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Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Les­lie Ged­des-brown

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’

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