The timeless appeal of Song Dynasty ceramics — ‘Masterpieces in their own right’

From Ding ware bowls to a Longquan celadon vase, the ceramics in the Songde Tang Collection exemplify the refinement and elegance of the Song Dynasty

‘The understated decoration on this monochrome bowl typifies the preferences of the court for which the bowl was made,’ says Pola Antebi, Deputy Chairman for Christie’s Asia Pacific, referring to a fine white-glazed Ding bowl from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), delicately incised with the subtlest of peony flower motifs.

A fine and rare large Ding incised ‘Peony’ lobed bowl, Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). 25 cm (9¾ in) diam. Estimate HK$1,200,000-1,800,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A fine and rare large Ding incised ‘Peony’ lobed bowl, Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). 25 cm (9¾ in) diam. Estimate: HK$1,200,000-1,800,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

‘As with all Song ceramics in this collection, the lines are clean and pure,’ she explains. ‘The decorative features are minimalist, the craftsmanship is flawless, and the glazes are luminous. 

‘The Song Dynasty preference for monochrome wares with bold profiles and innovative forms is one we see revived by many ceramicists in the 21st century,’ she adds. ‘It is extraordinary to think these ceramics potted nearly 1,000 years ago could so easily be mistaken for contemporary works.’ 

The same could be said of many of the items in The Songde Tang Collection of Song Dynasty Ceramics, which includes an exceptional array of bowls, jars, vases and incense burners — all essential elements used in a traditional tea ceremony — and goes on sale on 3 December 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong.

Song Dynasty ceramics

‘Song Dynasty ceramics are characterised by their refined and elegant forms, their subtle, monochrome glazes and their simple yet impactful decorative motifs,’ says Antebi.

Produced between 960 and 1279 AD, their value today derives first and foremost from the kilns that made them, with the rarest coming from the Ru, Guan, Ge, Ding and Jun kilns that served the imperial court.

These Five Great Kilns, as they are known, produced a large variety of wares, each kiln with its own distinctive, innovative glaze. 

The Ding kiln is known for its creamy white (or, less frequently, brown or black) glazed ceramics, which were either incised, moulded or in some instances left undecorated. Jun wares, meanwhile, are characterised by their lustrous glazes, most commonly of a sky-blue tone, at times splashed with mottled colours including plum, lavender and green.

A large Jun purple-splashed bowl, Jin-Yuan Dynasty (1115-1368). 17.5 cm (6⅞ in) diam. Estimate HK$300,000-500,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A large Jun purple-splashed bowl, Jin-Yuan Dynasty (1115-1368). 17.5 cm (6⅞ in) diam. Estimate: HK$300,000-500,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Continuing the tradition of Yue celadon ware in eastern China, the Longquan celadon kilns emerged in the 10th century in southern China, producing glazes that ranged in colour from yellowish-green to dark-olive during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), they refined their firing techniques to produce the soft-green shades that are now so highly prized.

A Longquan celadon drum-form jar and cover, Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). 7.7 cm (3 in) diam. Estimate HK$200,000-300,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong
A Longquan celadon drum-form jar and cover, Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). 7.7 cm (3 in) diam. Estimate: HK$200,000-300,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

The Songde Tang Collection

The Songde Tang Collection of Song Ceramics was created between the 1960s and 1990s by Mr Lai Tak, a connoisseur of Chinese ceramics, works of art and paintings. Born in the 1920s in Mainland China, Mr Lai had a passion for the arts that led him to establish an antiques dealership in the 1950s in Hong Kong.

‘It was the collecting journey that inspired him most, from the initial suggestion that a special piece might be available, to sharing his discoveries with friends’ — Pola Antebi

From here, he travelled extensively, visiting museums and galleries such as the Tokyo National Museum, the Museum of Oriental Ceramics in Osaka, the British Museum and the Percival David Foundation in London, developing friendships with fellow dealers, collectors and academics, and sourcing pieces for his clients and his own collection. Mr Lai’s visits to Japan and the UK proved particularly influential in developing his taste for classical art.

A rare Qingbai meiping and cover, Song Dynasty (960-1279). 22.5 cm (8¾ in) high, box. Estimate HK$500,000-700,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A rare Qingbai meiping and cover, Song Dynasty (960-1279). 22.5 cm (8¾ in) high, box. Estimate: HK$500,000-700,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

‘In assembling his collection, Mr Lai was attentive to glaze, form, condition and, above all, rarity,’ says Antebi, although it was the collecting journey that excited him most.

‘From the initial suggestion that a special piece might be available, to travelling to see it, negotiating its sale, bringing it home, looking for comparable items and sharing what he found with his collector friends, that is what inspired and drove Mr Lai.’

Having worked with antiques for more than 50 years, he was ideally placed to distinguish the ordinary from the extraordinary, and to select from among the finest and rarest pieces those he wished to keep for himself.

A very rare carved Longquan celadon ‘Peony’ box and cover, Song-Yuan Dynasty (960-1368). 17 cm (6¾ in) diam. Estimate HK$400,000-600,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A very rare carved Longquan celadon ‘Peony’ box and cover, Song-Yuan Dynasty (960-1368). 17 cm (6¾ in) diam. Estimate: HK$400,000-600,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

These include two of the Longquan celadon pieces in the sale: the ‘Peony’ box and cover, above, and the ‘Phoenix’ vase, below, the only piece of its kind in a private collection.

A fine and very rare Longquan celadon ‘Phoenix’ vase, Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). 32.3 cm (12¾ in) high. Estimate HK$500,000-800,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A fine and very rare Longquan celadon ‘Phoenix’ vase, Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). 32.3 cm (12¾ in) high. Estimate: HK$500,000-800,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

The appeal of Song ceramics

The simple aesthetic and historical importance of Song Dynasty ceramics have long appealed to European and Japanese collectors, says Antebi, while the more colourful and complex designs of the Ming and Qing dynasties were often preferred by Chinese collectors.

Recent years, however, have seen a growing interest in collecting Song ceramics globally. This was evident in the series of sales of Song ceramics from the Linyushanren Collection, held at Christie’s between 2015 and 2018.

A find and rare Qingbai ‘Dragon’ vase, Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). 20.8 cm (8¼in) high. Estimate HK$180,000-250,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A find and rare Qingbai ‘Dragon’ vase, Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). 20.8 cm (8¼in) high. Estimate: HK$180,000-250,000. Offered in The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics on 3 December at Christie’s in Hong Kong

The best examples are still considered as being of good value compared to Qing Dynasty ceramics. The Songde Tang Collection includes items with estimates that start as low as HK$20,000.

The sale should therefore appeal to new and cross-category collectors as well as established connoisseurs seeking to purchase provenanced Song ceramics, says Antebi.

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The Songde Tang Collection - Song Dynasty Ceramics is offered for sale on 3 December 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong.