An exceptionally rare sacred Chinese bronze water vessel made between 2,000 and 3,500 years ago taken when the emperor’s Summer Palace was acquired by British troops in 1860, has been found in a house in Kent.

Only six similar archaic vessels, known as Ying, exist, five of which are in museums. The discovery, a seventh with unique and previously unrecorded decoration, will be sold by The Canterbury Auction Galleries on Wednesday April 11, estimated at £120,000-200,000.


Dating from the Western Zhou dynasty (1027-771 BC), the vessel has been christened the ‘Tiger Ying’ because the spout and cover (lid) are each cast with models of the creature. It was found with three other later Qing Dynasty bronze works of art in the seaside town.

With them was a fascinating family archive of letters and photographs relating the military history of generations of the Evans family of Fronfelen, Monmouthshire.

They were found by Alastair Gibson, the saleroom’s consultant in Chinese art. He said: "When I was asked to view a small collection of Chinese bronzes in this unassuming house, I didn’t imagine the door would open to a 1860s time capsule and the last thing I expected to find was this remarkable bronze.

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“Whilst the three later works of art have comparables in the market today, the Tiger Ying does not. Only one Ying has ever been offered at auction before and none of the five others known is modelled with what in Chinese art is considered the king among beasts and the most powerful animal for warding of evil.”

Hajni Elias, a Chinese art and cultural historian who helped research the Tiger Ying, described it as “special and unequalled”. It would have been used for cleansing the hands and face at rituals and ceremonies conducted to pay respect to a person’s lineage and ancestors. Examples have been found in burial tombs.

“The casting of not one but two tiger forms is imaginative and rare. One in a highly stylised form on the spout creates an image of a beast that is ready to leap out when pouring water from the vessel, while the other, cast in a more natural shape of a crouching beast, forms the handle of the cover,” she said.

“We cannot underestimate the wealth and sophistication of the late Zhou culture that created such an outstanding bronze vessel. Only men of high status, such as a king, his nobles and officials were able to obtain them. Any type of bronze vessel was immediate indication of a person’s relationship with the ruler and an index to his influence and status in society.

“They represent some of the finest vessels extant and thus are treasured by collectors and connoisseurs worldwide.”

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X-rays of the vessel showed a small hairline fracture around the lower section of the spout, where it meets the body, which has been corrected professionally, while a thermo-luminescence test on the pottery core of the handle and one foot by Oxford Authentication Ltd confirmed its date of manufacture to between 2,200 and 3,500 years ago.

Letters from Royal Marines Captain Harry Lewis Evans (1831-1883) give a vivid account of the former’s military account and his time in China. They were transcribed by his son, Charles Lewis Evans (1875-1960), himself a colonel in the Royal Artillery.

Harry was born on Ascension Island, where his father, also a Royal Marine, was stationed, and served on a total of eight ships. Prior to arriving in Peking (Beijing), he had taken part in the capture of Canton in 1857.

He was slightly wounded in the failed attack on the Taku Forts at the mouth of the Pei-ho River in 1859 and was present at the capture of the forts in 1860, all during the Second Opium War.

A letter to his mother records his part in the events later that year, dated October 17. It reads: “Pekin (sic)  is now virtually ours, one of the gates having been surrendered to us several days ago, on the day on which we were to have opened fire…

“We halted about 12 o’clock about 2 miles from one of the gates of Pekin on the Eastern side, and remained there for the night…

“The following morning we started about half past seven, and kept moving to the right as we wanted to get round to the North-west side of the city to a summer residence of the Emperor…

“By the time all the baggage was up it was getting late, so the General (Sir Hope Grant) decided on halting and taking possession of the small portion of suburb situated about 1 mile from the walls, and the following day we were to have gone on to the Summer Palace.

“In the morning however news came in that the French (who had also mysteriously disappeared) had, together with our Cavalry, taken possession of the Summer Palace the previous evening without opposition, there being only about 300 servants left to look after the place, and a small guard of about 50 men, who of course did not attempt any resistance.

“The French got lots of valuable loot in the way of watches, clocks fur coats, silks etc. The General sent out for all the carts he could find, brought in as much as they could carry, and all the things were sold by auction for prize money for the force actually present on the 16th, and a considerable amount was realised as the things went at fabulous prices … I expect to get about five and forty pounds for my share.”

In another letter, he writes: “…a portion of [the Summer Palace] is beautifully situated on a spur of the hills which form a magnificent background, it is very different from all European notions of a palace, and consists of ranges of buildings scattered over an immense extent of ground on the plain at the foot of the hills.

“The buildings on the spur of the hill were principally joss houses and Pagodas - some of the joss-houses were magnificent - the idols in them were enormous, one I saw must have been at least sixty feet in height.

“The temples were enriched with quantities of most beautiful bronzes and enamels, but were too large and heavy to be moved conveniently. From one of the pagodas on the hill there was a most magnificent view, one cannot describe it, it was certainly worth riding 50 miles to see.

“From the palace on the plain I succeeded in getting several bronzes and enamel vases that will, I hope, some day find their way to [his home in the UK], as well as some very fine porcelain cups and saucers of the Emperors imperial pattern (yellow with green dragons) but they are so dreadfully brittle that I quite despair ever being able to get them home in their present condition…”

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To be sold with the Tiger Ying is a “Zun”, an archaistic bronze wine vessel in the style of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), the vase-shaped body decorated with bulging waist and flared neck decorated with taotie (ogre) masks and dragons, which is estimated at £4,000-6,000, while two late 17th or early 18th century bronze Qing Dynasty ‘Elephant’ censers are each estimated at £3,000-5,000.

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The censers, which would have been used as containers for burning incense, each have a pierced domed cover with a recumbent elephant supporting a basket, and handles and tripod feet cast as elephant heads and trunks.


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