Pot o’ gold as fam­ily’s old vase fetches $83 mil­lion

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - AUCTIONS - JILL LAW­LESS

IT WAS just an old Chi­nese vase that had been in the fam­ily for 80 years – but it turned out to be much more.

When the in­tri­cately painted 18th-cen­tury piece re­cently went on the block at Bain­bridges, a small London auc­tion house, the vase was scooped up by a Chi­nese buyer for a record $83 mil­lion (R592m).

“How do you an­tic­i­pate the Chi­nese mar­ket?” asked the shocked auc­tion­eer, Peter Bain­bridge. “It’s to­tally on fire.”

The sale price was more than 40 times the pre-sale esti- mate and a record for a Chi­nese work of art – an out­come Bain­bridge called “a fairy­tale” for the fam­ily who owned the vase.

The sell­ers, who wished to re­main anony­mous, are the sis­ter and nephew of an el­derly woman who died in the West London sub­urb of Pin­ner.

The vase had been in the fam­ily at least since the 1930s, but they don’t know how it was acquired.

Many Chi­nese arte­facts sur­faced in Bri­tain in the 19th cen­tury, hav­ing been looted from Bei­jing’s Sum­mer Palace when it was sacked by Bri­tish and French sol­diers at the end of the Sec­ond Opium War in 1860.

Painted sky blue and im­pe­rial yel­low, and adorned with medal­lions de­pict­ing leap­ing gold­fish, the 40.6cm vase dates from the Qing dy­nasty, a time when Chi­nese porce­lain­mak­ing was at its pin­na­cle.

Made for the per­sonal col­lec­tion of Em­peror Qian­long and bear­ing the im­pe­rial seal, it was an ex­cep­tional piece, ex­perts said.

Still, no one ex­pected what hap­pened when the del­i­cate enam­elled vase went un­der the ham­mer.

Bain­bridge said the at­mos­phere was “elec­tric”, and when the win­ning bid was reached he brought the gavel down with such force that it broke.

“There was a si­lence that wrapped it­self around the sale as the fig­ure grew slowly but surely up to the sky,” said Bainb r i d g e , wh o s p e c i a l i s e s i n house clear­ance sales – and whose pre­vi­ous sale record was $161 000.

“I’m an auc­tion­eer, so at that point I’m just do­ing the pro­fes­sional job I’m paid to do. But once the ham­mer’s down you do take stock slightly and think, ‘Oh, wow, that’s re­ally rather a lot of money’,” said Bain­bridge, whose $13.9 mil­lion buyer’s pre­mium is in­cluded in the sale price.

The vase, bought by a Chi- nese bid­der on be­half of an undis­closed buyer, beat the pre­vi­ous record for Chi­nese art.

This was a 13.7-me­tre-long 11th cen­tury scroll elab­o­rately dec­o­rated with cal­lig­ra­phy that went for al­most $64m in Bei­jing in June.

While the vase sold last month is not ex­tremely old – it dates from around 1740 – it is from a pe­riod whose works are cov­eted by Chi­nese buy­ers. Last month, Sotheby’s sold an­other Qing dy­nasty vase in Hong Kong for $32m.

“While Euro­pean taste tends to fo­cus on the re­ally old stuff pro­duced by the Chi­nese, Chi­nese col­lec­tors con­sider this pe­riod of porce­lains the zenith of their art,” said Roland Arkell, deputy edi­tor of the An­tiques Trade Gazette.

“It’s a su­perb ob­ject. It’s also a piece which chimes com­pletely with Chi­nese taste. And it has to be seen in the con­text of a rapidly ris­ing mar­ket.”

Even Arkell was sur­prised by the sale price, which makes this art­work by anony­mous ar­ti­sans the 11th most ex­pen­sive yet sold at auc­tion.

“It’s right up there along­side the Pi­cas­sos, which is un­heard-of for porce­lain.”

More record prices are sure to fol­low. Prices for Chi­nese art and an­tiq­ui­ties are buoy­ant.

Art mar­kets in the West are feel­ing the ef­fects of the eco­nomic down­turn. Mas­ter­pieces set records – of­ten acquired by Rus­sian, Mid­dle Easter n or Asian col­lec­tors – while midrange works lan­guish un­sold.

“It’s like crème brûlée: hard at the top and a bit soft un­der­neath,” said Robert Read, a fine art ex­pert at spe­cial­ist in­surer His­cox.

In con­trast, China’s boom­ing econ­omy means wealthy new col­lec­tors are join­ing the mar­ket all the time, ea­ger to repa­tri­ate trea­sures from their her­itage.

“There’s def­i­nitely a shift in the bal­ance of power,” said Read.

“Things are go­ing East these days. That’s where the fu­ture is, and that’s where the big col­lec­tors are go­ing to be over the next 20 years.”

Read said the re­sult was also good news for small auc­tion houses such as Bain­bridge’s, which the auc­tion­eer runs with his wife and a staff of eight.

“This re­sult in­di­cates the depth to which buy­ers are pre­pared to hunt for trea­sure. The in­ter net has opened up the mar­ket for small auc­tion­eers who now find them­selves in the happy po­si­tion of be­ing able to com­pete with the big play­ers,” he said. – Sapa-AP

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