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The British Museum has discovered that a small dish previously labelled as Korean and thought to be worth just £5,000 is an exceedingly rare piece of Imperial Chinese ceramic, valued at as much as £15 million.
The dish, an example of Ru ware from late 11th-century central China’s Northern Song Imperial Court, was bought by Sir Percival David at auction in 1928. The sinophile collector, who died in 1964, believed it to be Ru ware but was unable to prove it definitively.
Sometime in the 1970s, the piece was labelled by curators at the collection’s display site at 53 Gordon Square, London, as being of Korean origin. That attribution was because of large spur marks on the base of the dish, which were unlike the usual sesame-seed shaped marks found on other Ru items.
The Sir Percival David Collection moved to a dedicated gallery in the British Museum in 2009, where the dish retained its Korean label.
But Regina Krahl, an independent academic specialising in Asian ceramics, decided to examine the dish after recently discovering another mislabelled piece of Ru ware in the Dresden Porcelain Collection.
After Mrs Krahl determined it probably was Ru ware, the British Museum brought in scientists from the Cranfield Forensic Institute who used handheld XRF X-ray technology to determine the chemical makeup of the ceramic glaze and finally vindicate Sir Percival’s original belief.
Professor Andrew Shortland, director of Cranfield Forensic Institute, said he hoped other institutions and academics would be inspired to take on similar joint projects. “There is great potential for art historians, curators and scientists to work together to confirm the attribution of important problem pieces.”
Rediscovering a lost dynasty
Ru ware is the rarest of all Imperial Chinese ceramics, with fewer than 100 examples worldwide. Its mystique, and accompanying value, comes from the romantic story around it, Jessica Harrison-Hall, head of the China Section at the British Museum, told The Telegraph.
The ceramics were produced by the Song dynasty for a brief two-decade period in the late 11th century in modern-day Henan province, before an invasion by northern neighbours drove them out of the area.
“It’s the romance of the lost capital of the Northern Song, moving miles south and having to build a new capital and never being able to have these precise, beautiful ceramics ever again, despite multiple attempts over many eras to recreate them,” said Ms Harrison-Hall.
As well as the interesting history, the reattribution of the dish as Ru ware greatly increased its value.
Ms Harrison-Hall said: “It changes from being about £5,000 to being £15 million.”
The dish is on display with the rest of the Sir Percival David collection in Room 95 of the British Museum.