A Brush With Greatness: The Le Cong Tang Collection’s Ru Brush Washer

Art

A Brush With Greatness: The Le Cong Tang Collection’s Ru Brush Washer

Find out why this luminous, blue-green Ru Guanyao brush washer from China’s Northern Song dynasty – a significant highlight of Sotheby’s Autumn sales this year – is said to be “rarer than the stars at dawn”.

Published on 15 September 2017

It may only measure 13 centimetres in diameter, but this Ru guanyao brush washer is proof that mighty things come in small packages. Once it appears at Sotheby’s Song – Important Chinese Ceramics from the Le Cong Tang Collection auction in Hong Kong on 3 October, the brush washer is expected to fetch in excess of HK$100 million (US$12.8 million) – a price that reflects its considerable rarity and illustrious history.

Photo credit: Sotheby’s

The opportunity of a lifetime

A picture-book example of Ru guanyao ceramics, the brush washer’s origins lie in the Five Great Kilns of China’s late Northern Song dynasty (which spanned the years 960-1127), hailing from a short-lived production period that barely lasted 20 years. Commissioned by the imperial court of that era, Ru guanyao court ware is distinguished by an intense, glowing blue-green glaze, a complex interlaced “ice crackle” pattern, a classic, excellently proportioned shape, and fine “sesame seed” spur marks – outstanding qualities that this little brush washer boasts in abundance.

“If someone wants a sublime, textbook heirloom Ru ware, this is the opportunity of a lifetime,” asserts Nicolas Chow, the deputy chairman for Sotheby’s Asia and the international head and chairman of the Chinese Works of Art department. “In fact, the last Ru ware that we sold here in Hong Kong for a record price in 2012 is now in a private art foundation and unlikely to ever come out again. So it is really one of three heirloom Ru wares in private hands, and without question, the finest of the three.”

Photo credit: Sotheby’s

An object of ravishing beauty and historical importance

Even handling this particular lot – which formerly belonged in the collection of the Chang Foundation in Taipei’s Hongxi Museum, and is now poised to leave the hands of Cao Xingcheng, the collector behind Le Cong Tang – was an extraordinary experience for Chow. “Moments like these are charged with emotion when you finally secure for sale an object of such ravishing beauty and historical importance,” he recalls. “I have known this particular Ru washer for almost 20 years, first as a student of Chinese art when I visited the Chang Foundation for the first time in 1998, and later again around 2003, when I handled it at the home of the collector who is now finally parting with it.

“When you handle an object like this, you start by appreciating its aesthetic qualities – the glaze colour, layered crackle, its tactile feel – and then you assess its condition, which is near-perfect in this particular case, before you consider its market history. All these various elements play a role in deciding the estimate and projected value of the piece.” As he points out, the brush washer’s sheer beauty is enough to render it an enormously appealing acquisition at auction, though its rarity has also contributed to what Sotheby’s has termed a “quasi mythical status”.

“Its historical significance throughout the last millennium is rooted in the beauty of Ru ware and in its extraordinary rarity,” Chow explains. “No other wares approach it in subtlety of glaze colour and crackle – not even Guan ware of the Southern Song dynasty, which attempted to copy Ru – and it is indeed outstanding in its aesthetic appeal. Undoubtedly though, centuries of mythology weigh heavily in the minds of collectors wanting to acquire a piece of Ru ware.” A prime example of meticulous craftsmanship, even the brush washer’s tiny spur marks speak volumes about the skill of the Ru potters.

“Spurs were used to fire ceramics before Ru ware, but never were they produced to such a degree of refinement, whereby only minute ‘sesame seed’ marks were left unglazed on the base. The use of such tiny spurs would have caused a greater likelihood of damage during firing and could have only been envisaged within the scope of a highly exclusive and limited production, such as that of Ru ware. This extraordinary care in firing was never to be seen again until the eighteenth century when, occasionally, such tiny spurs were used in Jingdezhen in the firing of porcelain for the court of the Qianlong emperor.”

Photo credit: Sotheby’s

A chance to smash an auction record

Certainly, there’ll be many eyes on the Ru washer once October rolls around – and to give this auction some context, the Ru guanyao washer that was auctioned in 2012 fetched nearly HK$208 million (US$26.6 million). Does Chow think that this brush washer has the potential to outperform its estimate and smash the existing record? “In my view, it could certainly be possible. There are today in the market a couple more collectors chasing highly important Chinese works of art – and let’s remember that were are at least four bidders who were unsuccessful back in 2012.

“I do not want to be too optimistic but I can certainly see this Ru washer fetch an amount in excess of the last one,” is his measured response. “Most of the collectors who bid on the last Ru washer were madly in love with it. My experience so far, having shown the present piece to a few potential buyers, is that it is an object capable of drawing the most powerful aesthetic emotions. It is the greatest treat for someone in my role to offer such an aesthetic experience to my clients.” Nevertheless, the eventual winner will have to be careful with their prized brush washer, once the excitement of winning such a lot has subsided – particularly if they’re considering the prospect of selling it in the future.

“The piece should stay in the same state of preservation if the future owner respects a number of simple handling principles. Always handle the piece over a table lined with a bit of padding, hold it with two hands, never wear gloves when handling porcelain (they can be very slippery), avoid holding a torchlight, camera or phone right above the piece in case it slips, and keep it safe in either a box or in a locked showcase. Also, avoid keeping it out if you live in an earthquake-prone country.”

As for the likelihood of this brush washer – or anything like it, for that matter – appearing on the auction block again, Chow seems to suggest that now is the time to bid, unless you’re willing to wait for a substantial amount of time. “The very rarest and most beautiful objects that we offer for sale tend to appreciate over time. The market prices depend on offer and demand, and there is no question that objects are getting scarcer over time. Plus, with the continued rise of super-collectors, there is an increasing demand for the very finest objects,” he says.

“It is hard to say whether this very piece will ever come to the market in the years to come, but my hunch is that it may not be available on the market for at least the next 15 to 20 years, if not longer, which is historically the average holding time for pieces of this importance and value.” Time, it seems, waits for no man – and neither do Ru guanyao brush washers.

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