Doubts hang over record sale of Chinese vase

Questions have been raised over the status of the sale of a previously undocumented Qing dynasty imperial vase found in a bungalow in Pinner, North London, which was sold to an anonymous Chinese buyer for a hammer price of £43m at a suburban auction-house in November – amid reports that the client has not been paid.

The sale set a new benchmark for the price of Chinese porcelain, eclipsing the record £18.2m paid just weeks before for another vase, made for the Emperor Qianlong (1711-99), at Sotheby’s Hong Kong by the business magnate Alice Cheng. It also surpassed the previous record for any Chinese work of art, the Rmb 436m ($63m) paid for an 11th-century calligraphic scroll sold at Poly International Auction in Beijing in June 2010.

When asked, Peter Bainbridge, the auctioneer at Bainbridge’s of Ruislip who staged the November 11 sale, was unable to confirm that his client had been paid, stating only that he had been instructed by his clients not to discuss the matter and pointing out that it was not unusual for any businessman to experience a delay in receiving payment.

The emergence of an exceptional and totally unknown piece in such an unlikely setting had prompted many to speculate on the authenticity of the vase. “It is not clear-cut to say that it is wrong,” explains the respected London-based dealer in Chinese art Giuseppe Eskenazi: “It is not an obvious fake and several knowledgeable authorities, including the late Julian Thompson [a former chairman of Sotheby’s], believed in it completely.” Shortly after the sale, however, James Lally, a New York dealer who viewed the piece in London, told CNBC: “I’m very sceptical . . . There are a number of people who do not find it convincing.” Among those bidding on behalf of clients, however, was Nicholas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and the International Head of Sotheby’s Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department.

No one disputes that collectors were prepared to bid enormous sums for the vase. It had come to the block with an estimate of £800,000-£1.2m, although experts believed it could fetch more than £10m. At £25m, a record-breaking figure, there were still five bidders in the running. “It was an unbelievable price,” says Mr Eskenazi, and one which reflects the thirst for Chinese works of art with an imperial mark or provenance.

Traditionally, it was the purity and simplicity of the early wares of the Song dynasty that appealed to collectors in both the east and west. The new breed of mainland Chinese billionaires, however, prefers the showy, technical tours-de-force produced for the three great 18th-century emperors of the Qing dynasty. The buyer of the opulent, complex Pinner vase is believed to be a wealthy Beijing collector.

On Friday, Sotheby’s Hong Kong unveiled the Meiyintang Collection of exceptional imperial porcelain, the last great classic European connoisseur collection of Chinese ceramics.

Expected to realise more than HK$710m (US$91m) on April 7, it includes a falangcai (foreign colour) vase decorated with golden pheasants (shown in the centre of the main picture), described by Nicholas Chow as “the ultimate trophy from the Qing dynasty for any great collector of Chinese porcelain”.

Before that sale, vendors, collectors, dealers and auctioneers are keen to know whether the Pinner vase really did set a new record for a Chinese work of art or not.

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