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.