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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.