A rare Chinese imperial ceramic bowl that was made around 900 years ago and could fetch $10 million when it goes under the hammer next month has triggered huge excitement among Asian art collectors.
The interest generated by this small, modest-looking flower-shaped bowl -- and its potentially sky-high sales price -- are a testament to the vitality of Asia's art market, which has witnessed explosive growth over the past decade.
The antique was due to go on public display in Beijing over the weekend on a pre-sale roadshow. But organisers, fearing a stampede after it drew big crowds in Shanghai, decided at the last minute to show it to potential buyers only.
"An object has rarely generated so much excitement and for security reasons, we thought it would be preferable for our clients to view it within the confines of a private room," said Nicolas Chow, deputy head of Sotheby's Asia division.
The flower-shaped "Ru" bowl from the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) sports a pale blue-green translucent matte glaze that imitates the colour of jade, and is believed to be the only one of its type in the world.
"Ru" ceramics -- named after one of five large kilns operating under the Song -- are the rarest in China, and it is estimated that only 79 complete pieces remain in the world, most in museums.
"There are very few of these as they were imperial pieces and also because they were made over a very short period of time -- 20 years," Jean-Paul Desroches, curator at the Guimet Museum in Paris, told AFP.
There are only six "Ru" ceramics in private collections, including this bowl -- probably intended for washing brushes after writing -- which could fetch up to HK$80 million ($10.3 million) at Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong on April 4.
"We sell incredibly rare objects, but this is a different realm of rarity," said Chow.
"These are objects that... barely 100 years after they were made were already deemed to be extremely difficult to obtain."
As such, the bowl has generated a huge buzz among collectors and art lovers in China, and visitors who had flocked to admire the prized antique on Saturday were disappointed not to be able to see it.
"I'm unhappy. An auction house must exhibit its pieces," said He Tao, a porcelain-lover who had come from the northeastern city of Dalian -- some 1,000 kilometres away by railway -- to see the bowl in a luxury Beijing hotel.
Chow said imperial porcelain pieces are of particular interest to Chinese collectors, amid a boom in Asia's art market.
"In the last ten years, we have seen a big leap in prices and that's mainly due to the dramatic entrance of mainland Chinese collectors into the market, particularly since 1999," he said.
Experts say the buyer of the "Ru" bowl will likely be a rich individual -- perhaps from from Hong Kong or Taiwan -- or even a billionaire from the West, where the simplicity of Song masterpieces is widely admired.
"All major academic (researchers) and all big collectors cannot help but feel a thrill (about the bowl)," said Christian Bouvet, an Asian art specialist at Sotheby's.
He pointed to the colour of the bowl, which an advisor to the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722) in the later Qing dynasty famously described as similar to the blue tint of the sky after it had rained.
After Beijing the bowl, which has about the same diameter as a DVD, will be exhibited to the public in the Taiwanese capital Taipei.
"The Taiwanese are probably among the most sophisticated collectors in the field of Chinese art," said Chow.
"They've been buying for a long time, they are at a stage where they are not building collections... they'll pick something extraordinary to raise their collection."