Ker-Qing! How sky-high prices for Chinese porcelain hurt museums

British Museum curator reflects on the enduring appeal of porcelain from China, and the difficulty of adding to its collections with auction buyers paying so much for rare items

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 July, 2015, 11:18am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 July, 2015, 11:43am

Wander around the Chinese porcelain section of any museum and you'll most likely only notice the aesthetics of the pieces, from the familiar blue and white pattern of a curvaceous Ming vase to the intricate images etched on a delicate Qing dynasty bowl. Not Jessica Harrison-Hall. What she sees goes deeper than the superficial, noticing instead a rich cultural timeline that can reveal a broader story about China's history from trade routes, its social hierarchy and relationships with the wider world.

"You can chart Chinese social history from the Neolithic to the present through ceramic production, distribution and consumption," says Harrison-Hall, who curates the Chinese ceramics collections at the British Museum.

"While we think of porcelain and ceramics as being incredibly fragile, which, of course, it is, it is also very resilient, so when we get shards of porcelain that have survived over time we can use it as a way to teach people about Chinese social history from the origins of China right through to now," says Harrison-Hall, who has a special interest in the material culture of later Chinese history, particularly the Song to Qing dynasties (960-1911).

British-born Harrison-Hall, who has published many books on Chinese ceramics, is also fascinated by the Ming period (1368-1644), a time of great growth in China when emperors and their palaces benefited from the skilled workmanship that created paintings, furniture, costumes, ceramics and jewellery. Even in modern China, the Ming dynasty is still considered a "golden age" of Chinese culture, she says.

"The Ming dynasty was famous in the West for its blue and white porcelain that was made in the imperial factories at Jingdezhen," says Harrison-Hall.

"But even today the fascination with that period continues, and no better symbol of this is the Ming vase. It's become such an iconic symbol and it goes back to the original importation of these blue and white wares and the impact they would have had at the time. You have to imagine the European dining scene with drab lead-glazed earthenware of beige and green - although as you go up the social chain you would see pewter, silver and gold. But there was no shiny white porcelain for dining before the arrival of Chinese imports in the 16th to 18th centuries."

She says the porcelain was also believed to have magical properties. "Think of all the alchemists at the time who tried to recreate Chinese porcelain and failed. It's had this magical allure for hundreds of years."

But it's not just the Ming vase that is resonating with modern collectors - all Chinese porcelain is having a moment. "There is no doubt that Chinese porcelain is in vogue," says Harrison-Hall, with pieces fetching unprecedented prices on the world's art markets.

In 2006, a small 18th-century bowl, decorated with apricot blossom and swallows, broke the world record for a Qing dynasty porcelain piece, selling for HK$151.3 million at Christie's in Hong Kong. In Macau last month, a porcelain pillow sold at auction for 316 million yuan (HK$395 million). Last year the sale of a Ming dynasty cup - known as the "chicken cup" - made headlines when it went for a record HK$281.24 million at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong. The list goes on.

But while Harrison-Hall wishes people luck building their private collections, she says the growing number of them - and the huge prices paid by private collectors - make it difficult for museums to acquire pieces. "When items are selling for £21 million [HK$254 million] then it's tough for museums to build on their collections. Museums rely on private donations and much of the money also goes on building maintenance and staff, so these prices make it very hard."

But she is not surprised by the amounts being paid considering the rarity of Qing imperial porcelain. "Very few examples of such high quality exist and those that do are in the imperial collections of the Beijing Palace Museum, Taipei National Museum or the Percival David Foundation in London."

British museums have long been nurturing links with China and the British Museum is leading the pack (its website even has a Chinese-language section and, earlier this year, the museum staged an exhibition, "Ming: 50 Years That Changed China", which Harrison-Hall co-curated). The British Museum also houses an impressive collection of Chinese ceramics, one of the broadest in the world, with almost 1,700 objects dating from the third to 20th centuries. Some are unique creations and others mass-produced. But don't ask Harrison-Hall to name a favourite piece.

"That's very difficult - it's like having to choose between your children. I particularly like the early 15th-century blue and white wares. At that time it was utilising new technology and new designs based on small format paintings, like a fan."

To stay abreast of news, she attends an annual conference in China. "I'm not an archaeologist, but at this conference, attended by ceramic scholars from different museums as well as collectors, we visit an archaeological site and talk with archaeologists about their latest discoveries. I'm not there with a plough," she laughs. "But we are deeply involved with people doing wonderful jobs discovering new things in China's earth. And also sites outside China where you can see the distribution of Chinese ceramics. There is a lot of interaction between museums and archaeologists."

Working with such irreplaceable objects begs questions about the obvious occupational hazard - dropping or chipping a piece. "Luckily, I've never done that," she says. "We are incredibly careful with the collections and have trained handlers who are world leaders in dealing with these materials and a large conservation department with numerous scientists and repairers."

Having just returned to London from Hong Kong where, as a guest of Bonham's, she lectured on Chinese arts during the recent Asia Week Hong Kong, Harrison-Hall is also full of praise for the city's blossoming cultural landscape.

"I visited a number of museums, such as the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and also private museums like the Liang Yi Museum on Hollywood Road, and was impressed with the quality of curatorship and displays," she says. "I was equally impressed with the government-funded centres that support potters and other artists working in a collective set up. This creative activity makes for interesting times in Hong Kong, and on the mainland, for the development of collecting."

Harrison-Hall also sees a bright future in China. "What is exciting about China is that there are more than 4,000 museums of which 900 are private. There is a real interest in collecting and establishing museums and cultural centres across China."