Shang gui bronze
Late Shang gui with historic inscription – $4.5m (£3.2m) at Sotheby’s New York.

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The Shang period (c.1600-1045 BC) is the first of China’s many epochs from which written documents survive. These take the form of inscribed oracle bones used for divination and a few bronzes cast with ancestor dedications which mention historic events.

An archaic bronze ritual food vessel or gui offered by Sotheby’s on March 17 is one of these exceedingly rare vessels of historic significance. Its unusually long 34-character inscription reads: ‘On the guisi day Hua rewarded Xiaozi ‘X’ ten peng of cowries at Shang ‘X’. It was that he had been ordered to mount a military campaign against ‘X’ of Yifang. He used it to make this sacrificial vessel to honour Father Ding. At the fourteenth month, ju.’

Inscription in the gui

The inscription in the archaic bronze ritual food vessel or gui.

The inscription has been known and studied since 1935. However, it was research by the Beijing Palace Museum scholar Wei Xinying published in 2015 that unlocked its full meaning.

The event it describes is a nine-month long military expedition taken c.1072BC by king Di Xin (c.1086- 1046BC) against an enemy tribe in the east known as the Renfang or Yifang. Shang X has been identified as a region roughly corresponding to modern Jiyuan county in Henan (the Shang capital was Anyang, Henan) and Xiaozi X, a commander in the royal army who led the campaign. Di Xin would be the last Shang ruler, losing the battle of Muye in 1045BC against the Zhou and with it his dynasty.

Few early Chinese bronzes can be dated so precisely as this 11in (28cm) gui. Its significance was recognised with an estimate of $600,000-800,000 and a hammer price of $4.5m (£3.2m).

Shang bronzes provided the headline prices at this season’s sales. Christie’s showpiece sale the following day comprised five ancient ritual bronzes from the collection of Daniel Shapiro.

These included the Luboshez Gong (estimate $4m-6m), a remarkable ritual wine vessel dating to the 13th-12th century BC modelled as a fantastic creature that is half owl and half pouncing tiger.

Luboshez Gong bronze

The Luboshez Gong – $7.2m (£5.11m) at Christie’s New York.

Acquired by Captain SN Ferris Luboshez (1896- 1984) in China prior to 1949 – and sold from his collection by Sotheby’s in 1982 – it is one of only six similar 12in (30cm) vessels known. Shapiro bought it from JJ Lally & Co, New York in 1996. The hammer price at Christie’s was $7.2m (£5.11m).