Monday, July 16, 2012


This piece of monochrome, unadorned pottery went up for auction at Sotheby's in Hong Kong on 4 April 2012. According to Apollo magazine, "eight bidders competed for over 15 minutes to secure it. The price tripled its pre-sale estimate to sell for HK$208m (US$26.7m), setting a new auction record for a Song ceramic."

Apollo explained that this bowl (probably a brush-washer) was "a rare and particularly refined example of Ru, the official ware of the famed kilns of the Northern Song dynasty. Ru was only produced for a period of about 30 years, from 1086 to 1127, when the Song court fled to Hangzhou in the south. These smooth, understated celadons are among the most revered of all Chinese porcelains." 

English collectors Mr and Mrs Alfred Clark acquired this bowl and its companion as a matched pair in the early part of the 20th century. They donated the companion to the British Museum in 1936. Mrs. Clark retained the bowl seen here until the 1970s, when it went up for sale and was purchased by a Japanese private collector. In the recent Hong Kong catalog, Sotheby's listed the piece as Ru from a Japanese Collection.

One of the most vivid memories of my life is the day I first encountered celadon-ware from the Song Dynasty (still then called the Sung Dynasty) at San Francisco's Avery Brundage Collection, housed at that time in a nondescript annex-block tacked onto one side of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Permanently installed at the Brundage was an entire dim room full of of Sung celadon, a hundred variations of jade-toned glazes, each piece a thousand years old, arranged by color in graduated variations. One wall was glass, revealing a bamboo forest outside. In my memory this gallery remained exquisite and unchanging throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s. After that it ceased to exist altogether.

The main de Young building and the Brundage annex were both demolished after the 1989 earthquake. Eventually a much-enlarged de Young Museum occupied the site alone in a flamboyant new building by Herzog & de Meuron. Miles away the Brundage collection became the core of the city's new freestanding Asian Art Museum housed in the former public library, also earthquake-damaged but gutted and successfully converted by Gae Aulenti. Almost everything about the new Asian Art Museum was an indisputable improvement over the old Brundage annex, EXCEPT for the display of Sung (now Song) celadon. In the new building, more sophisticated curatorial practices dictated a display arrangement governed by distinctions of geography and period and purpose. The old Brundage arrangement was, in effect, a decorative rather than a scientific arrangement, and so it had to be thrown out. It was too amateurish, too pretty. And I still miss it.