Setting Record for World’s Most Expensive Ceramic, Ru-ware Brush Washer Fetches US$37.7m

A tiny Ru-ware brush washer has become the world’s most expensive ceramic after it was sold at Hong Kong Sotheby’s for a record-breaking price. The brush washer from the late Northern Song (960-1127) went to auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this morning and the bidding started at HK$80m. It was hammered down at HK$260m at 10.58 a.m. (Hong Kong local time), after an intense bidding war that lasted 20 minutes. It 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.

Started at 10.38 a.m., the auction of the Ru brush washer already attracted a dense crowd of people waiting in the auction room. The bidding was led by auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd and started at HK$80m. The raucous crowds immediately turned into silence and could not keep their eyes off the stage. The first bid increment was offered by Carrie Li (Image below. The fourth from the left in the front row), Senior Specialist of Chinese Works of Art department. She raised the price to HK$100m but not enough to excite people in the room. The offer seemed to be far from the price that everyone expected the brush washer to fetch.  

With each bid increment of HK$10m, the bidding steadily went up to HK$160m. After that, bidders became more prudent. The pace started to slow down and the bid increment lowered to HK$5m. After a long while, the price finally reached HK$200m. Still, not a sound made from the crowds. No one had applauded yet.

The rarity and importance of this brush washer reminded us of another auction that took place at Sotheby's Hong Kong this spring. The leading lot was a Blue and White Lobed ‘Fish Pond’ Bowl from the Xuande period. It was hammered down in the same auction room by the same auctioneer at HK$202m. But this Ru-ware brush washer was anticipated to be sold beyond that price.

A Blue and White Lobed ‘Fish Pond’ Bowl from the Xuande period was hammered down HK$202m in the same auction room by the same auctioneer.

The price of the brush washer rose to HK$200m and the bidding pace went very slow since then. There were mainly two bidders, one was a gentleman in the room while the other one was a phone bidder represented by Carmen Li (The one of the left on the above image), Sotheby’s Business Manager. Meanwhile, something curious happened in the telephone area. Kevin Ching (Chief Executive Officer of Sotheby's Asia) and Nicolas Chow (Deputy Chairman for Sotheby's Asia and the International Head and Chairman of the Chinese Works of Art department) looked so nervous, walking around the area from time to time.

Nicolas Chow (standing) asked the auctioneer to wait

It is uncommon to see Kevin Ching (the one on the phone, leaned forward) looking so nervous

These two leading figures in Sotheby’s suddenly tensed up and asked the auctioneer to wait longer for several times, trying to make sure telephone bidders could make their bids in time. This 13-cm brush washer, though in tiny size, brought so much pressure in the auction room. Maybe that’s the charm of auctions.

Chenghua ‘Chicken Cup’ from the Meiyintang collection was sold for HK$281.24m (US$36.05m)

210m, 220m, 250m…When the price reached HK$250m, many in the telephone area were still busy talking on the phone. The bid HK$250m was offered by a client of Carmen Li and there was no subsequent bid for a long while. Everything was like on pause at that moment and the atmosphere was so heavy.

The sitation brought back some flashbacks of a past auction in 2014. In April 2014, a Chenghua ‘Chicken Cup’ from the Meiyintang collection was hammered down for HK$250m, setting the auction record for Chinese Ceramics. With one more increment, the Ru-ware brush washer would break that record.


The pause lasted for a few minutes. Henry Howard-Sneyd had to take good control of the situation. On one hand, he had to wait for higher bids from telephone bidders as it was getting so close to making a new world record. On the other hand, he could not wait forever.

Henry Howard-Sneyd proved himself to be well-qualified for his position of the lead Auctioneer globally in Asian Art. He handled the situation with a good sense of humour, said “It’s still going” and “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, refreshment at the back”. At the same time, he urged the telephone bidders to be quick by saying “can’t go any longer”, “I need another bid” and “this is enough”.

Someone raised his hand in the telephone area and offered HK$255m, a new world record for Chinese ceramics. Just when everyone thought it was over, a new bid came up. HK$260m, an offer made by the telephone bidder represented by Carmen Li.  The auctioneer finally put his hammer down, followed by a round of applause.

On 3rd October 2017, 10.58 a.m., the Ru Guanyao brush washer from the Northern Song Dynasty was sold for HK$$294,287,500 (US$37.7m), becoming the world’s most expensive ceramic.


World’s Most Expensive Ceramic: A Highly Important and Extremely Rare Ru Guanyao Brush Washer from the Northern Song Dynasty

Lot no.: 5
Diameter: 13cm
Provenance (consolidated by The Value):

  • Hongxi Museum, Taiwan
  • Le Cong Tang

Estimate: HK$100,000,000
Hammer price: HK$260,000,000
Price realized: HK$294,287,500

(All prices realized have included buyer’s premium unless otherwise specified)

Auction details

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Song - Important Chinese Ceramics from the Le Cong Tang Collection
No. of lots: 15
Auction date: 2017/10/3