A major new record was set on Tuesday at Sotheby’s Asia in Hong Kong when a Ru guanyao brush-washer bowl made 1000 years ago was sold for US$37.7 million. Dating from the period 960–1127, the bowl broke the previous record for a Chinese ceramic work of $36.05 million, paid for a Ming dynasty wine cup in 2014.

Bidding for the bowl began at $10.2 million and lasted twenty suspenseful minutes before the winning offer was made by an anonymous telephone bidder. Following the sale, Nicolas Chow, the deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, delightedly announced to reporters, “It’s a totally new benchmark for Chinese ceramics and we’ve made history with this piece today”.

Why was this small bowl, measuring only 13 centimetres in diameter and with a luminous blue-green crackled glaze, so sought after? Sotheby’s stated that the bowl, which was originally made for an artist or calligrapher to wash his brushes in, is a very rare example of porcelain ware from the imperial court of the Northern Song dynasty, one of just four pieces held privately. Song ceramics are renowned for their simplicity and superb glazes and are regularly favourites with collectors. Sotheby’s commented that Ru ware has attained “almost mythical status over the last 1000 years […] attributed to its short-lived production period, generally believed not to have exceeded twenty years”.

Exceptional works of Chinese art are sought after by China’s super-rich in an attempt to return the best works from the country’s heritage to China following their dispersal around the world, in particular following the end of imperial rule. An example is given by Liu Yiqian, a financier who started out as a taxi driver, who bought the previous record-holder, the small white wine cup known as the “Chicken Cup” on account of its painted decoration of a rooster and hen with their chicks. After buying the cup, he celebrated his purchase by drinking tea from it!

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