Almost 38 million dollars.
An immoral price fomented by speculation and a certain contemporary degree of madness?
I do not think so.
In our human world, many objects acquire a symbolic meaning and a cultural value: they become iconic representations of an entire civilization, and to those who know how to listen, they can tell surprising stories about who we are as humans.
«Ru guanyao, the official ware of the late Northern Song (960-1127) court from the kilns in Ruzhou, (...), has in the course of nearly a millennium gained quasi-mythical status. Ru ware is a part of China’s history, an emblem of China’s philosophy, a metaphor for China’s aesthetics – in short, an icon of China’s culture. The small and unobtrusive ceramic pieces are considered the epitome of the Chinese potters’ craft, but they are far more than just that, they have a significant story to tell» (Regina Krahl, Ru. From a Japanese Collection, Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 2012).
So, what's so special about this piece? What stories does it tell us?
This brush washer was very finely potted. Like all the Ru pieces, it was made for the emperor's use, and we know that only the finest pieces were reserved for the imperial court. The Ru wares were not made to be sold and only the pieces not selected by the Northern Song court were supposedly allowed to be sold to certain people only.
This piece is completely free of decoration: nothing should interfere with the simple grace of its shape, the thinness of its body, and the outstanding beauty of its glaze, perfectly expressed by the harmony between its ethereal color, reminiscent of "the blue of the sky after the rain", its translucence and the ice-crackle network. The glaze is not a common celadon glaze, but a special one that included, among its ingredients, also semi-precious powdered carnelian (agate), a mineral very difficult to source at the time. The glaze shows «a light-catching crackle in superimposed, horizontal, flake-like layers, known as ‘ice’ or ‘broken ice crackle’» (Regina Krahl, cit.). This attractive crackle pattern refracts the light, like mineral formations occurring in nature, but «requires a happy coincidence of circumstances and cannot be produced at will». This feature and the delicate palette of the glaze can be fully captured under natural light, as the artificial one, according to Tetsuro Degawa, director of The Museum of Oriental Ceramics in Osaka (Japan), may change both the temperature as well as the hue of the Ru ware glaze.
The Ru pieces were not fired as most celadons did: stacked upside down. They were fired standing upright, each in its own protective saggar (box), thus taking up more space in the firing chamber. We know they were fired on spurred setters which left tiny sesame seed-shaped, marks on the glazed bottom (a risky procedure...). The firing chamber used for all Ru wares was smaller than those in the Longquan 'dragon' kilns (in Southern China), as the Ru kilns were typical northern Chinese mantou (bread-bun) kilns. Finally, many scholars believe that the Ru pieces were fired two times: the first unglazed - probably to a relatively low temperature in order to remove water from the clay body, according to many experts - and the second after applying the special glaze. This double firing process was adopted to obtain a top-quality glazed surface, but entailed a price to pay: since each firing process is intrinsically risky, the number of failures and losses was higher than in Longquan. For all these reasons, the Ru wares were scarce, even at their times. If we take into account the short production period (approx. 20 years), we can understand why they were defined as "rare as the stars at dawn".
The brush washer is incredibly well preserved, and this is a significant feature: «The exquisite state of preservation of this washer would have required reverential handling over thousands of generations during its nine-hundred-year long history» (Regina Krahl, cit.).
The piece reflects the taste of the Northern Song imperial court and the richest literati, whose aesthetic preferences, rooted in the Taoist concept of detachment as well as in Buddhism, can be summarized in four words: serenity, simplicity, naturalness, and honesty (in the sense of an unpretentious, spontaneous, and unspectacular aptitude to art and life). The following dynasties will develop different approaches to art and different tastes in ceramics, but the Ru wares will always be recognized as the sophisticated expression of an aspect of the Chinese spirit and revered as a component of Chinese cultural identity. «The high regard for Ru ware did not wane in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644)» and grew during the Qing. «The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) ‘appropriated’ Ru ware by having 22 of the 87 extant pieces engraved with his poems, thus contributing further to the fame of the ware» (Ibidem). Rosemary Scott, former International Academic Director of Asian Art for Christie's wrote: «Such has been the veneration for imperial Ru wares, that they have continuously been treasured since the time of their production in the late 11th-early 12th century to the present day. Not only were they sought-after by the succeeding Southern Song court, but they were also greatly prized by both Ming and Qing emperors, and potters of those dynasties were required by their imperial patrons to try and reproduce the elusive blue glaze of Ru wares» (R. Scott, A Star in the Morning, Christie's Catalogue). With little success, however.
The majority of Ru ware shows finely crackled glazes, like the brush washer above. Some others have a less evident crackle, noticeable only to the luckiest who can hold one of them in their hands, and only a few pieces have a crackle free glaze, just like the following small basin.