it at $4 million to $6 million.

The expert: Margaret Gristina, specialist for Chinese works of art at Christie’s.

This piece is described as a “gong”. What is a gong? How rare is the gong form of ritual bronze vessel in the late Shang dynasty, and among archaic Chinese bronzes in general? It’s amongst the rarest forms from the Shang dynasty. It was probably made for the most elite people. It first appeared in the Shang dynasty and was made for a brief period of time from the 13th to the 11th centuries, when the Shang fell to the Zhou dynasty. Zhou rulers claimed that the Shang taste for wine was decadent and not in keeping with sacred rituals. They thought the ancestors were more interested in sober offerings like rice and grain.

How do we know that this archaic Chinese bronze vessel was used for serving wine? From the inherent shape of it. It’s a pouring vessel, and it’s too small for pouring water. It was used in rituals that offered food and wine to the ancestors. There’s a lot of speculation going on, but we infer from the pieces that they [the gong vessels] were made and used for wine.

The Luboshez gong is described as a “ritual” wine vessel. What sorts of rituals might it have been used in? Because there was no written language [during the late Shang dynasty], very little is known about the actual rituals. We know they made offers of meat and grain, and we know they made wine from millet, which was more like a modern-day ale.

What makes the archaic Chinese bronze vessel “exceptionally and highly important”? Gongs themselves are among the rarest shapes from the Shang dynasty. The figural shapes on this particular model, with the tiger and the owl, make it even more rare. Only five others are known.

What do we know, if anything, about how archaic Chinese bronze vessels such as this one were made? The Shang were a really sophisticated and developed society. They used a piece-mold technique, not the lost wax method. The piece-mold technique was a complicated process developed in China, and it could produce thin-walled vessels that allowed for a lot of surface decoration. The Shang were very wealthy and were able to get the copper, tin, and lead needed for the piece-mold process.

Why might the people who made this vessel have wanted to combine two animals in the same form? And why might they have chosen a tiger and an owl in this instance? We don’t know. We don’t know the significance of the tiger or the owl to the Shang, but the Chinese were an agrarian society, very perceptive about the animals around them, as opposed to Rome and Egypt, which focused on human forms [in their art].

What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult this archaic Chinese bronze vessel might have been to make? We can assume that the sculptural elements were more difficult to make. They would have required multiple pieces in the piece-mold process.

The surface of the Luboshez gong is incised with spiral decorations. Do they have any particular meaning, or are they just there to look good? They don’t mean anything. They completely cover the surface, with no blank spaces. They enliven the gong and add a bit of texture to it as well.

Is it possible to know if a vessel such as this one was the work of one person, or if it must have been produced by a team? We assume it was not one person. One would have designed it, another would have done the ceramic mold, a third would do the casting. It had to be produced by a team.

What constitutes the cover of the archaic Chinese bronze vessel? Is it the tiger’s face and the upper part of its neck? The cover kind of ends at the base of the chin of the tiger. It goes all the way down to the owl, and the head comes off.

And do I see a handle at the back? Yes, it’s a handle. It has a figural top in the shape of a mythical beast. It’s an example of the mythical animals you get during the Shang dynasty.

I also see a detail shot of an inscription on the Luboshez gong. Apparently it means “wei”, and it’s surrounded by footprints. Do we know what “wei” means here, and why we see footprints? We’re not sure exactly. It could be a clan sign. The feet have been interpreted by some scholars as guardians of the object. The modern Chinese word that descends from “wei” means “to guard or protect”.

And the wei inscription–it is inside the vessel, on its floor, where it would be covered up by wine when it was in use? Exactly. We have an overhead shot of the cover off, so you can look at the interior.

Have archaic Chinese bronze vessels always been known, or was there a time when they were lost or forgotten? We have various records that acknowledge the tradition of passing down bronze vessels in China. There was a short gap in the historical record between 200 B.C.E and A.D., but by the Song dynasty in 970 A.D., scholars and the educated classes were acquainted with archaic bronzes. It’s not like they’re a new, modern discovery. They were known in China, and valued.

What is the Luboshez gong like in person? What eludes the camera? Definitely, you feel like you’re with a piece of history. It has a commanding presence as a work of art. When you spend time looking at it, there are so many details: the tiger, with its forearms and springing legs, the owl with its claws. You can spend a lot of time studying it and you can look at it as an amazing art object.

What is it like to handle the vessel? Would it have been awkward to lift and carry when it was full of wine? It’s not too heavy. Again, it’s thin-walled. If you fill it with wine, you have to balance it beneath the spout. We know they [the Shang dynasty elite] served their wine warm. Maybe the vessel was conceived so steam would come out of the tiger’s mouth during serving, but that’s speculation. The cover is not fixed, so you’d need to keep a hand on it when pouring.

Is it common for archaic Chinese bronze vessels to lose their covers? Sometimes. It’s certainly nice to have this with its original cover. These bronzes have been collected for a long time. The cover of this one might have been more likely to stay because of the vessel’s size and because of the integral part it plays in the piece.

What is your favorite detail of the Luboshez gong? I really love the tiger head, and in particular, its eyes. An amazing artist 3,000 years ago created a sense of animation in them. It seems like he’s looking right at you.

What condition is this archaic Chinese bronze vessel in, and how do condition issues apply to something that’s so impossibly ancient? The figural cover is in amazingly good condition. The top of the crest on the tiger head has a tiny bit of restoration, but other than that, the cover is great. It’s completely intact. That’s unusual for a large, elaborate vessel. The body of the vessel itself has some repaired breaks. With something this old, you expect some kind of condition issue.

This archaic Chinese bronze vessel has a rich green patina. How much does that matter in the greater scheme of things? Patina is important to collectors. The gong would have started its life looking golden. Over the years, as it had contact with moisture, crystals adhered to the body and created the malachite and azurite–green and blue–hues you see. It’s important for the patina to look attractive to the eye. You don’t want it to be thick or crusty. This has a really beautiful blue-green patina.

Did it get that patina purely through handling and exposure, or was it ever buried at some point? The patina can be a combination of exposure to air and being buried in the ground, different reactions to air and to life.

How does having Captain Ferris Luboshez in its provenance–an owner so notable that the piece is known as the Luboshez gong–affect its value? A great work of art that’s known and documented always attracts the attention of collectors at auction. The gong has been documented from 1949, when Luboshez returned to the United States. A recognized provenance definitely adds a premium to the value.

How did you arrive at the $4 million to $6 million estimate for the Luboshez gong? It’s a very rare piece, and nothing has come up to compare with it exactly. It checks all the boxes. It has great beauty, great provenance, a great shape, and rarity.

What’s the world auction record for an archaic Chinese bronze vessel from the Shang dynasty, and the record for any archaic Chinese bronze vessel? In 2017 we had a sale from Japan’s Fujita Museum, and a late Shang dynasty fangzun vessel sold for $37.2 million, which I believe is still the record. In the same sale, we had a completely figural late Shang dynasty gong in the form of a ram. It sold for $27.1 million.

I see that both those pieces had estimates of $6 million to $8 million, which isn’t far off the estimate given to the Luboshez gong. Do you think it might set a new world auction record? I can’t speculate on that. I just know it’s going to be very well sought-after by collectors. I can’t overestimate the rarity of the provenance in this situation.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? Because of the shape itself and the animation in the depictions of the tiger and the owl. It’s a very memorable piece, and I had a lot of time to spend with it. It’s really wonderful.

How to bid: The Luboshez Gong is lot 505 in Shang: Early Chinese Ritual Bronzes from the Daniel Shapiro Collection, scheduled for March 18, 2021 at Christie’s New York.

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Margaret Gristina appears in a Christie’s story about the Luboshez gong.

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