Collecting guide: Song ceramics

An expert guide to Song ceramics, whose clarity of form and subdued palette suggests a modernity at odds with their antiquity. Illustrated with examples offered at Christie’s

song ceramics

A superb and very rare Ge foliate dish, Southern Song-Yuan dynasty (1127-1368). 5½ in (14 cm). Estimate: $1,800,000-2,500,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Song ceramics, made in a variety of shapes for imperial, religious and daily use, are distinguished by simple yet sophisticated shapes and forms. Renowned for their subtle monochrome glazes — tones can vary from milky white to pale green, sky blue to intense smoky black — the porcelain vessels have been closely studied and imitated through centuries by scholars, collectors and other artists. In the 21st century, their strikingly modern aesthetic endures.

Know your Song kilns: Ru, Guan, Ge, Ding and Jun

The value of a Song ceramic is first based on the kiln where it was originally made. The most precious and highly valued objects come from one of five kilns — Ru, Guan, Ge, Ding, Jun. Production in the kilns was heavily monitored. There were very strict regulations for who could possess or use these wares; imperfect pieces were destroyed to keep them from ever being circulated.

Of these five kilns, Ru ware is the most rare. Today, there are only around 70 pieces of known Ru ware in private collections and museums — and it very rarely appears on the market. Needless to say, such pieces usually sell at auction for many millions of dollars.

Fortunately, high-quality ceramics were also made for daily use. Scholars and prominent families were the first collectors of such objects. It was considered fashionable and was a reflection of your cultural sophistication to acquire these beautifully potted vases and other vessels.

More examples of these pieces, which were made in cities such as Longquan, Yaozhou and Cizhou, remain today, and are eagerly sought by collectors. They are generally marked by slightly more ornate designs. Longquan celadons, in particular, are popular on the market.

Study Song forms and bases

Beyond where it was made, what marks a Song ceramic is its elegant proportions and form. Each kiln specialised in specific glazes which are associated with particular forms that can be difficult to spot, especially considering that so many copies were made of the pieces, not only later in history, but also during the same period. There exists a vocabulary of kiln, glaze-type and form. If the glaze-type does not match the form, then this is a big red flag.

While looking at images of Song ceramics in books and online databases is helpful, nothing trains the eye like studying them in person. For this, nothing is better than visiting a number of exemplary collections around the world.The Sir Percival David collection at the British Museum, for example, has an encyclopaedic collection arranged by glaze colours.

Museums are excellent resources. The National Palace Museum in Taipei has 21 pieces of Ru ware — the largest collection of such precious objects in the world. And finally, the Museums of Oriental Ceramics in Osaka, Japan, has an extensive collection of Longquan celadons.

Look for markings made by Song artisans

One of the most wonderful things about looking closely at an ancient object is being able to see the unintentional marks left behind by the artisan. For certain types of Song wares, particularly in reference to Ding wares, it is common to see traces of the artisan’s markings. These markings are a good indication of authenticity.

A rare carved Ding 'ducks' bowl, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 AD). 6⅛ in (15.6 cm). Estimate: $8,000-12,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Detail of A rare carved Ding 'ducks' bowl, Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 AD). 6⅛ in (15.6 cm). Estimate: $8,000-12,000. Offered in Important Chinese Art Including the Collection of Dorothy Tapper Goldman on 21 March 2024 at Christie’s in New York

When examining a vessel from the Ding kiln, for example, look for traces of fingernail impressions around the foot rim. They were left by artisans who hand-dipped the objects into glazes.

Restoration and condition

Given that porcelain is not an organic material, collectors of Song ceramics don’t have to worry about the temperature and humidity of the room in which they display their objects. However the pieces are fragile, which means that shielding them behind glass is the safest — and most advisable — option for display.

Considering the age of the ceramics, fully intact examples are quite rare and some restoration is to be expected. In fact, many Song-dynasty ceramics are repaired with a Japanese gilt-lacquer technique known as kintsugi, which celebrates a work’s unique history, rather than concealing the repair. Present-day collectors may find that pieces develop condition issues with age, in which case restoration is definitely worth the investment. There are many new technologies and materials; restoration work can be done if you use a good restorer.

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Affordable estimates for Song ceramics

Given their scarcity, Song ceramics are highly-prized. The millions paid for Ru ware, however, shouldn’t scare off burgeoning collectors: there are many examples of Song ceramics in great condition that are relatively affordable, running in the thousands of dollars. The prices realised at auction for this category vary and are determined by factors such as quality, glaze and rarity.

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