Some inscriptions – the root of modern Chinese writing – are found on bronzes of the period, but most take the form of inscribed bone fragments used for divination.
Oracle bones or jiaguwen, fashioned from carefully prepared turtle plastron or water buffalo bone, were used in divination ceremonies to seek guidance from deities or ancestors on topics ranging from military strategy and the harvest to the cause of toothache.
When first found in an archaeological context in the early 20th century, they confirmed the site of the last Shang capital city of Yinxu, near modern-day Anya, revealed a mature writing system using grammar and over 5000 different characters and shed light on a once commonplace ritual activity.
Captain James Mellon Menzies (1885-1957), a Canadian Presbyterian missionary and archaeologist was the first Western scholar to study Shang bone script.
His book Oracle Records from the Waste of Yin was first published in 1917 at a time when hoards of jiaguwen turned up by the plough were being sold by local farmers as ‘dragon bones’ for use in traditional medicine.
Rare auction appearance
Jiaguwen do not come to the market very often. The example offered at Galerie Zacke (30% buyer’s premium inc VAT) in Vienna on January 18 came for sale from the estate of Paolo Bertuzzi (1943-2022), an engineer and fashion stylist from Bologna who was an avid collector of antiques for more than 60 years.
His jiaguwen was a well-preserved 5½in (14cm) turtle plastron with an array of engraved inscriptions arranged in orderly rows. Similar to another in the Taipei Museum collection, it was estimated at €250-500 but sold at €5500 (£5000).
The Japanese works in the sale included a six-panel byobu or folding screen in ink, gouache and gold foil on paper, sealed to the lower left, framed in brocade and mounted on black lacquered wood.
The painted decoration focused on the exotic visit of foreigners, a popular subject in many forms of Japanese art once traders and missionaries from the West began to visit the country.
The detailed scene features a Portuguese ship arriving at a Japanese port with passengers and the crew unloading goods, a central procession of figures headed by the ship’s captain and a place of worship with Jesuits and Franciscans praying before an altar.
The screen had a provenance to the French trade, measures 8ft 5in (2.57m) when open and was dated to the Meiji period with an estimate of €3000-6000 but finally sold for €26,000 (£23,365).