5 minutes with... A magnificent Chinese gilt-bronze bell

This rare Qianlong-period bell was owned by one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century — William Randolph Hearst. Specialist Marco Almeida explains how and why it was made

‘This is a magnificent example of an imperial work of art,’ states Marco Almeida, specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at Christie’s in London. The bell, which is offered in London on 5 November, was cast during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled from 1736 to 1795 and was a renowned patron of the arts.

Cast gilt-bronze bells of this type were known as bianzhong  and were usually assembled in sets of 16, featuring 12 musical tones, with four repeated notes in lower or higher octaves. The bells would be arranged in tonal sequence in two rows of eight on a tall lacquered wooden frame, which was often decorated at either end with a dragon motif.

‘They were an essential part of Confucian rituals at the imperial altar,’ Almeida explains. Such bells were also used during state events, including ascension ceremonies when new emperors were enthroned, formal banquets and processions of the imperial guard.

The magnificent gilt-bronze bell coming to the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale at Christie’s in London features a pair of striding, five-clawed dragons chasing the flaming pearl of wisdom. A pair of intertwined five-clawed dragons on top of the bell form a handle. ‘The dragon is a symbol of power and strength,’ explains Almeida in our short film, above.

The bell also bears two incised inscriptions. The first dates the bell to the eighth year of the Qianlong reign (1743), the same year in which the emperor made his first ‘Northern Tour’ to visit the ancestral tombs in Mukden — modern-day Shenyang in Liaoning province. It is probable, the specialist says, that this bell would have been used during ritual ceremonies performed in honour of the imperial ancestors.

The first inscription dates the bell to the eighth year of the Qianlong reign, which corresponds to 1743

The first inscription dates the bell to the eighth year of the Qianlong reign, which corresponds to 1743

The second inscription denotes the tone of the bell as Bei Nanlü, thereby identifying it as one of the four bells used for repeating the lower octave. Bells were cast from bronze and then hand-finished to achieve precisely the right pitch before they were gilded.

‘This is the only bell of this shape to appear on the open market for more than a decade,’ says Almeida. ‘Even in public collections, bells of this shape are extremely rare.’ A pair of comparable dragon-decorated bells, dated to 1744, reside in the Palace of Fontainebleau in France. 

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An additional attraction for collectors is this bell’s rich and traceable collecting history. It passed through the hands of Sadajiro Yamanaka (1866-1936), a renowned Japanese dealer of Chinese art in the early 20th century, before entering into the private collection of American publisher and art collector William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). According to one of his obituaries, Hearst’s purchases during the 1920s and 1930s accounted for some 25 per cent of the international art market. 

‘This is one of those iconic Chinese works of art with imperial heritage and a touch of Western history attached,’ concludes Almeida. ‘It is sure to appeal to collectors of masterpieces, as well as collectors of Qing imperial works of art.’

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