Of Profound Love and Restless Pursuit

“I am not one who was born all-knowing, merely one who is fond of the ancient past and pursues it restlessly for the attainment of knowledge.”
Confucius, The Analects

Tucked away for decades and unknown to the public, the following extraordinary group of archaic bronzes from the collection of Albert Y.P. Lee recounts a story of one man’s lifelong curiosity, passion and dedication to the study of China’s ancient history. Lee’s collection, exceptionally strong in its focus on epigraphy, provides a window into a glorious and turbulent period of China’s illustrious history when bronze ritual objects and their inscriptions recorded political warfare amongst clans, documented sacred rites and ceremonies, and chronicled the lives of the most exalted ancient rulers. Imbued with a sense of elegant nostalgia, the collection also serves as a personal homage to Lee’s father – the important and distinguished Li Yingshuan (1911-1972). The elder Li owned one of the finest archaic bronze collections in the world, which was donated to the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai in 1979.

Fig. 1 Mr. Albert Y.P. Lee and Mrs. Sara K.S. Lee

Albert Y.P. Lee (Li Erbai) (1930-2021) (fig. 1), was born in Shanghai into a wealthy, cultured and well-respected family. His father, Li Yingshuan (fig. 2), was the grandnephew of Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) (fig. 3), the prominent Chinese politician, general and diplomat of the late Qing dynasty who served in several important positions in the Qing court.

(Left) Fig. 2 Mr. Li Yingshuan and Mrs. Qiu Hui
(Right) Fig. 3 Li Hongzhang

A quiet and discreet collector, Li Yingshuan began collecting in the 1930s and amassed a collection of around 200 archaic bronzes, which included the Lu Hou Zun (fig. 4), the Xiao Chen Shan Zhi, and the Hou Chuo Fangding – some of the most eminent bronzes now in the collection of the Shanghai Museum. Born in the same year as the collapse of the Qing empire, Li Yingshuan was undoubtedly influenced by the great scholars and collectors of the late 19th century who ushered in a new wave of evidential scholarship and renewed interest in antiquarianism. Following in their footsteps, Li placed a great emphasis on the collecting and studying of bronze inscriptions. In fact, out of great respect and admiration for the scholar and collector Pan Zuyin (1830-1890), Li had purchased several pieces from Pan’s collection, Pangulou, and counted them amongst his most prized possessions.

Fig. 4 The Lu Hou Zun illustrated in Y.P. Lee’s Important Inscribed Ancient Chinese Bronze Vessels from the Li Yingshuan Collection in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996, pl. 13, and an inscription rubbing of the Lu Hou Zun by Li Yingshuan

Collecting in Shanghai during the mid-20th century, Li witnessed first-hand the dispersion of great archaic bronze collections, such as Wu Dacheng’s Kezhai and Wu Yun’s Liangleixuan, and felt a great responsibility as an individual to preserve these cultural relics for future generations. Albert, growing up immersed in this environment, shared the same insatiable intellectual curiosity, impeccable taste and sense of responsibility. From a young age, he was surrounded by these masterpieces and recounted how his earliest memories as a child were always of his father’s archaic bronzes.

“In my childhood, I always liked the kind of fragrance when he opened the two glass display cases, which were full of crisp green vessels. A little older, I was intrigued by those pictograms casted on the vessels. Later on, I learned how to make ink impressions and I often enjoyed accompanying him to those visits, to antique shops and antique markets in Kuangtoon road during my early teens.”
Albert Y.P. Lee

Father and son would spend many restless evenings together studying, discussing, recording or simply enjoying the vessels. They were searching to understand the past, seeking to unveil China’s ancient history that was contained within these archaic and esoteric inscriptions. In that small room filled with treasures, they were transported to the very beginnings of China’s civilization and were in conversation with the generations of scholars and masters of jinshi who came before them. But more importantly, those late evenings were testament to an exceptional passion shared between father and son, a kinship that was strengthened through their mutual fascination with these archaic masterpieces.

“Thus, unknowingly and practically, I had been participating in the process of forming a major archaic bronze collection.”
Albert Y.P. Lee

With Albert’s help, the collection continued to expand up until the 1960s, when, amidst the backdrop of increased political uncertainty, Li decided to contact his friend and former director of the Shanghai Museum, Ma Chengyuan (1927-2004), to safeguard his treasured pieces in the museum to protect them from the tumultuous events of the Cultural Revolution. Eventually, the pieces were donated by Li’s wife, Qiu Hui, to the Shanghai Museum in 1979 (fig. 5), in honor of Li, who had passed away seven years prior. By that time, Albert had moved to Canada, and was greatly distraught that the collection he grew up learning about and loving was now lost to him. Coupled with the loss of his father, the nostalgia and wistful longing of the time spent together learning about archaic bronzes propelled him to build his own collection.

Fig. 5 The first page of the sign-in sheet for Qiu Hui’s award ceremony hosted by the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, for donating the Li Yingshuan Collection to Museum in 1979, including autographs from collectors such as Pan Dayu, Wang Youlin, Qian Jingtang and Zhu Yanyin

“When there is possession there is loss, when there is gathering there is dispersion, this is the common way of life.”
Li Qingzhao, Jin shi lu hou xu [Epilogue to Record of Metal and Stone]

Albert shared many characteristics with his father; he was a reserved and unassuming collector, and sought out the highest caliber of bronzes he could find. With every piece he collected, he carried on the epigraphic practices learned from his father – making rubbings, recording old references, and meticulously composing manuscripts that captured every detail of each piece. Far away from China, the son took on where the father left off. Unconsciously (or perhaps consciously), Albert gravitated towards his father’s collection as much as possible. On a serendipitous encounter, he was able to seek out an identical San Bo Gui (lot 6), which belonged to the same set as the one in his father’s collection that he would have no doubt grown up studying and researching (fig. 6).

Fig. 6 The San Bo Gui, formerly in the Li Yingshuan Collection, now in Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, illustrated in Y.P. Lee, Important Inscribed Ancient Chinese Bronze Vessels from the Li Yingshuan Collection in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996, pl. 32

Later on, Albert co-published Important Inscribed Ancient Chinese Bronze Vessels From the Li Yingshuan Collection in the Shanghai Museum (fig. 7) with the Shanghai Museum, commemorating his father’s bronze collection. A physical memorial for his father, the catalogue included a selection of highly important bronzes now in the Shanghai Museum alongside rubbings that Albert made of the inscriptions during his teenage years. The catalogue also included a small selection of Albert’s own bronzes that he dedicated to his father, including lots offered in this sale, in memory of the years they spent together sharing a passion for these cultural relics.

Fig. 7 Y.P. Lee, Important Inscribed Ancient Chinese Bronze Vessels from the Li Yingshuan Collection in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1996, cover page.

Albert’s study brimmed with old reference books, auction catalogues and binders on top of folders of notes, research, line drawings and rubbings he had done over the years. Together with the support and help of his wife, Sara K.S. Lee, the couple amassed an impressive collection, including works previously from renowned collectors such as Duan Fang (1861-1911) and Yu Shenwu (1896-1984).

Captivated by China’s ancient past, Albert specifically sought out inscribed bronzes of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Their inscriptions are instrumental in providing timelines and aiding our understanding of the succession of kings, court events and historical anecdotes during this period. Of great historical value, the bronzes provide important documentation that may have otherwise been lost in the throes of history. Brilliantly, Albert recognized the importance of these archaic vessels and dedicated his life to the advancement of the epigraphical study of China’s ancient past.

“These bronzes have shared part of my life. I have cared with, worked on and enjoyed them while they are in my possession. They provoked my interest in study and research, gave me knowledge, enjoyment and peace of mind and perfected many of my experiences and skills, and above all, enriched my existence in this world.”
Albert Y.P. Lee


孔子 ,《論語》


圖一 李爾白及駱桂生伉儷


(左)圖二 李蔭軒及邱輝伉儷
(右)圖三 李鴻章


圖四 魯侯尊錄於李爾白,《李蔭軒所藏中國青銅器》,上海,1996年,圖版13及李蔭軒作魯侯尊銘文拓片






圖五 1979年邱輝捐贈李蔭軒所藏文物授獎儀式的簽到冊開卷部分,其中包括收藏家潘達于,王有林,錢鏡
李清照 《金石錄》後序


圖六 散伯簋 李蔭軒舊藏 現藏上海博物館,錄於李爾白,《李蔭軒所藏中國


圖七 李爾白,《李蔭軒所藏中國青銅器》,上




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