That'll be the Daewoo of ceramics

Korean art used to be the poor relation to China and Japan. Then a cracked jar fetched $8m. John Windsor finds out why

Is now the time to snap up Korean art? The British Museum signalled that Korean art is "in" last week by unveiling its first exhibition of it for 13 years, precursor of a new, Korean-benefacted gallery for the year 2000.

And at Christie's New York in October, a cracked 17th century Korean jar painted with dragons fetched an astonishing $8,417,500 (over pounds 5m) - the highest price ever paid for an Asian artwork.

Korean art has long been considered peripheral to Chinese and Japanese. Since the 18th century, Chinese export wares have been arriving in the West by the boatload. Japanese art was a craze among fashionable Victorians and inspired the French Impressionists.

Now, it seems, the cognoscenti have discovered Korea. At the opening of the British Museum's exhibition, the Duke of Gloucester reminded guests marvelling at the 5th-6th century Korean gold crown and 12th century duck- egg blue-green celadon tea bowls, that Korean art is both influential and independent of Chinese and Japanese.

It might seem that Korean art has done a Daewoo - rising from obscurity to take the market from behind. The truth is that 95 per cent of what little Korean art is available in the West is junk. And that the loony prices at Christie's New York are bid by wealthy Korean businessmen in both America and Korea, who have ridden Korea's economic boom and are now engaged in the rich man's sport of trophy hunting. The rest of the market is still soft.

Unlike the Chinese, even Korean Imperial wares are simple and unpretentious. So why are they being fought over?

Note that the big crack in that $8m pot did not deter bidders. Second: study the Korean powder-green rice bowl of the Choson dynasty (15th-16th century) at the British Museum, with its slightly wonky shape, imperfect glaze and maze of gold-lacquer mends. Would you give it house room?

Clue: back in the 1590s, the Japanese invasion forces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi captured hundreds of Korean potters, took them to Japan and ordered them to get potting.

Their simple, understated bowls had long been sought after in Japan for use in the tea ceremony, which sought to develop the spiritual qualities of simplicity and unpretentiousness exemplified by the rustic sages of the day. Such is the Wabi aesthetic. To this day, your Japanese host at a tea ceremony will serve you tea in a delightfully imperfect bowl, with its blemishes - a bald patch, say - facing away from you.

To signal your appreciation, you must hold the bowl in your left hand and turn it twice clockwise 45 degrees with your right, so that the bald patch faces towards you. Make conversation about the bowl's rustic charm.

The Koreans themselves were for generations oblivious of the mystery. Why, they wondered, were the Japanese going barmy over their funny old pots? Now, newly rich Koreans outbid the Japanese.

In this country, the market for Korean ceramics is still so raw that you will either have to rely on spotting minor pieces at Christie's South Kensington or Bonhams Oriental ceramics auctions that have escaped shipment to New York or visit Britain's only specialist Korean ceramics dealer, David Baker (who also deals in Chinese and Japanese art) in Grays Inn Mews, Mayfair.

An early devotee of the Korean aesthetic, Mr Baker handed me a tiny 11th century Korean oil jar with bright duck-egg celadon glaze, now priced at pounds 1,200. Ten years ago, before the Koreans got really rich, he would have sold it to me for pounds 120.

My thumb exactly fitted a bald, crescent-shaped patch left by the village potter's thumb all those centuries ago, where he had held it to slap on the glaze. In one spot, the glaze had bubbled. But the pot's delicately modelled spout and slightly skewiff shape were a delight, full of bucolic insouciance.

What about the big crack in that $8m marvel? After all, it was most likely not the potter that bumped it. "In Chinese ceramics, unlike Korean, there is a great disparity in price between the damaged and undamaged. The Chinese are very fussy. But damage in Korean ceramics is tolerated. It is not relevant to the aesthetic."

David Baker, Grays Mews, Davies Mews, London W1 (Tel/fax 0181-446 0786)

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