How To Sell Your Chinese Ceramics At Auction
We find out what distinguishes a particularly outstanding Chinese ceramics piece in the eyes of an expert.
Published on 21 December 2017
Enchanting, painstakingly crafted, and always to be handled with care, Chinese ceramics remain a popular but also highly specialised category on the auction market.
“Ceramics is a significant part of material culture in China’s long history. It played an important role in the first global exchange and has strong links with the spice and tea trade. I believe the most intriguing aspect of Chinese ceramics is that it is a challenging subject that invites further study, with many new discoveries along the way,” says Vivian Tong, the deputy director, specialist, and acting head of Mid-Season Sales, Chinese Works of Art for Sotheby’s Hong Kong, commenting on where exactly the appeal of Chinese ceramics lies.
“Throughout their development, Chinese ceramics have been transformed over a range of aesthetic ideals, from a more subdued monochromatic taste inspired by nature in the Song dynasty to a bold, vibrant style in the Yuan, or transcending from a classic taste in the Ming dynasty to a frivolous, flamboyant style in the Qing. The diverse aesthetic appeal allows Chinese ceramics to be reinvented in contemporary interiors, and its appreciation to be continued through history.”
Within the context of today’s auction market, that appreciation can certainly be sizeable: at the beginning of October, an extremely rare Ru guanyao brush washer from the Northern Song dynasty fetched an astounding HK$294.3 million (US$37.7 million) at one of Sotheby’s auctions. Even more unexpectedly in 2010, an eighteenth-century vase from the Qianlong dynasty was auctioned for £53 million (US$70.8 million) after being discovered on top of a bookcase in an extraordinary stroke of luck.
“One piece of Chinese art that was particularly memorable to me was a white and russet jade vase worked in the form of three monkeys clambering on a pine tree,” recalls Tong. “The client who consigned this piece had no idea of what it was when she brought it in, but my eyes sparkled instantly when I saw the piece. It incited a heated bidding war between various ardent buyers during the auction, and became the second most expensive piece of jade in that sale.”
The blue and white “peach” Qianlong Moonflask (left) and ingot-shaped Wanli “Dragon” box, which sold at Sotheby’s Chinese Art Sale earlier this month.
Sotheby’s most recent Chinese Art sale over 30 November and 1 December featured works from the family collection of T.Y. Chao – who, as Tong explains, was “a shipping tycoon and prominent real estate developer of Hong Kong, and one of the most eminent collectors in Chinese porcelain, known for his discerning eye for quality as well as his interest in Chinese art, including paintings, calligraphy, and jades”. A blue and white “peach” Qianlong Moonflask and an ingot-shaped Wanli “Dragon” box were particularly outstanding ceramics pieces within the collection, both of which performed extremely well, fetching HK$3 million (US$384,000) and HK$2.5 million (US$320,000) at auction respectively.
“We were delighted and honoured to present this collection, which descended directly from the family and has been unseen in the market for three decades,” Tong notes. “The shape of the Wanli box, modelled after ingots, is highly unusual. Extant examples are rare and known in public and private collections, such as the Musée Guimet in Paris and the Baur Collection. The present piece is exceptional for its painterly cobalt-blue decoration, which has been fired to a favourable vivid tone.”
“The Qianlong Moonflask is also a fine example of its type. Adapted from a Ming-dynasty prototype, the piece demonstrates the potter’s masterful skill in incorporating an earlier painting style into the eighteenth-century aesthetic regime. It is a classic example of imperial porcelain executed to perfection, and boasts the technical sophistication achieved during the Qianlong period.”
With another exciting Chinese Art auction having come to a successful conclusion, Tong provides an insight into what she looks for in a Chinese ceramics piece:
“Qing porcelain has been a popular category since the late 1990s, but we have seen a recent growth in interest in earlier materials, such as Song ceramics and Ming imperial porcelain,” says Tong. “I remember being privileged enough to handle the Roger Pilkington collection early in my career. The collection comprises a number of outstanding imperial porcelains from the early Ming dynasty – a period which I have particular interest in. We sold the collection recently in our Hong Kong saleroom in April 2016 and 2017 respectively.”
While Tong’s advice is that a preliminary appraisal can be obtained through photographs, whereupon Sotheby’s experts can quickly visualise a piece and make an initial valuation, their team of specialists have travelled to conduct valuations. “Depending on the nature of the object, we would also arrange handling sessions for a more thorough assessment,” she asserts. “Conducting valuations in London, both of private and public collections, has been an interesting and intriguing experience. Visiting a number of country houses in Europe, you get to see how collectors live with their collection in-situ and witness how Chinese ceramics have been appropriated in the West – at times with a quirky twist, being used as lamps or umbrella stands!”
“Chinese ceramics were developed over a long period of history, where there were peaks and troughs in technological advancement, and variable access to particular raw materials and resources,” Tong relates. “Therefore, the appearance of certain glazes and enamels are often indicators of an approximate time period to which a piece was made. Various kiln sites would also have telling characteristics of their own. The body material (type of clay), shape, and sometimes potting techniques will give clues to the manufacture date. In the context of imperial porcelain, reign marks were introduced in the Ming dynasty and works were often produced in accordance with particular stylistic guidelines. Knowing the history of these helps to date a piece more accurately.”
“Some categories of Chinese ceramics – for instance, early ceramics and export porcelains – often have typical kiln flaws such as glaze pulls and sand grits, so certain condition issues will be acceptable as they are characteristic of a particular period. Post-manufacture damages could have an impact on a piece, but this will also depend on its rarity and historical context,” says Tong.
“Although ceramics are relatively stalwart in nature, one should beware of exposing them to extreme conditions as some enamels, gilding, and glazes may be less stable under certain temperatures,” Tong warns. “We are talking about artworks that have survived over hundreds of years, so no doubt they should be treated with care and caution. I would advise always using professional art couriers who specialise in handling artwork, particularly when being shipped abroad.”
According to Tong, “Provenance provides a traceable lineage of the object, and occasionally adds to the story and value of the piece. Especially in the case of illustrious collectors such as T.Y. Chao, it is also a stamp of quality and taste. Collections with esteemed provenance that have been off the market for a long time often enjoy good appeal and prompt intense competition in the saleroom, as proven by our recent successful auctions of the Pilkington and Le Cong Tang collections.”
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