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Last updated: November 12, 2010 7:14 pm
The spectacular selling power of Chinese artefacts was displayed in a suburban London auction rooms more used to house clearing sales, when an 18th century Imperial-era vase went under the hammer for £43m.
Bidding at the Bainbridges auction rooms on Thursday for the 16-inch-high vase, made during the rule of the Qianlong emperor, started at £500,000 and increased in increments of £1m during the sale’s finale, onlookers said.
The vase was eventually sold for £43m, but with the addition of a 20 per cent commission levied for the auction house and tax, the final bill comes to more than £53m. It is believed to be the highest price paid for a Chinese artwork at auction.
The buyer is anonymous but, if the sale holds true to a pattern set in recent overseas auctions for Chinese artworks, is almost certainly a wealthy Chinese person or a state-backed company keen to bring the nation’s heritage home.
The vase had been discovered by a brother and sister when they were clearing their dead father’s attic in north London and they had little idea as to its value. Like the buyer, they have not been named.
Jonathan Stone, managing director of Christie’s Asia, said the sale “shows the way the Chinese are really going after top quality Chinese works of art wherever they may be cropping up in the world”. Christie’s reported that in 2009, the value of pieces bought by Chinese buyers worldwide to its sales increased by 94 per cent.
Experts speculated the fierce bidding was fuelled by agents commissioned by Poly Culture & Arts, a Chinese cultural agency co-owned by the state and one of the country’s largest defence companies.
Poly Culture’s mission to recover the country’s artefacts taken when large parts of China were under foreign control in the 19th and 20th centuries has helped pushed the market in such objects to unprecedented levels.
James Hennessy, of London firm Littleton & Hennessy, said: “Poly’s pockets are bottomless. They have the financial clout to acquire anything they want.”
Wealthy collectors from the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau have become aggressive bidders in auctions around the world, buying everything from paintings to antiques to wines. Surging inflation is also encouraging people to put their money into fixed assets, gold, property or art works.
Nicolas Chow, international head of Sotheby’s Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, said: “Many of the top pieces in Chinese art, which were going to strong buyers in the US and Europe, are beginning to go back to China.”
He said such purchases were not entirely motivated by support for cultural repatriation. “There is an investment angle as well. More and more financial institutions are interested in art-related products.”
Last month, Sotheby’s held its biggest ever sale in Hong Kong, fetching $400m in a seven-day auction that was dominated by Chinese collectors. Among the sold were an imperial white-jade seal for a record $15.6m and a yellow-ground, famille-rose double-gourd vase from the Qing dynasty for a then-record $32.4m.
Other items on sale at Bainbridges in west London on Thursday included two original boxed Dinky toys, both of them trucks, according to the catalogue, two electric beds and a dining suite billed as “fit for Wayne Rooney”, the troubled Manchester United footballer.
Mystery journey to London
No one knows how it came to be in the family’s possession. It dates from the period of the Qianlong dynasty, in the 1740s. It stands 16 inches high and the ovoid body is decorated with four circular panels each intricately carved and enamelled with frisky fish. The vase has a primrose yellow trumpet neck, also exquisitely painted, and a double-walled construction which means that an inner vase can be seen through the perforations of the main body.
Bainbridge’s, which normally specialise in house clearances and probate valuations, is not the sort of auction house that is used to sales of this kind. But its valuers were in no doubt that the Qianlong vase was something special. They publicised the sale to important Chinese collectors by putting the piece on view in central London.
Experts have described it as, quite simply, “a masterpiece”. Another called it “pretty much the most important vase the market has ever seen”.
A roomful of eager Chinese bidders at the sale pushed the price to more than 40 times the estimate.
After the sale of the artefact, which had carried an estimate of £1.2m, Helen Porter of Bainbridges said: “We were all absolutely shocked and thrilled. It’s the sort of sale you wait a whole career for.”
The vase would have been kept in the Chinese Royal Palace and “was most certainly fired in the Imperial kilns”, according to Bainbridges.
It is believed that it left China at the end of the second opium war when the Imperial Palaces were ransacked, and was acquired by the family in London in the 1930s. How it arrived in north-west London remains a mystery.
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