Lot 42
  • 42

Ai Weiwei

150,000 - 200,000 GBP
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  • Ai Weiwei
  • Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn
  • signed and numbered 3/8 on the right hand panel
  • gelatin silver print on Alu Dibond, in three parts
  • each: 136 by 109cm.; 53 1/2 by 42 7/8 in.
  • Executed in 1995-2004.


Galerie Urs Meile, Zurich

Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2004


New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Ai Weiwei, 2004, (edition no. unkown)

Beijing, China Art & Archives Warehouse; DeKalb, Altgeld Gallery at Northern Illinois University; Denton, University of North Texas Gallery; Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Philip Hanes Art Gallery at Wake Forest University; Nashville, Fine Arts Gallery at Vanderbilt University; St. Mary’s City, Boyden Gallery at St. Mary's College of Maryland; Saratoga Springs, Schick Art Gallery at Skidmore College; and Lewisburg, Samek Art Gallery at Bucknell University, Misleading Trails, 2004-06, (edition no. unknown)

Brisbane, Queensland Art Gallery, The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennale of Contemporary Art, 2006-07, p. 56, illustrated, (edition no. unknown)

Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Made in China: Contemporary Chinese Art at the Israel Museum, 2007-08, (edition no. unknown)

Paddington, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation; and Campbelltown, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Ai Weiwei: Under Construction, 2008, pp. 26-27, illustrated; and p. 58, illustrated (detail), (edition no. unknown)

Tokyo, Mori Art Museum; Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Indianapolis, Indianapolis Museum of Art; Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario; Miami, Miami Art Museum; and New York, Brooklyn Museum, Ai Weiwei: According to What?, 2009-14, pp. 56-57, illustrated, (edition no. unknown) 

Glenside, Arcadia University Art Gallery; Portland, Museum of Contemporary Craft; and London, Victoria and Albert Museum, Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn, 2010-12, pp. 8-9, illustrated in colour (installation view); and pp. 58-59, illustrated, (edition no. unknown)

London, Royal Academy of Arts, Ai Weiwei, 2015, pp. 156-57, illustration of another edition; and pp. 162-63, illustrated (installation view), (edition no. unknown)


Charles Merewether, Ed., Ai Weiwei – Works: Beijing 1993-2003, Beijing 2003, pp. 66-67, illustrated, (edition no. unknown)

Exh. Cat., Beijing, Galerie Urs Meile, Galerie Urs Meile: Lucerne Beijing, 2006, 2006, p. 3, illustrated, (edition no. unknown) 

Adam Jasper, ‘The 5th Asia Pacific Triennial’, Frieze, No. 105, March 2007, p. 195, illustrated (detail), (edition no. unknown)

Philip Tinari, ’A Kind of True Living’, Artforum International, Summer 2007, p. 457, illustrated, (edition no. unknown) 

Charles Merewether, ‘Made in China', Parkett, No. 81, 2007, pp. 148-49, illustrated, (edition no. unknown)

David Coggins, ‘Ai Weiwei’s Humane Conceptualism’, Art in America, September 2007, p. 121 (text) 

Philip Tinari, Ai Weiwei – Works: 2004–2007, Beijing 2007, p. 10 (text)

Exh. Cat., Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, China onward: the Estella Collection: Chinese contemporary art, 1966-2006, 2007, p. 23, illustrated; and pp. 24-25, illustrated, (edition no. unknown)

Uta Grosenick and Caspar Schübbe, Ed., China Art Book, Cologne 2007, p. 30, illustrated, (edition no. unknown)

Richard Vine, Ed., New China New Art, London 2008, pp. 112-13, illustrated, (edition no. unknown)

Alex Pasternak, ‘Reluctant Return for a Beijing Provocateur’, New York Sun, 7 March 2008, p. 18 (text)  

Adam Jasper, ‘Critical Mass’, Art Review, No. 22, May 2008, p. 54, illustrated, (edition no. unknown)

John McDonald, ‘Destruction and Creation’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 2008, p. 17, illustrated, (edition no. unknown) 

Karen Smith, ‘Portrait of the Revolutionary as an Artist’, Art in Asia, May-June 2008, pp. 58-64, illustrated, (edition no. unknown)

Rachel Cooke, ‘Cultural Revolutionary’, The Observer, 6 July 2008, n.p. (text) 

Carol Yinghua Lu, ‘Mr. Big’, Frieze, No. 116, June-August 2008, p. 168 (text)

Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds, 2010-11, pp. 54-55, no. 44, illustrated, (edition no. unknown)

Thomas Wagner, ‘Der Spiegel’, art, October 2012, p. 77, illustrated, (edition no. unknown)


Colour: The colour in the catalogue illustration is fairly accurate. Condition: This work is in very good condition. Inspection under raking light reveals some minute superficial surface scratches in isolated places throughout. There is some minor wear to the extreme edges of each print, which is only visible when unframed.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

A courageous act of cultural rewriting, Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is arguably the most renowned example from the artist’s iconoclastic phase of the mid-1990s and has recently been featured in his widely acclaimed retrospective at London’s Royal Academy. The action imposed upon the antique Han pot represents the destruction of conventional or established values, creating a work that is in turn both iconoclastic and regenerative, while also recognising that the significance of a cultural object is always subject to change. A constant in the artist’s diverse practice is his unrelenting scrutiny of structures of power and advocacy of independent thought, stimulating powerful dialogues regarding the relationship between history and value. Synonymous with stability, prosperity, and cultural ascendancy, the Han Dynasty period occupies a significant position in China’s national consciousness. The historical density surrounding Ai’s act is juxtaposed with the artist’s confrontational and unapologetic blank stare, resulting in a gesture that not only unsettles the status quo, but also subverts instituted notions of culture and the role and form of art in contemporary society.

Ai’s art relates powerfully to themes of China, yet the artistic vocabularies through which these are explored resonate strongly with his time spent in the United States. Feeling suffocated by the social climate of his home country, the artist moved to New York in 1981 and stayed there for over ten years. During this time, Ai became deeply influenced by the works of masters of modern western art such as Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. From Duchamp, Ai inherited a kind of radical daring: a willingness to challenge and demystify the notionally unquestionable. This is a quality that can also be traced back to his own father Ai Qing, a prolific Chinese poet and member of the League of Left Wing Writers, who, during the Cultural Revolution, was labelled a rightist and marginalised by the government. Upon his return to China in 1993, Ai began to use the creative devices of subversion, misappropriation, readymade objects, juxtaposition, and irony, to address issues regarding a country that had visibly gone through a drastic social and economic transformation and was now faced with a variety of socio-political concerns. Using symbolically rich Chinese objects, whether readymades or antiques, the artist adopts critical perspectives on cultural authority that address the different kinds of significance that objects accrue – be they cultural, historical, or monetary – to create a dialogue wherein these issues are not only animated but problematised. By bringing the techniques of Dadaism into contact with Chinese history and culture, Ai raises important questions regarding the notions of authenticity and value in art; the value of Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn has today exceeded that of the once-prized urn itself, initiating a cycle of creative destruction many consider necessary for any culture’s survival and evolution. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is thus a work that has been made to correspond with the current socio-political realities of China, raising powerful questions and building hope to bring about change through a painstakingly deliberate close-up of the split seconds required to permanently destroy an artefact that had survived for over 2000 years.