I was dumbfounded to read of the sale of a Chinese vase in England this week. Originally valued by the auctioneers at about £800,000 (about US $1,291,600), it shattered all expectations on its way to setting a new world record price for Chinese porcelain. The Daily Mail says that it's now "the most expensive item of Asian art ever sold, as well as the world’s priciest objet d’art, excluding paintings and bronze sculpture". The newspaper reports:
Yesterday Pinner was swarming with journalists and TV camera teams trying to track down any tiny clue to the provenance of the 1740 Qianlong dynasty piece.
The Mail has discovered that the explorer uncle spent the inter-war years of the 1920s and 1930s travelling the world and left it to the family with a remarkable collection of mementoes, maps, antique travel books and ornaments.
The vase, fired in the Imperial kilns and marked with the Imperial seal, was made for the Emperor by a master craftsman. It is thought to have left its rightful royal home towards the end of the 19th century, in a period of widespread looting and theft. By the 1930s, however, China was going through a depression and great change.
So the question is, did the explorer unwittingly buy it for a pittance from a dodgy dealer in Beijing? Or was it a gift from some colonial type who didn’t know its true value?
That part of the chronology may never now be determined. As the auctioneers themselves put it: ‘If only the vase could speak.’
Hence, the modern-day chapter of this story unfolds not in China, but 5,000 miles away in Pinner. The area does have an association with Ming and Qianlong but they are take-aways, not dynasties.
So it was to Ruislip that the late owner’s family looked when they were arranging to clear the house, believed to have been a semi-detached bungalow.
How fortunate for Bainbridge’s Auctions and house-clearance services that they happened to have put a flyer through the letterbox of the dead chap’s sister, who lives nearby. In September she received a visit from sale room manager David Reay.
At this stage, incidentally, lawyers had valued the vase for probate purposes at just £800. Remarkably, with hindsight, the family wondered if the bookcase on which it stood was more valuable (in fact it sold later for just £200 with other personal effects totalling £7,000).
But one item, sitting on a plastic shelf at Bainbridge’s when their consultant valuer came in, had been removed from the house sale. Luan Grocholski, an expert in ceramics who worked for Sotheby’s, caught only a glimpse of the vase in the stockroom – but it was enough to set his pulse racing.
‘I saw and just thought it couldn’t be true,’ he said. ‘I realised the quality was fantastic, and assumed it was a very high quality copy.’ He began to look in libraries and at other works from the same period, a research quest that eventually took him six weeks.
He and the auction house thus set their estimate of its value at £800,000 to £1.2 million, hoping it might rise to a few million with luck. They did not anticipate the astonishing appetite of a cash-rich Chinese market to buy back its stolen or exported relics.
On Thursday evening, potential bidders filed into the two-storey warehouse beside West Ruislip Underground station. The musty room was cluttered with furniture and old paintings and bidders had to squeeze up to get in.
Among them – their identities unknown to anyone except Mr Reay – the mother and son watched in silence, possibly anxious as the vase was placed on what someone described later as a wobbly old table at the front of the room.
After a slow start, with six live bidders and three telephone bidders still in the game, the interested parties narrowed to two as the price soared into tens of millions. It took less than two minutes to rack up the final £20 million, climaxing at an astonishing £53 million [about US $85.568 million].
Auctioneer and company director Peter Bainbridge shouted ‘Sold’ and slammed his gavel so hard on the rostrum, it shattered into several pieces.
He had just earned the family-run company at least £8.6 million in commission, possibly several million more if they didn’t waive the usual extra fees.
The mother and son had just chalked up a fortune beyond their wildest dreams.
There's more at the link.
Apparently, after all taxes and commissions and fees are paid, the mother and son will receive approximately £30 million (about US $48.435 million). One can only feel sorry that the man who owned it for many decades died without realizing what he had, and never got to enjoy its value to make his life more comfortable. As to how it got to England, I'm willing to bet it was one of the items 'collected' by British soldiers in their various 'little wars' in China during the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the wholesale looting of Beijing after they relieved the siege there during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901.