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This 1,000-Year-Old Chinese Relic Is Expected to Sell for $13 Million

A Song Dynasty Chinese porcelain brush pot is slated to lead Sotheby’s Hong Kong sales.

Nicolas Chow

“Of the 87 heirloom Ru wares to have survived to this day, only four remain in private hands, among them the brush pot we will be offering in Hong Kong on October 3,” says Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia. The subject: a pale-toned petit vessel, the color of which has been likened by centuries of Chinese scholars to the “blue of the sky after the rain.”

Made exclusively for the Northern Song court, the wares were produced at the imperial Ru kilns over a relatively short timeframe—perhaps no more than 20 years—in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. It is this limited run that in large part accounts for the porcelain’s scarcity. “Given that Ru ware was, without doubt, the most celebrated and the most unobtainable of Chinese ceramics,” says Chow, “it should come as little surprise that it was the most often forged.”

The mythology surrounding Ru guanyao (or court ware) goes almost as far back as the time of its production, explains Chow, citing the work of the scholar Zhou Hui, who in ad 1192 wrote that such wares had become “very difficult to obtain.”

“It is clear from a host of later literary references that Ru ware was highly prized by China’s emperors—among them Qianlong, who is known to have received 21 pieces from his father, the Yongzheng emperor.”

1,000-year-old Ru Guanyao pot

A 1,000-year-old Ru guanyao (court ware) brush pot, a little more than 5 inches in diameter and in pristine condition, will be offered at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on October 3. It is expected to fetch more than HK$100 million ($13 million)  Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s

An ardent antiquarian, Qianlong is thought to have amassed a half-million ancient works over the course of his reign from 1735 to 1796. And, according to Yale University historian Jonathan Spence, the emperor obsessively followed the art market. Forever on the lookout for rare paintings and antiquities, he also employed a cadre of cultural advisors tasked with tipping him off to private collections coming up for sale.

“With its extraordinarily glossy bluish-green glaze, dense ‘ice crackle,’ and near pristine condition, the present washer, which comes from the Le Cong Tang collection, is without question the finest example of the four remaining in private hands,” says Chow.

The last Ru ware to come on the block sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2012 for HK$207,860,000 ($26,770,289) on its HK$60 to 80 million ($7.7 to 10.3 million) estimate.

The house is holding six Hong Kong sales this season; the 230-plus lots on offer are expected to bring more than HK$600 million ($77 million).

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