At first glance it seemed fairly ordinary: a plain blue-green porcelain bowl or shallow dish less than six inches across, the sort of thing that might go unnoticed on any shelf. So when it appeared at Sotheby’s on October 3, why did it take 20 minutes of furious bidding to sell, and why, when the hammer finally came down, did it do so at a record-setting $38m?
In many ways the answer is simply: rarity; in others it is quite complicated: the desire to own something aesthetically exquisite dating back centuries that embodies the finest Chinese craftsmanship and brings with it great prestige and honour.
The bowl in question is a Ru Guanyao brush washer dating to the North Song Dynasty (960-1127AD). It displays the highly desirable ‘ice crackle’ to its glaze that so many collectors seek and, perhaps most importantly, is a near-perfect example of porcelain from the almost mythical kilns of Ruzhou around 900 years ago, wares that were only manufactured for a period of about 20 years. So, pretty heady stuff.
The fact that something so intrinsically modest and simple can achieve such status, and the price to go with it, speaks volumes about the importance of art in history and the importance of the that history to a nation’s heritage. Long may that continue.
Next month sees the annual round of auctions, gallery shows and museum exhibitions that make up Asian Art in London. It’s a festival of culture focusing on the art – ancient and modern – from India, Cambodia, Korea, China, Japan and one or two other Far Eastern countries. With a rich and recorded heritage that predates the Romans in some parts, this field creates a fascinating historical focus of how humanity has developed through the ages.
Porcelain, terracotta, bronze, jade and ivory are just some of the materials used to fashion the most memorable objects from the Tang, Ming and Qing dynasties in China, while Japanese tradition gave rise to elaborately carved netsuke and ojime, as well as the luxuriously lacquered inro.
The London celebrations are large enough to attract collectors from all over the world, so it will come as no surprise that leading auction rooms outside of the capital – including ours at Fernhurst – time first-rate Asian art sales to coincide with them.
But it was Geneva that provided the first appetizer for the Asian art fest last week when a Chinese vase estimated at just 500 to 800 Swiss Francs took a hammer price of five million – that’s around £3.8m.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for our November offering.
Continuing the theme of what will make become the desirable collectables of the future, I came across an obscure but promising one in the past week: tax discs.
An acquaintance of mine used to own a moped and, many years ago, when he lived in London and the motorbike was parked outside his flat, a young lad stole the tax disc because he had managed to acquire a moped of his own but was too young to hold a licence and needed the disc to make his look legal. Needless to say, he was caught and dealt with.
In the meantime the victim of the crime decided that it was too risky to continue displaying the replacement disc, and so he filed it at home, ready to produce it if ever asked to do so by the authorities. He continued with this custom for a number of years, until he got rid of the moped.
So as not to damage the discs when filing them, using a hole punch, he left them attached to the original perforated sheet of paper, so they remained in all but mint condition and now he has a remarkable set of them. These must have become attractive collectors’ items since the abolition of the tax disc, and their auction value can only climb as the years go by.
No sooner had I put pen to paper on last week’s column, talking about Steve Jobs and his first ever computer taking £100,000 at auction, than the Science Museum in London launched a Twitter conversation about the history of Apple products, from the 1984 pre-production model, Mouse for Apple Macintosh, through the 1993 Apple Newton MessagePad, the 1998 iMac G3 to the 2003 Apple iPod and the 2007 iPhone launch to the 2010 iPad.
The Science Museum has them all and provides a fascinating study of the development of technology and its association to social development over the past 30 years and more.
If this is the attitude that the Science Museum has to these objects – presenting them as museum exhibits – then you can be sure that they will also make their impact on the world of collecting in years to come. Millions of iPhones may be circulating the globe as we speak, but as they get updated and the defunct ones disappear, eventually only a limited number will be left to become sought-after collectables. The development of mobile phone technology, as they morphed into handheld computers, thereby changing the way the world communicates and interacts socially, has been the biggest game changer of all. Expect it to be a force at auction as a whole new niche collecting area develops in the future.