Q I like the look of old Chinese bronze sculptures, but know almost nothing about them. How far back does this art form go?
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS:
Michael Bass, associate specialist at the Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art Department at Christie's New York, says archaic Chinese bronzes were made from 1700BC until the Han period (206BC-AD220). 'Bronze Age China was a highly advanced society with deeply felt religious beliefs and highly developed rituals,' he says. 'The possession and use of such bronzes also defined and confirmed one's status in society.'
There were a few ways the Chinese worked with bronze, an alloy made from copper, tin and lead. 'They were made using either a technique that employed complex ceramic section molds or by the lost wax method,' says Bass. 'They were produced at foundries by highly skilled workers.'
This type of bronze work was considered important and the pieces were used for significant occasions. 'Usually they were vessel shapes,' says Bass. These would include bowls, jars and beakers. 'Each was used for either preparing, holding or serving food or wine to ancestral spirits at lavish ceremonial banquets held by the aristocracy from the Shang dynasty [16th to 11th centuries BC] to the Zhou dynasty [11th to 3rd centuries BC].'
Certain areas were better known than others. 'Early bronzes are typically associated with the Shang and Zhou people, who lived in northern China. But bronzes were produced elsewhere as well,' says Bass.
No single style defines archaic bronze design. 'They range from very simple, plain shapes to highly exaggerated shapes covered with elaborate ornamentation,' he says. 'The most popular motif was the taotie, zoomorphic masks with large eyes.' Collectors will find other zoomorphic imagery such as 'stylised birds and buffalo and geometric patterns, including leiwen (thunder pattern). Other geometric patterns include whorls, bosses and raised flanges.'
NEW COLLECTOR TIPS:
Bass says there's a long history of archaic bronze appreciation. 'At least by the Song dynasty [960-1279] and possibly earlier, there was a well-established connoisseurship of archaic bronzes.'
He gives a simple list of qualities to look for when collecting archaic bronzes: 'Good condition, good provenance, good casting.' Bass says an attractive patina is also important.
Prices start at a few hundred US dollars for a small, minor piece in perhaps less than perfect condition, and can go as high as US$9.246 million (about HK$72 million), which is the world record, for a massive ritual wine jar and cover from the late Shang/early Western Zhou dynasty, sold at Christie's, New York, on March 20, 2001.
Unfortunately, there are fakes. 'One should try to learn as much as possible about the subject and buy through reputable dealers and auction houses,' says Bass. 'You should view bronzes with respectable dealers and auction houses and visit museums with strong, varied bronze collections. There's a lot of literature available on the subject.'
For those interested in learning more about archaic bronzes, Bass recommends: the Shanghai Museum; Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University, Boston; the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Viewing: Christie's Galleries at Rockefeller Centre, Sep 15-20 (tel: 2521 5396 or [1 212] 636 2000).
Auction: Chinese Splendour in all its Aspects, Important Chinese Archaic Bronzes from Private Collections, Sep 21 at 10am and 2pm, Christie's New York (go to www.christies.com ).
Books available from www.paddyfield.com:  Shang Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections by Robert W. Bagley ($1,580 on special order), Western Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections by Jessica Rawson ($2,106 on special order), and Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson, ed. ($468).