How To Buy a Masterpiece: Imperial Modern

China's Song dynasty ceramics look absolutely contemporary—one reason the rare vessels are currently among the most coveted collectibles in the world.

It seems so humble: a wide-bottomed vase just ten inches tall, its water-pale glaze webbed with cracks like fissures in stone. For collectors of Chinese art, it is one of the rarest treasures on earth. From the 10th to the 13th century, first in the northern capital of Kaifeng, then in the south near what is now Hangzhou, the emperors of the Song dynasty cultivated a highly intellectual and sophisticated court life, considered by many scholars to be the watershed of Chinese culture. The emperors themselves were accomplished connoisseurs, poets, and painters who looked to nature and ancient Chinese forms for inspiration. Whether creating the most ambitious painting or the simplest teacup, the Song rulers distilled an aesthetic of humility—one, however, restricted to those with the highest status.

"Once you really understand that—all the history and refinement that comes with just a single imperial piece—you can begin to comprehend what has made this art almost magically exclusive," says James Lally, a leading New York dealer.

Centuries later, these fragile vessels carry enormous historical weight. "The whole nature of ceramics and its place in the hierarchy of art changed dramatically during the Song dynasty," says Louise Cort, curator at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, one of the country's finest Asian art collections. In subsequent centuries, Chinese artists, then their Japanese and Korean counterparts, riffed on Song forms.

Today these ceramics, with their organic lines and sheer monochromes, could not look more modern, and European and American collectors find in them the timelessness of, say, a Rothko painting. The collectors of major imperial pieces are few ("We're talking about dozens, not hundreds," Lally says), but in the past five to eight years new aficionados have been seduced by Song dynasty art. Indeed, says Bendetta Roux, who works in public affairs for Christie's New York, "it's the rage." Auction prices have soared, the estimates almost always far lower than the final price—an indication that even the experts are scrambling to catch up with Song's popularity.

The vase from the Freer and Sackler collection is a perfect example of how one object can capture an entire era's aesthetic. First, it is Guan ware; the word "guan" simply means "official" but has come to imply imperial, and this piece would have been made in one of the five or six major kilns overseen by the imperial court. "Production was very limited in scope," Cort says, describing how large quantities of imperfect ceramics were found smashed and discarded in one excavated kiln. "The quality control was very intensive." So intensive that, in the case of the rarest stoneware, Ru, which predates Guan, only some 70 pieces are known to exist.

Then there's the shape. The vase form mimics that of an ancient bronze vessel—the potter's reverence for the past—which may itself be patterned on a mallet used for pounding cloth. "Perhaps the vase held flowers; it's not clear," Cort says. "Either way, it was meant to be admired for itself."

And touched. "It's a tactile art," says Athena Zonars, head of Chinese art for Christie's New York. "To understand the weight of the clay, you have to hold a piece in your hand." A teabowl would have been frequently handled and appreciated by its owner. (Now, of course, experts alone touch museum pieces, though Zonars says that at preauction exhibits you may be able to get hands-on.)

And finally there is the glaze. Song potters made almost a fetish of their glazes, experimenting with them as if they were paint—paint in the service of a monochrome painting. The body of the vessel itself was very thin, coated with a glaze and fired, then coated and fired several times more. The color—a gorgeous translucent blue—is marked with a crackle pattern that formed when the vessel cooled and shrank at a different rate from the glaze. Potters pursued the crackling effect also as a kind of painting—the brush of nature at work. Note on the vase how the web of crackle spirals; it follows the slight strains produced in the clay when it was spun on the potter's wheel. The accident became the art.

Cort points out that the design is not wholly incidental. A network of crackling has been picked out with selective staining; the maker has worked his own pattern over the contingent one. This human touch is the final move that turns the vase into a masterpiece.

Sound Advice

How often do auction houses or galleries see Song dynasty imperial pieces?
"Ru ware is The One. You can count perhaps fewer than 100 pieces in the world. They virtually never come on the market," says Henry Howard-Sneyd of Sotheby's China, which sold the four-inch-wide Ru brush-washer in 2003 for $1.28 million. In 1992, says Athena Zonars, head of Chinese art at Christie's New York, a Ru piece sold for $1.4 million—but today "it might sell for double that." Guan ware made in the south (like the Freer and Sackler vase) is more common—"but only slightly," Howard-Sneyd emphasizes, with prices generally in the high six and low seven figures.

"You can collect Dutch paintings for a long time before you get to Vermeer," says New York dealer James Lally. "The same is true of Song ceramics." While the buzz surrounds the rare pieces that sell in the seven figures, there are also beautiful things selling for $5,000 to $10,000. While pieces from the imperial kilns are the most coveted, stoneware of the same period from nonimperial kilns can share the same artistry. Says Zonars, "You can find great pieces, such as celadon Longquan ware," created some 180 miles south of the Song court.

The greatest collections are in Asia, especially at Taipei's National Palace Museum. Outside of China? "The Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art [at the University of London]," Howard-Sneyd says. In America, fine examples can be found at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and, of course, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. (which will showcase black- and white-glazed ceramics beginning December 18). Soak up Song ceramics during New York's Asia Week, the Asian art market's blockbuster event. The celebration is held every March, when auction houses stage their major sales and dealers set up in New York's Armory or rent gallery space. The 2005 Asia Week begins March 28.

Who To Know

Dessa Goddard Director of Asian Works of Art, Bonhams & Butterfields San Francisco. At 220 San Bruno Ave.; 415-861-7500.

Henry Howard-Sneyd Managing director of Sotheby's China, Southeast Asia, and Australasia. At 1334 York Ave., New York; 541-312-5682.

James Lally President of J. J. Lally & Co. At 41 E. 57th St., New York; 212-371-3380.

Michael Teller President of TK Asian Antiquities. At 1654 Jamestown Rd., Williamsburg, VA; 757-253-0769; and 41 E. 57th St., New York; 212-644-1103.

Athena Zonars Department head of Chinese ceramics and works of art, Christie's New York. At 20 Rockefeller Plaza; 212-636-2000.


Song Dynasty Ceramics (V&A Publications, $55) is just out from Rose Kerr, who recently retired as chief curator of the Far Eastern department at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. As she focuses on one particular collection, the complex world of these ceramics becomes much less so.