A Rare & Important Tang Chinese silver jar & cover

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A Rare and Important Melon-Form Silver Handled Jar and Cover,
Tang Dynasty (618-907)

Raised on a short splayed foot, the eight-lobed globular body decorated with engraved panels including birds and animals amongst blossom and foliage, all on a ring-punched stippled ground, the shoulder surmounted by a pair of recumbent mythical bixie beasts supporting a tapering D-section swing handle, the cover double-domed and rising to a tear-shaped finial.

Height 17.3 cm

Provenance: An old Scottish Estate, acquired prior to 1980

Estimate 20,000 - 30,000 GBP

Saturday 18 May 2019


This silver jar is an example of the fine craftsmanship and sumptuous tastes of the Tang Court. Despite China’s strong history of using silver in ornaments and smaller vessels, it was not until the 6th Century that this metal was considered one of the premier luxury materials. The vessel was analysed at Oxford University and determined to be of very high fineness (99.7%), comparable with other Tang silver (see below).

Its design is unique in its combination of shape and decoration. The lobed form and depiction of fantastic beasts was introduced through trade along the Silk Road. Despite being used as Chinese decorative motifs since the Bronze Age, the two mythical bixie on the shoulders are also influenced by creatures from Central Asia. These animals are believed to ward off evil and bring wealth in the form of gold and silver coins to their owners.  

With its large size and attractive workmanship, this vessel would have been a prized possession within the Tang upper-class. The presence of a cover is quite remarkable, the double-dome and finial of which are reminiscent of a Buddhist stupa, offering up the possibility that this vessel was used for religious ceremonies in a high-ranking temple. 

Comparisons of Form and Decoration

For comparable Tang silver artefacts see Carol Michaelson, Gilded Dragons, Buried Treasures from China’s Golden Ages, London, 1999, Fig. 82, a handled jar and cover at the Shaanxi History Museum, both have similar rounded forms, swivel handles supported in the mouths of mythical beasts, and engraved depictions of animals and foliage, the latter lacking the lobed body of this specimen; an eight-lobed parcel-gilt silver and gold box sold through Sotheby’s London, 27 November 1973, lot 30, and another example published in Eskenazi’s Early Chinese Metalwork in Gold and Silver; Works of Art of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, London, 2011, page 33; the bold four-square stature of the deer can be compared to that of a repoussé standing rhinoceros on a silver dish sold at Sotheby’s London Masterpieces of Chinese Precious Metalwork, 14 May 2008, lot 59; and the large lush foliage can be compared to similar designs on a silver bowl and a bowl and cover that were sold in ibid., lots 53 and 64. The last three examples were all featured in Bo Gyllensvärd, Chinese Gold and Silver in the Carl Kempe Collection, Stockholm, 1953. 






Scientific Analysis and Metallography

In 2008 the vessel was submitted for metallurgical analysis and was found to be of very high fineness (99.7%). The principal impurities being 0.08% copper, 0.06% lead and 0.06% gold.

When compared to a database of Tang silver, the composition of this vessel was discovered to match very closely. The high purity of Tang silver means that it can be rather resistant to corrosion. A metallographic microstructural study led to the opinion that the corrosion structure found on this vessel was the result of long-term natural processes and that the silver jar had been isolated from any severe corrosive environment in the ground.

The analysis performed on this silver vessel concluded that the composition, microstructure and corrosion pattern are typical of what is known of Tang silver.

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