A ‘Virtually Unobtainable’ Ru Bowl Sets a Record for Chinese Ceramics at Sotheby’s Hong Kong

The ultra rare ceramic brush washer sold for $37.7 million after a frantic bidding war.

Ru Guanyao Brushwasher, Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Photo: courtesy of Sotheby's.

A 900-year-old ceramic Ru guanyao brush washer unleashed a 20-minute bidding war at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on October 3. When the hammer finally fell at HK$294 million ($37.7 million), more than double its pre-sale estimate of HK$100 million ($13 million), the extremely rare and delicate vessel set a new world record for Chinese ceramics.

A classic example of Chinese ornate art, the turquoise glaze was executed in a pattern resembling ice crackles, and is defined by its classic proportions and its three “sesame seed” depressions where it rested on kiln supports. Brush washers were typically used to clean calligraphy or paint brushes in ancient China.

Described by Sotheby’s as “virtually unobtainable,” the imperial court of the late Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) commissioned the bowl from the most notable of the five great kilns. The kiln’s production cycle lasted fewer than 20 years and its ceramics are among the rarest and most desirable today, which lends this bowl an almost mythical status throughout Asia. It is one of only four known privately owned Ru ceramics, and according to CNN it is one of only six examples of Ru ceramics to come to auction since 1940.

The brush washer also boasts a prominent provenance, coming from the collection of the Chang Foundation in Taipei’s Hongxi Museum. At first glance, the object is small and unassuming, yet to a discerning audience it embodies several revered characteristics, such as an understated aesthetic and high-grade craftsmanship, attributes that are often reflected in the values of Chinese society and philosophies more broadly.

Although the auction house did not reveal the identity of the winning bidder, it is likely one of a few wealthy Asian collectors who have devoted considerable resources to securing classic examples of their heritage in recent decades.

The sale beats the previous record of $36.3 million for Chinese ceramics set by Shanghai entrepreneur and collector Liu Yiqian, who bought a Ming dynasty Meiyintang “Chicken Cup” at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2014 and famously drank tea from the pricy purchase after the auction, in what became a controversial photo-op.

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