06 Nov 2019

Song Ru-Ware antiques – Are they really the rarest and most valuable ceramic?

A preview by Sotheby’s  "Chinese Art" autumn auction was held in Hong Kong on August 24 2017. The Northern Song Ru-type sky blue glaze washer has finally reappeared and attracted much attention. 


It is reported that this piece of art belonged to LeCongTang (乐从堂), a Taiwanese Antique House and is one of the only four pieces known Ru Type ware in the hands of the private collection, thus extremely rare. This piece of art was originally owned by Taiwan's most prestigious Hong Xi-Chi Art Museum which was founded in 1980.

This piece of art was acquired through Sotheby's auction in the early 1980s and therefore its provenance is credible. It was subsequently acquired by the owner of LeCongTang, Mr.Cao Xing Cheng as part of his collection.   This piece of art was in turn auctioned off at a record breaking price of more than HK$ 200 million.

Ru-type ware is one of the most well known kiln in Song Dynasty.  It was frequently quoted in Southern Song scholar’s writings that it was exclusively used by the imperial court and has a very short production span of 20 off years. According to the estimate made in the book entitled “China Ceramics History”, there are less than 100 pieces exist today.  But since the 1986 archeological excavation work in BoaFeng QingLiangShi (宝丰清凉寺) in Henan Province China, the estimated quantity of Ru-type ware exist today has been controversial.  According to China Imperial Palace Museum official estimate, there are 92 pieces of Ru-type ware with proper provenance. They mainly housed in Taipei Imperial Palace Museum (21 pieces), Beijing Imperial Palace Museum (17 pieces). Britain Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (12 pieces); Shanghai Museum (9 pieces), etc.

There were variety of estimates, with an earlier estimate of 67.5. Sotheby's presented an 87-piece figure at the October 2018 auction.  92 pieces according to a recent report by China Beijing Palace Museum experts as mentioned earlier.

So how many pieces are actually in existence in the world today?

Here is an attempt to provide  a more consistent scientific and logical answer: The scholar Mr. Cai Weimin in his article "Revisit the number of Ru-type Ware in the world today" (再谈汝窑传世量”) mentioned that, "According to historical records, Ru kiln has been burning for twenty years in the late years of the Northern Song Dynasty, its kiln sites were in Henan Baofeng County, called Qingliangsi (清凉寺 ) village and Cunnantaidi (村南台地) village, covering an area as big as 1 million square meters, the central district was in the north-central part of the village. In such a vast area of production, burning for twenty years, not including the nearby kiln sites and the continued production during the Southern Song Dynasty, the huge number of Ru type ware produced can be imagined.

According to Qing Palace archives (Various production and work planning –Production Management Office Archive)《造辦處各作成做活計清檔》 , at Emperor YongZheng fourth year (1729) reign "Eunuch Liu Xiwen and Wang Taiping handed over a lacquered box, which contained 21 pieces of Ru-type wares (actually it was 31 pieces), they were made up by :

It is clearly stated that a single box, it contained as many as thirty-one pieces of the ware, not including the other more varieties of wares, such as "cups, plates, bowls, stoves, cense burner" and other daily necessities.  It is enough to prove that the number of Ru-type ware at that time in Qing Palace was astonishing huge!

In my point of view, when estimating the number of antiques survived and inherited, there is lack of any credible research on the ceramics or porcelain exported since the Tang Dynasty through the 'sea Silk Road' to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, even the large number of European exports.

It was generally of the opinion that export to this country in the intervening period were of low-quality “export ware”. This may be a misperception, considering that, over the past thousand years of maritime trade, China has exported hundreds of millions of pieces of porcelain. In addition to the export of so-called “export ware”, how many finely potted Song five famous kilns had been exported through land and sea during peace and war time period remains unknown.

There are over 420 shipwrecks in Indonesia that have been identified.

There are 420 shipwreck sites in Indonesian waters have been identified.  So far, only about sites had been salvaged, in which ceramics of various shapes and sizes from various dynasties as old as Han Dynasty had been recovered.

It is fair to say that any speculation of the limited number of Ru-type ware exist today is arbitrary and without any credible scientific support.   As a matter of fact, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that it is possibly a ploy or manipulation to portray the extreme rarity of Ru type to jack up the price into stratosphere among the few in the exclusive auction circles.


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