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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VI  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 27 May 2013: Lot 116 

Lot 116

Lot 116
Treasury 2, no. 300 (‘Bohe’s Precious Ding’)

Chalcedony; extremely well hollowed, with a flat lip and a concave foot; carved on one side with a cameo design of an ancient bronze ritual tripod (ding) together with a description, in regular script, of the subject and the texts that are inscribed on the reverse of the bottle, and on the other side with the original text of eighteen characters that appear on the bronze vessel together with a transcription in regular script on the left
Official School, possibly imperial, perhaps palace workshops, 1740–1850
Height: 5.69 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.72/2.38 cm
Stopper: glass; vinyl collar

Alice B. McReynolds
Sotheby’s, Los Angeles, 31 October 1984, lot 104

Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 235
Treasury 2, no. 300

Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995

There is a small group of cameo chalcedony snuff bottles that are decorated with archaic bronzes and inscriptions. The design represents a multi-layered endorsement of superior ideals as viewed by the literati. The study of ancient bronzes became a lofty pastime as early as the Song dynasty. This was partly because of their reflection of a past Golden Age, but also because of the inscriptions in arcane scripts, the study of which not only opened the door to the past, but represented a high level of education in the present. The connoisseurship of the past, implied by such an interest, was for these reasons a common pastime of the influential minority. Rubbings of ancient bronzes and their inscriptions formed part of many a scholar’s collection.

A line drawing of the original vessel pictured here and a copy of its inscription are found in Ye Daxiong 1984, no 178. The tripod is dated to the ninth century BCE. The inscription also appears in three catalogues in the Siku quanshu, the great library published during the Qianlong rein. It is impossible to say which one of those catalogues the carver was copying, as he differs from all of them. Between the awkwardness of the cutting wheel and his evident lack of familiarity with bronze script, exact duplication of the subtleties of any of the texts was beyond him.

Because there are so many ways in which the vocabulary of these early inscriptions is interpreted, we shall not venture a translation here; suffice it to say that it is follows the standard formula, naming the person who caused it to be made and expressing the wish that it will be treasured forever.

Another chalcedony bottle depicting the same bronze, complete with the same inscriptions, although differently arranged, was in the Mack Collection (Sotheby’s, New York, 25 October 1997, lot 58), and the view of the bronze is identical, as is the form, suggesting that it was taken from a publication with its fixed view rather than from a bronze vessel in the hands of the carver, which is a far more likely scenario in any case.

Sculpturally, the tripod is extraordinary as an image, but it is also extremely well balanced with the formal attributes of the bottle. Cut from a relief plane of more opaque, darker brown colouring, it is exquisitely placed on the main face of the superbly hollowed body, with the flared legs and tapering form echoing the narrowing of the form at the neck while at the same time setting up a counterpoint to the symmetry of the main profile. The side profile is also powerfully linked to the image, hinting at the same, bottom-heavy, solid, and dumpy form. (The illustration in Ye Daxiong 1984, cited above, shows a vessel much less ‘dumpy’.) A final stroke of genius rests in the use of the upper layer of more opaque, beige colouring as random patches of patination. All ancient bronzes appeared to Qing aesthetes with a patination of incrustation from long burial, which was valued, although late Ming and Qing taste often preferred to darken and smooth both bronze and patina by polishing overall. The random paler markings on the surface of the bronze depicted here would have been instantly read as malachite incrustation to an audience of Qing aesthetes. For two others of this group, illustrating the same bronze and inscriptions, see Au Hang 1993, no. 157, and Sotheby’s, London, 28 April 1987, lot 705. For a probably related bottle, in similar material, also inscribed in the same manner, but decorated with a gourd and bat, see Friedman 1990, no. 52.


This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s


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