Mystery of the cup holder

Art October 14, 2013 00:00

By Zhang Zixuan
China Daily

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A valuable porcelain piece recently auctioned off has controversy surrounding its true origins

Four months ago at the China Guardian Hong Kong Spring Auction, a porcelain Korean Celadon Cup Holder had a final sale price of HK$5.17 million (Bt21 million), far above the estimated price of $600,000 to $800,000 and, for that matter, the highest price for Korean celadon ever.

The cup holder is a hollow, bowl-shaped cylinder with a flat, five-petal flange and a flared foot. The celadon glaze was well distributed with a few big cracks. The upper rim was inlaid with copper.

The catalogue indicated that the piece, from a Japanese collector, was a 12th-century imitation of the celadon of China’s Ru Kiln, one of five celebrated kilns during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Then in mid-August, one of the bidders’ friends, Mao Xiaohu, head of Beijing’s Huaxia Evidence Identification Centre for Ancient Ceramics, dropped a bombshell. At a seminar on porcelain ware, with authoritative experts and connoisseurs from China and South Korea in attendance, he revealed the piece’s true identity. “The cup holder is not a Ru Kiln imitation – it’s the real deal.”

The Ru Kiln in today’s Henan province produced porcelain for the imperial court during the late Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). It was famed for the exquisite glittering celadon finish.

Curiously, the kiln only operated for 20 years, but, obviously, it is exactly this short existence that makes its products so dear. Today only about 80 remnants of its work exist, of which five belong to private collectors.

The cup holder is a stand for teacups. Many kilns used to make these. One example can be seen in “The Scholar Meeting”, painted by the Huizong emperor of the Song Dynasty, now in Taipei’s Palace Museum. It shows a tea forum where the white bowls are supported by black porcelain stands from the Ding Kiln.

However, the type of Northern Song flower-shaped cup holder from the Ru Kiln is a rare item, Mao says, and the only one even remotely similar to the auctioned one belongs to the Sir Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, in the UK, in a permanent British Museum exhibition.

Mao says he believes the two cup holders are sisters from the Ru Kiln in the village of the Qingliang Temple. His reasoning has been supported by science, in this case X-ray fluorescence, which showed that it tallied with porcelain samples from the ruins of the Qingliang Temple kiln.

Similar methods also suggest a marked difference between this piece and Korean celadon, where the amounts of ferrum, silicon and potassium are markedly higher than those of this cup holder, indicating they use two different kinds of materials.

This conclusion is seconded by a former director of the National Museum of Korea and a celebrated Korean celadon expert, Chung Yang-mo, who came to Beijing specifically to get a look at the cup-holder.

“Although porcelain-making was introduced to Korea during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period [AD 907-979], there are some techniques for cup holders of this kind that Korean celadon makers never learned,” says the 82-year-old Chung, who has excavated hundreds of pieces of Korean celadon ware.

The first discrepancy is the petal flange, which is almost horizontal, while similar flanges on Korean celadon are upturned at the edge, otherwise the flange would collapse during the firing process, he explains. Second, Korean celadon contains more ferrum, which oozes through during the firing to add redness to the colour. This cup-holder on the other hand is a greyish green.

What is more important, however, are the air bubbles. In the Korean celadon glaze, they are mixed together in different sizes. But this cup-holder has very even air bubbles that are distributed like pearls. “That’s why it’s so lucid and beautiful,” Chung says. “I feel honoured just holding it.”

Adding support to this is Choi Kun, former director of the Gyeonggi Ceramic Museum in South Korea and a Korean celadon expert who accompanied Chung on the Beijing adventure. “The porcelain body is more exquisite and was fired at a higher temperature,” he explains.

The two specialists also point out that the copper-inlay technique has to be Chinese because it had not been mastered by the Korean craftsmen of the time.

Lu Chenglong, the Beijing Palace Museum’s Ancient Ceramics Department head, says the copper inlay was probably done much later by the Japanese, considering that the auction item is from a Japanese collector. “It’s possible that the copper was inlaid to cover chipped areas on the upper edge, or to prevent chipping,” he speculates.

Nonetheless, he is quite certain that this piece is a product of the Ru Kiln.