Tiny Brush Washer from Imperial China is Expected to Fetch US$13m And That's Only a Conservative Estimate

Sotheby’s Hong Kong held a media preview yesterday showcasing some of their highlights for the upcoming autumn sales. We had a precious opportunity to take a look at a leading lot of the sale, a tiny Ru Guanyao brush washer of the Northern Song dynasty that is estimated at HK$100m (US$13m). The Ru brush washer has a luminous ‘ice crackle’ pattern on it, with its intense blue-green glaze. Nicolas Chow, Deputy Chairman, Sotheby’s Asia, tells us what makes this ‘Ru ware’ so special.

A Highly Important and Extremely Rare Ru Guanyao Brush Washer, 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
Provenance (consolidated by The Value):

  • Hongxi Museum, Taiwan

  • Le Cong Tang

Estimate: HK$100,000,000 (US$13,000,000)

Q: What’s so special about this Ru Guanyao brush washer?

Portrait of Emperor Huizong of Song

N: Ru ware from the Song dynasty has gained a nearly mythical status throughout the last millennium. Before Ru ware, the ceramics that used in the Northern Song court and the previous courts were basically attributed to a variety of kilns. With Ru, it is the first time that ceramics are made exclusively for the court. And most of the shapes produced at the Ru kilns in Baofeng county in Henan province are rather small, and very few have survived through the ages.

N (continue): Today, we count around the world, there are only 87 pieces of Ru ware extend, with heirloom pieces that have been passed off the ground, generation by generation. Of the four pieces that survived in private hands, this is the absolute finest.

Q: Another piece of Ru ware was sold at Sotheby’s in 2012. What’s the difference between the last one and this one?

Ru Guanyao brush washer for the present auction (left) and Ru Guanyao brush washer at Sotheby's in 2012 (right)

N: The last example came up on the market in 2012. We presented it with an estimate of HK$60m (US$8m) and it fetched back then about HK$210m (US$26.7m).

Comparison on the backs 

N (continue): That example was slightly different and there’s a certain range of Ru ware. The last example that we presented, that one is slightly more pink, milky colour to it, with a very wide crackle. The present example is typical of the finest Ru, with that extremely glossy, bluish green, crackle layer that almost like ice.

Q: Why is it so rare?

N: Ru ware was produced in a very short period, may be around twenty years, in the late years of 11th or early 12th century. And we had a source dated 1192 saying that Ru ware was already impossible to obtain, barely 70 years after it was produced.

Q: Has anyone already showed an interest in it?

N:  That’s something that a lot of the greatest collectors of Chinese art in the world and some of the private museums are lacking. And it got an incredible tactile quality, it almost melts in your hands when you hold it. We expect the piece to sell in an excess of HK$100m (US$13m) but really Ru, sky is the limit, is impossible to predict how much it could fetch. We already have interest from clients in Mainland China, Japan, Hong Kong and from abroad, from the West.

Connoisseurs hold different views on the production and appreciation of Ru ware so we asked Nicolas about the authenticity of some of these common beliefs.

Q: It is said that agate was put into the glaze to make Ru ware. Is that so?

N: I think the whole question of the glaze composition during the Song dynasty to make Ru, the idea that agate was introduced, I would say is mostly mythology. We don’t know for sure. And I think all the glaze analysis so far has not proved that agate was used in the glaze. This is something that’s a connoisseur belief but it is not really based on scientific analysis of the Ru glaze.

Q: When we look at this Ru Guanyao brush washer, there is a circle of blue. Why is that?

N: That’s basically the glaze pulling on the sides, on the interior of the glaze where the body meets the sides. So the glaze is getting a little bit thicker and creates a bluish aura, the thickness of the glaze.

Besides the bluish aura, we also see a complex interlaced ‘ice crackle’ pattern on the brush washer. How should we interpret this kind of crackle pattern?

Q: Some people say that Ru ware should have an ‘ice crackle’ pattern while some believe it should have a pattern like fish scales. Which one is the correct description of it?

N: I think all of these are connoisseur descriptions, so it’s not one right over the other. The idea of ice crackle was popular right in the Qianlong Empire in the 18th century. The fish scale one, I'm not sure when it comes in, but there is a certain range in its outlook of a Ru glaze. They can start from very opaque, milky with a very wide crackle to that beautiful glassy dense and layer of ice crackle. There is an entire range, therefore quite a few different terms could come to define the surface of the glaze.

Q: Is it better to have this kind of crackle pattern on a Ru ware?

Ru Ware Narcissus Basin of Northern Song (without crackle), the National Palace Museum in Taipei

N: For example, the book Gegu Yaolun in the 14th century said that the most desirable glaze is one without crackle, opaque. Throughout the 20th century, connoisseurs have come to like this particular glaze, which is dense, layered and glossy. So it is really a question of taste. Bottom line is, with Ru, you can’t really pick. There are only a few examples extend and it’s the finest in private hands. I think this is good enough for the greatest collectors and museums in the world.

Nicolas is going to talk about other highlights of the auction. Please stay tuned.