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Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Asia, holds the Northern Song dynasty brush washer sold for HK$294.3 million, a new auction record for Chinese ceramics. Photo: Dickson Lee

Chinese bowl auctioned for record US$37.7m in Hong Kong; buyer of rare 11th century piece unknown

Bidding for brush washer from 11th century Ru imperial kiln began at HK$80 million, and 30 bids were made before it was sold; amid speculation over who the buyer is, inquiry to Chinese collector Liu Yiqian draws a polite non-answer

A 900-year-old brush washer from the Northern Song dynasty broke the auction record for Chinese ceramics after it was sold in Hong Kong for HK$294.3 million (US$37.7 million) including commission on Tuesday.

The rare piece, fired in the 11th century Ru imperial kiln in present-day Henan province, drew strong demand at auctioneer Sotheby’s sale room in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Bidding began at HK$80 million and some 30 bids were made before the bowl was knocked down for HK$260 million excluding Sotheby’s commission. The winning bid was made by phone by an anonymous Asian buyer.

The final price was nearly triple the pre-sale estimate of HK$100 million.

There wasn’t a great deal of expectation ahead of the autumn auction season after fairly flat sales in spring. Market watchers predicted the Chinese authorities’ continuing crackdown on corruption and restrictions on capital outflows would have a negative effect on the autumn sales in Hong Kong just as they did on the spring auctions.

An auction-goer photographs an image of the Ru brush washer projected on a screen at the Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong. Photo: Dickson Lee
The stock market has certainly been a factor. We are also seeing more young Chinese buyers
Nicholas Wilson

However, it appears that some of the profits from gains on world stock markets this year are flowing into the auction market. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index has risen by around 25 per cent since January, putting money in the pockets of many collectors, including Chinese ones who over the years have kept a large chunk of their art and financial portfolio outside mainland China.

Nicholas Wilson, general manager of Chinese ceramics and works of art at another auction house, China Guardian Hong Kong, which also held its sales this week, said their sales volume was 36 per cent higher than in spring, when a near identical number of lots were offered for sale.

Shanghai collector Liu Yiqian shows the Meiyintang “chicken cup” he bought for a then-record HK$281 million (US$35.9 million) at a Sotheby's Hong Kong spring auction in 2014. There is speculation he is the buyer of the Ru brush washer. Photo: Sam Tsang

“The stock market has certainly been a factor. We are also seeing more young Chinese buyers becoming interested in building up their own antique collections, which means that more people are buying,” Wilson said.

The eight-day “golden week” holiday for national day in China drew many more mainland Chinese visitors to the auction previews than normal, he said, but the real buyers were still largely the familiar faces who come to Hong Kong every season.

There was plenty of speculation about who the buyer of the Ru brush washer is. Dealers said privately that very few ceramics collectors would have HK$294.3 million to spend, and the most likely candidate was Liu Yiqian, the Shanghai collector who set the previous record price for a Chinese ceramic piece when he bought a Ming dynasty “chicken cup” for HK$281 million in 2014. However, a query sent via WeChat to Liu’s wife, Wang Wei, elicited in response only a polite Mid-Autumn Festival greeting.
Collector Liu Yiqian with his wife, Wang Wei. An inquiry to Wang about Tuesday’s record auction purchase was met with a polite Mid-Autumn Festival greeting. Photo: Sam Tsang

The dish is one of just 87 known pieces to have survived from an imperial kiln that was only in operation for a short period of time between the late 11th century and early 12th century. Only four known Ru wares currently remain in private hands.

The seller is Robert Tsao, the Taiwan-born founder and former chairman of United Microelectronics Corporation.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Brush washer breaks ceramics auction record