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The Ru ware bowl in the Sir David Percival Collection at the British Museum that was long believed to be a Korean imitation but has proven to be authentic and worth a fortune as a result.		Source: Sir David Percival Collection / The Trustees of the British Museum

Museum’s “Korean” Ru Ware Bowl Is Chinese and Now Worth $21 Million!

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It’s not unusual for people to have antique heirlooms or other rare items laying around that are far more valuable than they realize. Of course, no one would expect that to happen in a museum, where highly trained experts are paid to identify every artifact that comes into their possession. So the revelation that the famed British Museum in London had incorrectly classified a rare and tremendously valuable, ancient Ru ware bowl as a Korean-made replica is a surprise.

Following a recent reevaluation by a Far Eastern ceramics expert, Museum officials have now confirmed that a flat, finely-crafted, blue-green ceramic bowl held in its collection for decades is not Korean pottery after all, as long believed. It is actually a Ru ware bowl, one of only 100 existing examples of the rarest type of ancient Chinese pottery found on earth.

When the Museum thought the bowl had been manufactured somewhere in Korea, mimicking the famed Ru ware style, they assessed its worth at around $7,000, or 6,000 Euros. But once they realized it was Ru ware, that price tag was raised to an astronomical $21 million, or 18 million Euros.

A side view of the Ru ware bowl that had been mistakenly catalogued as a Korean imitation. (Sir David Percival Collection / The Trustees of the British Museum)

A side view of the Ru ware bowl that had been mistakenly catalogued as a Korean imitation. ( Sir David Percival Collection / The Trustees of the British Museum )

Real Ru Ware Bowls Are Rare But Can Be Tested

The British Museum was able to correct its mistake thanks to the intervention of Regina Krahl, an independent Chinese ceramics expert based in London. Krahl was once the president of the Oriental Ceramic Society and spent some time as Acting Curator of the British Museum’s Chinese Ceramics collection. She knows all about Ru ware, a type of exquisitely beautiful ceramics that were manufactured exclusively in China in the late 11th through early 12th centuries.

After looking at the “Korean” ceramic bowl closely, she was struck by its many similarities to confirmed pieces of Ru ware. She had her doubts about its previous identification, and asked the Museum’s permission to arrange for a detailed analysis of the bowl’s characteristics and properties using a technique known as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy . This technology allows scientists to identify all the chemical elements a particular object contains, and in what proportion.

Like all distinctive types of ceramic pottery, Ru ware bowls have a unique chemical signature or fingerprint . By identifying this fingerprint, experts can distinguish forgeries or replicas from the real thing.

The definitive tests were performed at the Cranfield Forensic Institute, which is located in central England. Technicians took an X-ray fluorescence scan of the ceramic bowl and compared the results to scans taken of both actual Ru ware and several varieties of Korean imitations. There are many examples of the latter to choose from, as many generations of Korean ceramic pottery makers had attempted to replicate the unique Ru glazing style. Many succeeded quite well, making it difficult at times to tell the difference between the imitations and the real thing.

Other examples of real Ru ware bowls and objects in the British Museum collection. (Sir David Percival Collection / The Trustees of the British Museum)

Other examples of real Ru ware bowls and objects in the British Museum collection. ( Sir David Percival Collection / The Trustees of the British Museum )

But an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer is not so easily fooled. And when the Cranfield Institute test results came back, they proved Regina Krahl’s instincts were correct. Despite some of its unusual qualities, the dark blue-green vessel was verified as an authentic Ru ware bowl.

“Regina Krahl's experienced eye alerted us to re-examine the dish — which is smaller than an adult’s hand,” the British Museum's Chinese Ceramics curator Jessica Harrison-Hall said. She noted that the qualities of the bowl were consistent with Ru ware characteristics in some instances but different in others, which may have created some confusion when the item was evaluated and classified as Korean pottery 50 years earlier.

“So, to be certain, the scientists were called in,” Harrison-Hall explained. “They proved that she [Krahl] was right and another "Ru" ware existed. These are incredibly rare, beautiful and ancient — made just 20 years after the Battle of Hastings .”

That dating estimate would put the manufacture of the ceramic bowl in the year 1086. This means the bowl is more than 900 years old, which the casual observer would never suspect given its beautifully preserved state.

For their part, the experts at the Cranfield Forensic Institute were pleased to see their skills and technology put to such good use.

“It was a pleasure to be able to employ our analytical techniques on such important and rare examples of Chinese ceramics ,” said Cranfield Forensic Institute director and archaeologist Andrew Shortland. “There is great potential for art historians, curators and scientists to work together to confirm the attribution of important problem pieces.”

Other examples of rare Ru ware treasures in the Sir David Percival Collection at the British Museum. (Johnbod / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Other examples of rare Ru ware treasures in the Sir David Percival Collection at the British Museum. (Johnbod / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Northern Song Dynasty and its Remarkable Treasures

Ru ware is rare because it was produced for elites exclusively, and only for a relatively brief time. It was manufactured during the latter stages of the Northern Song Dynasty , which ruled China from the northern capital city of Kaifeng in the Henan province from 960 to 1127. Ru ware was not designed for sale to the masses but was instead made solely for the use of members of the Northern Song imperial court.

Fine Ru ware, which was noted primarily for its striking duck-egg blue glaze, was produced at a single location in the so-called “Great Kiln” of Qingliangsi in Henan. In this region pottery makers had access to a particular type of high-quality clay that was not found elsewhere on Chinese soil. The final appearance of Ru ware bowls, vases, cups, and other vessels after manufacture was wholly unique and highly admired, which inspired attempts by Korean pottery manufacturers in later years to emulate its color scheme and designs as closely as possible.

The collector who acquired the British Museum bowl from Far Eastern sources in 1928, Sir Percival David, did so believing he was purchasing a piece of actual Ru ware. But experts who examined his discovery disagreed, concluding that the bowl was a well-made imitation. 

The experts identified the British Museum’s piece as Korean based on certain differences between the shallow bowl and most other pieces of Ru ware. Its color was darker than normal, for example, appearing dark green or greyish. Its surface was marred by relatively sizable spur marks (from the supports inside the kiln), in contrast to the tiny spurs most commonly seen in this type of ceramics.

There were some obvious similarities between the bowl and other pieces of Ru ware as well. But not enough to allow the Museum to make the correct identification, going as they were by what they could see with the naked eye. Since Korean replicas were recovered far more often than authentic Ru pieces, they logically concluded that the bowl supplied to the Museum by Sir Percival David must be Korean.

But they were wrong, as scientific testing has established beyond any doubt. As a result, an extremely valuable piece of ceramics was mislabeled for decades and remained underappreciated by British Museum curators and visitors alike. Now that the truth has been revealed, the ancient Chinese ceramic Ru ware bowl can be reclassified and moved to a new and more prominent exhibit, where it can be studied and admired for what it truly is and truly represents.

Top image: The Ru ware bowl in the Sir David Percival Collection at the British Museum that was long believed to be a Korean imitation but has proven to be authentic and worth a fortune as a result. Source: Sir David Percival Collection / The Trustees of the British Museum

By Nathan Falde

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