Neolithic jade cong – £110,000 at Alistair Gibson Auctions.

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They were carved by the Liangzhu people who lived around the current Lake Tai in Jiangsu province c.3300-2300BC. Scholars are not sure of their actual purpose (they are dubbed ‘ritual objects’ by the international museums that own examples), although they have been found in the tombs of noblemen for use in the after-life.

The example offered at the Alastair Gibson (25% buyer’s premium) auction in London on December 14 measured just over 4in (11cm) high and was worked in a mottled green and brown stone with four tiers of mask decoration across its square outer and circular inner sections.

Baron’s buy

It had a great provenance that Gibson described as “crucial” to the level of interest and the final outcome.

Once owned by Sir Ernest Debenham (1865-1952), the department store magnate who acquired it prior to 1928, it was later in the collection of Rolf, 2nd Baron Cunliffe of Headley (1899-1963).

Over a period of almost 20 years from 1944 he bought more than 400 pieces from the famed London Chinese art dealership Bluett and Sons.

The cong was most recently acquired in the 1995 by a private collector in Chicago from a London dealer – the invoice for the transaction found at the 11th hour. These do not come up for sale often, although Gibson had sold another in his Sotheby’s days and had handled both of the two four-tiered congs sold recently in Hong Kong: one sold for HK$1.9m (£190,000) as part of the Chang Wei-Hwa collection of archaic jades (Christie’s, November 2019) and another for HK$500,000 (£48,000) from the Zan Ji Xuan collection (China Guardian, October 2022).

“I think they require a higher degree of understanding that is very hard to get your eye in”, says Gibson. “Luckily, we have good examples here in the British Museum which is handy to have on the doorstep. Viewing good pieces helps with the appreciation of this difficult area.”

The Cunliffe Cong, in good condition save some flaws to the corners, was estimated at £40,000-60,000 and did not disappoint, selling at £110,000 to a collector in Shanghai.