THE MARKET FOR contemporary Chinese art has boomed during the past year. What's more, collectors are increasingly coming from the ranks of China's nouveau riche - and this interest is starting to filter through to antiquities.
A Sotheby's auction in March will feature Chinese archaic bronzes, tomb pottery and stone sculptures from the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. And according to Joe-Hynn Yang, head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at New York's Sotheby's, mainland collectors and museums are expected to be in the bidding.
'My understanding is that more Chinese collectors are becoming interested in buying back part of their heritage,' Yang says of the pieces. 'Most American museums have acquired very deep and wide ranging collections of archaic bronzes. Now in China you're starting to see more examples of people buying back archaic bronzes and other antiquities. It links them to the earliest traces of their culture and puts them in touch with their history.'
The Sotheby's sale features what the auction house calls 'a number of extraordinary works of museum quality and exceptional provenance'. Highlights include a Limestone Chimera from the Six Dynasties period (220-589), an Archaic Bronze Wine Vessel and Cover from the late Shang Dynasty (1766BC-1050BC), and a Bronze Wine Vessel, also from the late Shang dynasty. Also coming under the hammer are antiquities from Hellenistic Europe and Southeast Asia. The artefacts all come from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which is reportedly selling its antiquities to fund purchases of modern art.
'To be involved in a sale like this is a once in a lifetime experience for me,' says Yang. 'We were completely bowled over by the Albright-Knox pieces - not only by the quality, but how consistent they are in all areas. I call these pieces destination objects. They're major pieces that people will specifically take the time to see at museums.
'What's more, a lot of them were given to Albright-Knox in the early 20th century, so the provenance [or proof of legal ownership] is incredibly tight. That's what museums are looking for all over the world.'
The highlight of the Chinese collection is the Limestone Chimera, which is expected to sell for up to US$2.5 million. A chimera is a creature made from the parts of multiple animals. This one is a sinewy, feline creature with a reptilian demeanour.
Yang says the large piece originally would have been one of a pair that would have flanked a major road at a tomb. It dates from the Six Dynasties period (about the first half of the sixth century). The pair of chimeras would have signified a kind of spirit road in front of the tomb.
'They were markers to protect the main access route to the tomb,' he says. 'Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties had whole rows of creatures for this purpose. But this comes from a much earlier time. Rather than a whole row of figures, there was just one row of beasts, and an additional pair of columns with high pillars. On top of the pillars, you would have had two smaller beasts.
'The tomb would probably have belonged to a king or a prince,' says Yang. 'At the beginning of the route, there would have been an epitaph stone, a stele naming the powerful man who was buried there.'
Yang says the chimera is important because it's an early example of Chinese secular sculpture. 'This is one of the earliest representations of a non-Buddhist sculptural tradition in China. We know a lot about the Buddhist tradition. You can see Buddhist caves and temples, and the vast variety of extant stone sculpture in China are Buddhist. But it's unusual to have a secular piece. The only other secular sculptures we usually see is the Terracotta Army. There's a big time gap between that and this.'
Yang says the sculpture succeeds on an aesthetic level. He praises the chiseled effect in the grooves, and says the figure has a slight convex lilt that would have been mirrored in its sculptural counterpart by a concave one.
'The proportions are really impressive,' he says. 'The curve of the neck is really sinuous and powerful. You could shrink it down and it would be a small jade ornament. It has the same proportions as those, but it's so much more powerful. There are other chimeras in the US, but they don't have the sinuous power of this piece. There's so much latent energy in it.'
Yang says no one knows what the creature represents because the Six Dynasties period was one of disunity. China was fragmented into many different kingdoms and little has been written about it.
'This beast had two horns, and the chimera which once stood opposite it would have had a single horn,' he says. 'They would have had slightly different names. It could be a kind of mythical deer - I don't think it's a dragon. But the word chimera captures its feline aspect.'
The auction also features some archaic bronzes. These include a Wine Vessel and Cover (fangjia) from the late Shang dynasty, and an Archaic Bronze Wine Vessel (fanghu) from the Warring States period.
'Not as much is known about these in China as in the west,' says Yang. 'A lot of the excavation reports were initially published in Japan or in America, so they don't know much about them there.
'But over the past 12 months, the mainland Chinese market has become a lot more interested in buying archaic bronzes. People find them interesting. They're decorated with a variety of mythical beasts - images that you'll find resonating all the way through to Qing porcelain years later. These images go back to the earliest times, and we're seeing a huge interest in them.'
The fangjia is striking. The focus is a distinctive owl design that the auction house says is unique on a vessel of this kind. It's expected to sell for up to to US$3 million.
'You don't only get the owls,' Yang says. 'You get an entire compass of decorations on it. There are bovine masks, smaller dragons and serpents - in fact, almost everything you can see on the corpus of Shang bronzes. So it's incredibly rare.'
What the creatures signify is unknown. 'The culture at that time was very focused on animals and spirits and the animalistic powers of nature,' says Yang. 'But we're not sure if these were specific symbols which had a certain meaning. We know they tried to imbue the bronzes with power by using this imagery, but we're not sure what the imagery actually represents. Sometimes there are elephants, serpents, and long-tailed birds. But the owl ones are very rare.'