The Review with William Chak|An Extremely Rare Ru Guanyao Brush Washer

The Value has invited William Chak, master of Chak’s and distinguished art dealer, to give an in-depth review of auction highlights of Sotheby’s Hong Kong this fall. “Today, we are very lucky and fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take a close look at this rare piece. It’s a national treasure,” said Chak, referring to a rare Ru Guanyao brush washer from the Northern Song dynasty.

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
Auction: 2017/10/3
Diameter: 13cm

  • Sotheby's London, 15th June 1982, lot 252.

  • Collection of the Chang Foundation, Taipei.

  • Le Cong Tang

Estimate: HK$100,000,000

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

W: The five great kilns in the Song Dynasty were Ru, Guan, Ge, Ding and Jun. This (Ru ware) was the leading one. It is really eye-catching even from a far distance. The colour is fabulous, “blue-green”. The ice-crackle pattern is more common in Guan wares in the Song dynasty, but not in Ru wares. Ru wares are mostly in the pattern of microbubbles. That’s quite obvious. But it is rare to have a Ru ware in ice-crackle pattern.

W (continue): 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 an authentic Ru ware from Qingliangsi, Baofeng.

Q: It is said that there are less than a hundred pieces of Ru wares handed down. Is it true?

W: This is a rare piece, which is not easy to keep. Pieces in similar kind are now kept in museums. Another fact is that Ru wares are seldom unearthed from tombs because they are so important. They are mostly passed down generation after generation. Instructed by the imperial court in the late Northern Song dynasty, Ru kiln was listed as an official kiln. So during the late decade in Northern Song, Ru wares were used exclusively by the imperial court. They are hence very rare and there are only around 87 Ru wares in the world.

Q: Most of the Ru wares that we see in museums are opaque but this one is, on the other hand, quite luminous and translucent. Why’s that?

W: It has to do with the way it is made in the kiln. Even if you use the same glaze at the same time, the position that the ware is placed in the kiln also influences the effect produced.

Ru ware from the Song Dynasty. Palace Museum, Beijing

Ru ware from the Northern Song Dynasty. National Palace Museum, Taipei.

W (continue): Imagine the technique from a thousand year ago. How did craftsmen create the colour “blue-green” to satisfy the emperor’s requirement? It is very often that we see glaze in other colours, such as celadon, sky blue, moon white etc. There aren’t many in the colour “blue-green”. So this “blue green” ware with ice-crackle pattern is definitely one of the finest, not like any pieces that you normally see in museums.

Q: Some connoisseurs believe that the glaze of Ru wares was mixed with agate. What do you think?

W: This is the leading lot, also the finest piece of the coming autumn auction. Take a close look at the glaze. Glaze in Ru wares is mixed with agate, blending the minerals in agate with the paste and glaze. It creates a pattern of bubbles. At the same time, it looks like a piece of “jade”.

Q: Why is there a bluish aura?

W: There is a bluish circle on sides. It is the effect of “glaze concentration”, the glaze getting thicker. Before putting on a glaze, the unglazed paste is put in a kiln of 900°C. It needs to be glazed several times. The process of putting on glaze alone already takes about 8-10 days.

W (continue): Once the glaze is dry, put it back in the kiln to heat again. The ware is supported by spur marks. Once the process is done, you can see the effect of “glaze concentration”. You can see the glaze concentrating on the splayed foot as well. During the heating process, the miscible glaze melts and concentrates, creating an emerald-like and glass-like pattern

Q: We have heard a lot of people claiming that they have Ru wares in possession. That’s quite a number of them. What’s your thought about it?

W: I have been working in the industry for over 40 years. How many Ru wares have I seen? I have seen only three intact Ru wares over the past 40 years. One belonged to Lo Kwee-seong (founder of Vitasoy). He acquired the piece from Sotheby’s and later donated it to the Hong Kong government for public exhibition in the museum in Hong Kong Park. Another Ru ware was auctioned off at Sotheby’s a few years ago and sold to a Taiwanese collector. This is the third one.

Lo Kwee-seong, the founder of Vitasoy

 Ru Guanyao Brush Washer from Northern Song. April 2012. Sotheby's Hong Kong. HK$207,860,000

W (continue): When it comes to collecting Ru wares, Guan wares and Ge wares, I hope everyone to be clear-headed. To keep in mind that it’s not the quantity that matters.