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Chinese Collectors Vie for $3 Million Jade Elephants: Art Buzz

Chinese Imperial Jade Elephants
A pair of Chinese Imperial jade elephants from a throne-room group of the Emperor Qianlong. They were sold by the Salisbury-based auction house Woolley & Wallis. Source: Woolley & Wallis via Bloomberg

Chinese collectors are set to bid as much as 2 million pounds ($3.03 million) for a pair of 18th-century jade elephants as the country’s rich vie for the rarest antiques at auctions across the world.

Wealthy Chinese have been buying art partly because of worries that prices of property and stocks have risen too much, said dealers. They have been travelling to sales in Hong Kong, and even to regional events in the English cathedral town of Salisbury, where the elephants will be on offer, said dealers.

The green statues, which originally adorned a throne room of the Emperor Qianlong, are being offered by the Wiltshire auction house Woolley & Wallis on May 19 with an estimate of 200,000 pounds. The 7-inch-long sculptures have been in the same private collection in Dorset, western England, for more than 50 years.

“Certainly one or two million pounds is on,” Roger Keverne, a London-based Asian art trader, said in an interview. “Though they’re not totally complete, these objects stood on either side of the Imperial throne. They are important things.”

Newly rich Chinese are keen to acquire high-quality objects from their heritage, particularly those associated with Emperors from the Qing and Ming dynasties. Pieces with Imperial associations that have emerged with guaranteed authenticity from Western collections are much prized by Asian buyers, many of whom send agents to attend European and American auctions.

Enamel Saddles

The elephants would have originally been decorated with enamel saddles surmounted by vases, said Woolley & Wallis.

“If they had survived as well, the elephants might have been worth 10 million pounds,” John Axford, the company’s head of Asian art, said in an interview. “About 80 percent of the room will be Chinese. It’s the Chinese who are making so much money and buying back what they want. And what they want is Imperial pieces,” he said.

The elephants were owned by Mary Anna Marten, a trustee of the British Museum, who was based at Crichel House in Dorset and died in January, said Woolley & Wallis.

Other pieces offered from the same source include a white jade Buddhist ceremonial bell, or “ghanta,” expected to fetch at least 200,000 pounds, and a lapis lazuli boulder carving inscribed with a poem, estimated at 80,000 pounds to 120,000 pounds. Both pieces have Imperial associations and date from the 18th century.

Last May, the Salisbury auctioneers sold a Qianlong-period Imperial green jade water buffalo for 4.2 million pounds with fees, a record for any object in a U.K. regional auction room. It had been expected to fetch 800,000 pounds.

New Buyers

“The question is, when is the music going to stop?” said Keverne. “For the moment there seems to be a flow of new Chinese buyers all the time.”

Imperial pieces also feature at the Asian-art sales being staged by London’s auction houses this month.

Sotheby’s May 12 biannual auction of Chinese ceramics and works of art includes a pair of Qianlong-period Imperial gilt- bronze and enamel models of magpies in winter plum trees, estimated at 500,000 pounds to 700,000 pounds.

Christie’s International has put an upper estimate of 600,000 pounds on the slightly earlier Kangxi-period Imperial gilt-bronze statue of Amitayus, “The Buddha of Infinite Life,” that is the most highly valued lot in its equivalent May 11 event. Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions, both featuring more than 200 works, carry high estimates of 5.4 million pounds and 6 million pounds respectively.

Bonhams is expecting a group of 66 jades from the estate of an English collector to raise 1 million pounds on May 13. A white jade vessel shaped like a lotus leaf, similar to another example in the Qing Court collection, carries an estimate of 20,000 pounds to 30,000 pounds, said Bonhams.


Art from today’s China proved to be the biggest earner at Phillips de Pury & Co.’s inaugural two-day “BRIC” auction at the Saatchi Gallery, west London, on April 23 and 24, which raised a total of 7.2 million pounds with fees.

Sixty-one percent of the works were successful in the 438-lot sale of contemporary art from some of the world’s fastest-growing economies -- Brazil, Russia, India and China. The presale estimate, based on hammer prices, was 6.5 million pounds to 9 million pounds, said the New York-based auction house.

Chinese works raised 2.9 million pounds with 60 percent of the works selling.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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