Every time a piece of art is sold for a whopping price, there are always widespread speculations on the identity of the buyer. In the Chinese art collecting world, rumours go around after any Chinese works of art selling for a price more than HK$100m. As a Chinese proverb says, ‘rumours stop at a wise man’. But in the collecting world, rumours stop at the owner.
Chinese Billionaire Liu Yiqian, also an avid collector of Chinese art, published a post on WeChat yesterday showcasing four of his latest purchases, which are all headline-grabbing ceramic pieces that sold for millions of dollars at recent auctions.
Chinese Billionaire Liu Yiqian and his wife
Liu Yiqian posted four pictures of Chinese ceramics on Chinese social media app WeChat, with a caption that reads: ‘Lovely pieces. If you buy them, they are kept in your hands. If you don’t buy them, you keep the money in your pocket. Beautiful things always attract our eyeballs. Not sure when will these items come up for auction again.’
Though he was very subtle, it is pretty clear that he was implying himself as the owner of these four great pieces. And they are no ordinary ceramic pieces as they were all sold for more than millions of dollars at recent Sotheby’s auctions. The total value of all four is up to HK$832m (US$106m). Let us take a look at each piece.
In the 2017 autumn auction, a new auction record was set for the world’s most expensive ceramic. A tiny Ru-ware brush washer from the Northern Song dynasty was hammered down at HK$260m after a 20-minute bidding battle. The brush washer was sold for a sky-high price of HK$294m (US$37.7m) with buyer’s premium, breaking the previous world record set by Chenghua ‘Chicken Cup’ in 2014, which is also owned by Liu Yiqian.
Before the sale, the Value had interviewed two prominent figures in the collecting world and asked them to share insight on how to appreciate the brush washer. The first one was Robert Tsao (Cao Xingcheng), also the seller of the brush washer. And the second one was William Chak, master of Chak’s and distinguished art dealer. Here are some extracts from our interviews.
Prominent collector Robert Tsao
Robert Tsao: 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 and Song dynasties. The philosophy, aestheticism and religion of Zen also influence the design of wares. Zen is about simplicity in life. Ruyao (Ru ware) and Guanyao (Guan ware) from Song dynasty are all minimalist aesthetic.
Robert Tsao: Though simple in design, it requires hard work to get the right proportion and thorough consideration of 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.
William Chak, master of Chak’s and distinguished art dealer
William Chak: The five great kilns in the Song Dynasty were Ru, Guan, Ge, Ding and Jun. And Ru ware was the leading one. This ru ware brush washer is really eye-catching even from a far distance. The colour is fabulous, “blue-green”. It is potted in eggshell, thick glaze, slightly splayed foot covering in glaze and three tiny “sesame seed” spur marks. It is like holding a piece of “jade”. Judging from its paste, glaze, shape and crackle, this is a genuine Ru ware from Qingliangsi, Baofeng.
This April, a pink-ground falangcai bowl, mark and period of Kangxi, was the focal point of Sotheby’s spring sales in Hong Kong. This pink-ground bowl is the finest example of its type and the only ever recorded with this design, with only two closely related examples known to have survived.
It was expected to fetch in excess of HK$200m. It was hammered down at HK$210m and sold for HK$238m after premium. Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, told us what’s so special about the bowl.
Liu Yiqian was bidding through Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby’s Asia
Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia
‘Kangxi Falangcai was in an extremely limited production made in the Imperial workshop in Jingdezhen set up in 1690,' said Nicolas Chow. 'Because the kilns were very small and the number of staff working in the enamelling workshop was limited. It was a small production. Falangcai only reached maturity towards the end of the Kangxi period so it was a short-lived production.’ He also added that the bowl was painted daffodils, hibiscus and other flowers on it, which are different from what we usually see in traditional Chinese paintings. He believed this bowl would have been devised by Jesuits or at the hand of Jesuits.
One month after the Kangxi Falangcai bowl was sold, Sotheby’s offered another Chinese treasure in Paris. This one even had a fascinating story of how it was discovered. A French family home found a vase by chance in the attic and put inside an old green shoebox. It had been left to the great-grandparents of the present owners by an uncle and appeared among the listed contents of his Paris apartment after he passed away in 1947. The vase was wrapped with some wrinkled newspaper inside a shoebox and brought to the auction house for an art appraisal. When the specialist opened the box, he was immediately struck by its quality.
It is an Imperial Yangcai vase made in a garlic-mouth shape and painted with Chinese paintings of deer, cranes, mountains and waters. There is only one other vase with similar paintings and design, which is now kept in the collection of Musée Guimet in Paris. So the present vase is the only known example in private hands.
Liu Yiqian was in Sotheby’s Paris saleroom
Such a rare Yangcai vase from the Qianlong period was estimated at €500,000 only. After a prolonged bidding war that lasted 22 minutes, the vase was hammered down at €14.2m, followed by a round of applause in the room. It was sold for €16.18m (premium included), about HK$150m. Liu Yiqian was also in the saleroom at the time but he didn’t participate in the bidding himself.
The Value exclusively secured a photo showing a reticulated vase in Sotheby’s Hong Kong office
This August, The Value exclusively secured a photo showing a reticulated vase in Sotheby’s Hong Kong office. The vase is similar to a famous vase that once sold for £53.1m in 2010. The 2010 reticulated vase caused a huge sensation among art dealers and collectors when it was up for auction in the UK in 2010. The vase is about 16 inches tall (40.5cm) and the base has a six-character seal showing ‘Made in the Qianlong period, Qing dynasty’. The vase contains a second, beautifully patterned, cylinder within the outer wall. The vase has a fish motif on the four sides. Celadon-glazed and outlined with gold, the reticulated wall shows a pattern of archaistic Kui dragon scrolls.
The 2010 vase was offered in a small auction house in London with an estimate of £800,000 - £1.2m. To the surprise of the seller and auction house, the vase was hammered down at £43m and sold for £53.1m with premium, setting the record for the most expensive item of Asian art ever sold. However, the buyer didn’t pay for the vase. The vase was later sold through a private deal for an amount reported to be up to £25m (about HK$300m at the time).
Sotheby’s later announced that the vase shown in the photo was a brother vase to the famous vase sold in 2010. The vase was included in the 1905 Yamanaka Exhibition in New York and was later acquired by a private Japanese collector in 1924. It has since then been kept in the collection for almost a century. Estimated at HK$50m, the vase was hammered down at HK$130m and sold for HK$149m.
Four porcelain works owned by Liu Yiqian (with a total value of HK$800m)
Ru Guanyao Brush Washer from the Northern Song Dynasty
Provenance (consolidated by The Value):
- Hongxi Museum, Taiwan
- Le Cong Tang
Hammer price: HK$260,000,000
Price realised: HK$294,287,500
A Pink-ground Falangcai Bowl Pink Enamel Yuzhi, Mark and Period of Kangxi
- K.K. Chow, Shanghai, 1930/31.
- Bluett & Sons, London, 1931.
- Collection of Martin Erdmann, acquired in 1931.
- Christie’s London, 17th November 1937, lot 73 (part lot).
- Bluett & Sons, London.
- Collection of Henry M. Knight (died 1971), The Hague, Holland, acquired in 1938.
- Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 20th May 1986, lot 123.
- Collection of the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo.
Estimate upon request (It was expected to fetch in excess of HK$200m)
Hammer price: HK$210,000,000
Price realised: HK$238,807,500
Imperial ‘Yangcai Crane and Deer Ruyi Vase’. Qianlong Seal Mark and Period
French Private Collection
Estimate: €500,000 - 700,000
Hammer price: €14,200,000
Price realised: €16,182,800
A Highly Important and Exquisitely Enamelled Yangcai Reticulated ‘Fish’ Vase
Blue-enamel Seal Mark and Period of Qianlong
- Yamanaka & Company, Osaka, Kyoto, New York and Boston, 1905.
- The American Art Association, New York, 1905.
- Acquired from Yamanaka by a Japanese private collector, 1924, thence by descent.
Estimate: HK$50,000,000 - 70,000,000
Hammer price: HK$130,000,000
Price realised: HK$149,091,000