LONDON - Fang ding are among the rarest ritual vessels of the Bronze Age and this fang ding to be auctioned on 13 May in London is among the rarest in this category of ancient objects much esteemed and sought after by collectors and connoisseurs of Chinese art since the Song dynasty (960-1279). A considerable number of such objects were unearthed in this period; and while many were destined to enter the Imperial collection, a smaller number appeared in the marketplace and were purchased by wealthy literati and scholar officials. From this period onwards, collecting and studying bronzes became a prerequisite of scholarly refinement, with many scholars publishing their collection while others compiled books of inscriptions on famous bronzes, such as this piece. In many paintings of both the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties scholars are depicted in their studios leisurely handling objects from their collection, or gathered in scenic spots to judge the authenticity and quality of ancient vessels.

A Rare and Magnificent Archaic Bronze Wine Vessel, Fangding, Late Shang/Early Western Zhou Dynasty. Estimate £400,000-600,000.

Like other scholar-officials of the Qing dynasty, Jin Futing was particularly fond of his collection of bronzes, which was said to amount to over 100 pieces, and he attempted to collect the most important surviving examples. This fang ding would have certainly ranked among the best and most studied in his collection. Jin Futing, who was also known by the names Feiting, Shouxian and Laixian, lived in Shanghai in the late Qing dynasty, during the Daoguang (1820-1850) and Xianfeng (1850-1861) periods. Following the example of his predecessors he built a studio to house his collection, which he called Xuehong  Ge, a reference to the famous expression ‘xue hong zhi zhao’ (footprints of a goose in the snow) attributed to Su Shi, one of the most iconic scholars in Chinese history. This piece subsequently entered the collection of Willem van Heusden, an expert on Chinese bronzes, who for the first time published an English translation of its inscription in his Ancient Chinese Bronzes of the Shang and Chou Dynasties. An Illustrated Catalogue of the Van Heusden Collection published in 1952.

Imperial Ladies Enjoying Themeselves in 12 Lunar Months, by Chen Mei, Album of 12 leafs, ink and colour on silk. Palace Museum, Beijing.

Fang (rectangular) ding, a variation of the more commonly known tripod ding, were originally used during the Shang and Zhou dynasties as food vessels during ritual ceremonies or banquets. Possibly due to the toxicity of the metal, its original usage was soon abandoned and they instead began to be used for holding flowers and burning incense. Cao Zhao in his Ge Gu Yao Lun [Essential Criteria of Antiquities], published in 1388, mentions that ‘Having laid buried underground for a thousand years, a bronze vessel is heavily imbued with the spirit of the earth. When used to hold flowers, it preserves their freshness as if they were still growing on the trees…’ When used for burning incense, they were fitted with wooden covers, as is the one seen on a leaf from the Qing dynasty album Imperial Ladies Enjoying Themselves in 12 Lunar Months by the court painter Chen Mei, in the Palace Museum, Beijing.