Leslie Geddes-brown cherishes her Chinese antiquities
I’VE loved Chinese works of art since I bought two watercolours of a fiercely striped tiger and a diving duck—and this was before I had a wall to hang them on. Now, I have three T’ang horses, four rough sheep and two ducks. And that’s before I start on the furniture, metalware, fabrics and so on. I generally know their dates— from an astonishing AD618 to the 19th century—but I have absolutely no idea of their value.
Nor, I think, does anyone else. Last month (Art Market, March 15), a charming vase decorated with colourful carp and dating from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was put to auction with an estimate of £1,800. It sold for £810,000.
This is one of a long line of weird prices of Chinese ceramics at auction. In January, a Qing wine pot of hideous design was estimated to sell at £30 to £50— it fetched £17,000. Two weeks earlier, a cloisonné plaque estimated at a maximum of £5,000 reached £22,626.
It’s long been a joke among auctioneers that the most valuable item in a house clearance sale will be the dog’s bowl— a surprising number turn out to be Ming. There’s even a charming oil painting by Jean-baptiste Oudry (1686–1755) of a hound with its very own blue-and-white Ming bowl in the Burrell Collection museum in Glasgow. But the joke has become the fact. Hideously embarrassing for the auctioneers, but I expect they can console themselves with their mark-up.
It’s all rather alarming. Is my pair of ducks worth £2,000 or £2 million? If the latter, I’d have to sell them because I’d worry so much. I have a nice pair of blueand-white Qianlong vases that have been made into lamps and were left to me by my parents. I’ve just spotted a single vase, same period, with truly dreadful repairs (a child of 10 could have done it, said the auctioneer). The estimate was £300–£400. It fetched £3,200.
The really shocking price was for a Chien Long vase. It was in two layers, an inner one carefully painted and the outer one cut into a trellis pattern. It was remarkably ugly. It went for auction —before the great craze began —in November 2010. There were various stories that it had been found in a loft or kept on a wobbly bookcase. It fetched £53 million.
This would have bought 26 really nice historic houses or made a major contribution to a worthy cause. As it turned out, the buyer had over-estimated his riches and, the story is, pulled out of the sale. Nonetheless, there obviously was an under-bidder, who had a lucky escape.
A friend points out that these huge prices are generally for 17thand 18th-century pieces, when the porcelain and its decoration had reached a summit of skill. I can therefore discount all the early, unpainted pottery—horses and ducks and sheep—as they’re not to the modern Chinese taste. That’s a relief, because these are the ones I like best: astonishingly lifelike and made with unpretentious art.
I think these huge prices will keep on coming. There are plenty of multimillionaires in China and, it seems, plenty of fine pieces bought or plundered by the West to keep prices at eye-stretching levels—even if it is the dog’s bowl.
However, it’s not just Oriental art that’s been busy. There are plenty of other unlikely objects that surprise hardened sale-goers. I like to think about those families who hoped to get a £1,000 or £2,000 from a respected heirloom—granny’s favourite silver teapot or a much-revered mantelpiece clock—only to find that these pieces fetched a few hundred pounds or even, shame, failed to sell.
Then, they find out that an old copy of the Dandy comic, which was a first edition from 1937 and was estimated at £400–£600, actually reached £3,200. You have to laugh.
‘The most valuable item is likely to be the dog’s bowl’