"Look at this boy," says Christian Deydier, owner of twin galleries in London and Paris specializing in Oriental Bronzes, and now exhibiting his wares at Jan Krugier Gallery at 41 East 57th Street. Deydier is referring to a highly glazed sculpture of an obviously non-Chinese boy holding a wine skin. "He is obviously Persian," Deydier says. "His hair is distinctly parted in a non-Oriental way." This sculpture is from the Tang Dynasty (618-908 AD). Vineyards make their first appearance at this time. Until then the only wine they had came from fermented rice.
In another part of the gallery is an inlaid archaic bronze vessel (niaoxinghe) from the early Warring States period (475-221 BC). The vessel has tiger legs, the neck of a bird and other features of snake and phoenix. "The Chinese have a tendency to incorporate real and mythological animal features in all their objects, sacramental as well as utilitarian," says Deydier, who also points out the gold and silver inlays.
We look at a rare death mask of frontier Liao era (916-1125 AD). This is a mask of the Kitan tribe. Buddhists are usually cremated but this tribe believed in burial. The mask feels extremely light -- a bronze sheet hammered beautifully to fit the contours of the face.
But the "piece de resistance" is a unique archaic bronze candelabra showing a xian (a figure that is part human and part bird), holding a lotus bowl from which three branches of the candelabra emerge, ending in dragon shapes. The bronze is Late Eastern Zhou or early Han (200 BC to 6 AD), and demonstrates the tremendous skill of its anonymous sculptor.
Last year the London dealer Eskenazi mounted a special exhibition in New York during Asia Week that met with great success. This time around, he concentrated on animal sculptures, drawing large crowds to his temporary quarters at 28 East 78th Street.
The overwhelming favorite of the crowd was a bronze, gold and silver incense burner in the shape of a tortoise from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). The cast piece depicts the animal walking, with its head turned to the left. Its carapace forms a removable cover. The work was sold at the very start of the exhibition, as were many of the other objects shown. Dragons and tigers, real and imaginary animals made up the rest of the menagerie. Another favorite proved to be a bronze, gold and silver garment-hook (daigou) of the Eastern Zhou period (4th-3rd century BC ).
J.J. Lally Oriental Art
The arts of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) are the focus of a beautifully installed exhibition by J.J. Lally Oriental Art at 41 East 57th Street. The visitor is greeted by a group of five Sichuan red pottery figures of entertainers seated in an alcove. The unusually crisp modeling with fine detailing is unusual and stems from a single tomb. A proud large gray pottery prancing horse with flared nostrils standing over 37 inches high was part of a new breed of horses brought in by the Han emperor Wudi (141-87 BC). They came from Central Asia, and enabled his soldiers to fight the nomadic tribe of Xiongnu warriors, who were threatening the emperor's northern border. A fine embodiment of power and grace, their sculptured likenesses soon became favored elements of Han dynasty tombs.
A gilt bronze belt hook inlaid with blue glass is another outstanding example of Han dynasty art. Belt hooks of this type became popular during the Western Han Dynasty. At the time glass was a luxury item brought into China, by Silk Road traders and was consequently highly prized. The cast hook is in the shape of a dragon.
The show features 3l items stunningly reproduced in an excellently written catalog. Jim Lally has long been a leading dealer in the field of Chinese art.
Finally, a stunning exhibition at Ariadne Gallery, 970 Madison Avenue, featured "Treasures of the Eurasian Steppes." For the most part, the selection is non-Chinese -- art of the Huns, Sarmatians, Tatars and Ordos tribes.
"As you can imagine," says Tina Pang, the specialist at the gallery, "nomads had to travel light. Their treasures had to be portable and there is no better portability for an item than being attached to a garment. So you have mostly jewelry, buttons, belt buckles. These items of bronze, silver and gold were used to indicate not only wealth but also status and lineage."
Almost 200 items are featured in a fascinating recreation of a nomad tent of the kind that might have been in use along the silk route. A harness ornament in repousse gold and iron of Scythian origin (Fourth century BC) shows an ibex in a very stylized landscape. The gold was worked from behind and then filled in with iron.
Another outstanding example of early goldsmith work is a belt plaque of Siberian origin, dating from the 5th-3rd century BC. It depicts a ram, and gives the animal's head a three-dimensional treatment. Stylistically related to a gold plaque in the Hermitage in Leningrad, it is stunning in its realistic design and workmanship. Another Siberian piece is a gold attachment (from the 7th-5th century) in the form of a curled feline inlaid with turquoise. A vertical bar on the back joins the two sides of the attachment.
The collection is the result of 18 years of intense selection and exploration, and an outstanding catalogue accompanies this exhibition.
The success of these shows and others is a clear indication that more galleries will join the festivities of Asia Week next year and in years to come, most likely to a similar enthusiastic response.
FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.