Exclusive Interview with Cao Xingcheng, the Master of Le Cong Tang

For the upcoming fall sales, Christie’s made an impressive first move by offering a ‘Jiajing Wucai Fish Jar’ from Le Cong Tang. In view of this, Sotheby’s stepped up the game by presenting a 'Ru Guanyao Brushwasher' of the Northern Song, also from Le Cong Tang collection. It is going to be a fierce battle of “Le Cong Tang vs. Le Cong Tang” between the two auction houses. The Value is privileged to have invited Cao Xingcheng, the master of Le Cong Tang. Being one of the most important collectors in the world, Cao is going to share the stories behind these two porcelains, which estimated to be worth more than HK$100m each.

Q: Why did you call your collection ‘Le Cong Tang’?

C: Le Cong means ‘happy to obey’ in Chinese. I am happy to be the keeper of anything that’s given to me and I always try my best to comply with requests from others. That’s what Le Cong stands for.

Q: How did you get the idea?

C: I read a book called The Power of Surrender. The author suggests, in most cases, it is better to surrender than fight over it. If you can obey or accept everything in a delightful way, that means you are surpassing yourself. If you fail to do it, you are still stuck with all the trouble and you are not surpassing yourself. Le Cong conveys the meaning of ‘surrender’.

Q: Why are you offering two rare porcelains for auction at a time?

C: I am close to auction houses and they always say to me, “You have to handle your collection carefully or else there will be lawsuits among your children.” I have an extensive collection of archaic jades, bronzes, ceramics and Buddhist sculptures. Their words struck me and I thought, “Oh, right.” There will be trouble if I don't handle my collection properly, given there are so many works of art.

Christie's: Jiajing Wucai Fish Jar (left).
Sotheby's: Ru Guanyao Brushwasher of Northern Song Dynasty (right)

C (continue): A true collector has a strong attachment to his collection so it is not easy for one to sell his precious collection. It is like keeping a pet, you feel connected to it and you don’t want to give it away. I have thought it through for years and decided to handle my collection step by step. There are earthquakes in Taiwan so I don’t usually showcase ceramics in case there is any damage. That’s why my priority goes to the ceramics in my collection.

'Jiajing Wucai Fish Jar', the leading lot for Christie’s fall sales, was sold for HK$44m at Sotheby’s Hong Kong fall sales in 2000, held the record of the most expensive porcelain for four years. Cao Xingcheng made his name among collectors after that auction. What is the story behind the ‘Jiajing Wucai Fish Jar’?

Wucai Fish Jar and Cover, Ming Dynasty, Jiajing Period (1522-1566)

Auction house: Christie’s Hong Kong
Auction date: November 2017
Height: 46cm
Estimate on request (HK$180,000,000, according to The Value’s source)

Q: The story of buying the ‘Jiajing Wucai Fish Jar’?

C: In that year (2000), my company was successfully listed in New York so I wanted to buy something to commemorate it. Sotheby’s auction happened to take place around the time. I saw the fish jar and I wanted to buy it. Later, I went back to Taipei and my friends said to me, “You won’t get it. Giuseppe Eskenazi (a famous art dealer) has an eye on it.” I hesitated for a long while and I discussed with my good friend James Spencer, the director of Taipei Hongxi Museum. He said, “I would definitely buy it. It is such an important piece to Chinese.”

Giuseppe Eskenazi

C (continue): Eskenazi made a very high bid at the beginning of the auction. After all, he is an art dealer and he knows what the right price is. Therefore, I made a higher bid. Julian Thompson was the auctioneer, and I made the bid of HK$40m. He kept asking Eskenazi if there was any higher bid. Eskenazi talked to his son Daniel and made a few calls. I was waiting and thinking to myself ‘Hurry up!’. After waiting for about a minute, Eskenazi decided to let go. Hammer down. That’s fate.

Q: What do you like most about the Fish Jar?

C: Visual Art is about three aspects - geometry, biology and dynamic - in which dynamic is the most important. The Fish Jar really looks like a fish tank, with fish and seaweeds, and the shape is lovely.

Q: What do you mean by geometry, biology and dynamic?

C: Geometry is related to shapes like circle, square and cone etc.; Biology is related to plants, animals and people; Dynamic is the most important aspect because animal eyes are born and trained to observe motion and movement. Animals must stay vigilant to any movement in their surroundings in order to survive. For example, frog eyes are extremely sensitive to movement, so if a frog’s prey does not move, they will not notice it.

C (continue): When we look at an artwork, we won’t pay attention to it if there is no dynamic. But the order of these three aspects is also very important because they are not related to each other. It is about how artists blend these three into a piece of art and achieve harmony at the same time. It is not easy.

There are less than one hundred pieces of Ru Guanyao are known to have survived. The Ru Guanyao brushwasher that will be sold at Sotheby’s auction this fall is one of the only four known heirloom Ru wares in private hands. How did Cao get this extremely rare Ruyao? Unlike the fish jar, there is no biology and dynamic in a Ruyao, then how should we appreciate it?

Rare Ru Guanyao Brushwasher, Northern Song Dynasty

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Song - Important Chinese Ceramics from the Le Cong Tang Collection
Sale date: 2017/10/3
Diameter: 13cm
Estimate: HK$100,000,000

Q: The story of the 'Ru Guanyao Brushwasher'?

C: It was from the most reputable museum in Taiwan – Hongxi Museum, which was opened in 1980. This brushwasher went to auction at Sotheby’s in the early ‘80s so it was authenticated. The museum had a financial crisis due to a recession in real estate so they were selling some ceramics in 2000 to solve the problem. I bought a whole batch of Song porcelains from the museum, including that Ruyao.

Q: How should we appreciate Ruyao?

C: You have to appreciate Song porcelain from a perspective of Zen Buddhism. The idea was introduced by Bodhidharma to China in the 5th century and became a mainstream religion in Tang dynasty and Song dynasty. Zen Buddhism in Japan has been flourishing since it was first introduced from China in Song Dynasty. The philosophy, aestheticism and religion of Zen also influence the design of wares. Zen is about simplicity in life. Ruyao and Guanyao from Song dynasty are all minimalist aesthetic.

Q: What does minimalist aesthetic mean?

C: Ruyao is monochromatic and its structure is very simple. Though simple in design, it requires hard work to get the right proportion and thorough consideration on the height, width and radian. It is simple but it looks good at all time. That’s the highest level in minimalist aesthetics that an artwork should embody.

'The Wucai Fish Jar' and 'The Ru Guanyao Brushwasher' are both exceptionally rare. Which one is Cao’s favourite?

Q: Which one is your favourite?

C: They are all my favourite. To a true collector, buying collection is like adopting children, you like all your children. You can’t pick one as your favourite. Maybe some of them are more outstanding while the others are not doing so well, but it doesn’t make you favour the smarter one.

Q: What about other items that go to the same sale?

There are some other porcelains for sale, following the leading lots. For Sotheby’s, there are some Song porcelains. For Christie’s, there are some Ming porcelains.

Two Ming porcelains for Christie’s auction this fall: Red-Glazed Jar with Yellow Dragon Decor of Jiajing Period (left) and Yellow-Glazed Bowel of Xuande Period (right)

The Value is going to take our readers on a tour of Cao’s house in Hong Kong and take a glimpse of his exquisite collection. Please stay tuned for the second part of the interview.