May 20 (Bloomberg) -- An 18th-century jade ceremonial bell fetched 2.4 million pounds ($3.45 million) yesterday as Asian bidders crowded into a regional U.K. sale to battle over Chinese artworks and ceramics.
The white-stone Buddhist “ghanta” was one of 10 works of art from an English private collection offered as part of a 349-lot auction by Woolley & Wallis, in Salisbury, Wiltshire.
“It was a must-have object,” London-based dealer John Berwald said of the bell. He bid as much as 1 million pounds on the elaborately carved piece, which he said was one of only four of its type in existence and almost identical to an example in the Palace Museum, Beijing.
Newly rich Chinese are worried that prices of property and stocks have risen too much, said dealers. Such collectors are vying for the rarest antiques from their heritage, particularly those associated with Emperors from the Qing and Ming dynasties. Pieces with guaranteed authenticity from Western collections are prized by Asian buyers, many of whom send agents to attend auctions in Hong Kong, Europe and the U.S.
The 7-inch-high bell had been owned for more than 50 years by Mary Anna Marten, a trustee of the British Museum. Marten, who was based at Crichel House in Dorset, western England, died in January.
Competition from Berwald and other bidders in the room and on the telephone pushed the price to more than 10 times the 200,000-pound presale estimate. The buyer, seated in the middle of the room, was a Chinese bidder identified by dealers as a London-based trader who buys museum-quality objects for a collector in China.
Moments later, the same man paid a further 1.2 million pounds for a pair of 18th-century jade elephants from Crichel House that had once adorned a throne room of the Emperor Qianlong. The carvings lacked their original enamel saddles and featured a green coloration that has traditionally been popular with Western collectors.
“The elephants appealed to western taste, the bell to eastern taste,” John Axford, the auction house’s head of Asian art, said in an interview. “It proved that eastern taste is strongest in the market at the moment.”
A continuously chattering crowd of more than 30 Chinese dealers was squeezed into the first-floor room throughout the six-hour auction, with another half a dozen taking turns to have cigarette breaks outside.
Other prominent prices included 478,000 pounds paid by another unidentified Chinese dealer in the room for an 18th-century pale celadon jade boulder carving from a Monaco collection, estimated at 20,000 pounds to 30,000 pounds, and a further 334,600 pounds for a signed 17th-century rhinoceros horn libation cup from the collection of the Edwardian connoisseur, William Cleverley Alexander. This had been valued at 30,000 pounds to 50,000 pounds.
The first part of the two-day auction raised 8.1 million pounds with fees against a high estimate of 3.4 million pounds, based on hammer prices. Eighty-four percent of the lots found buyers. All realized prices include 19.5 percent auction house fees.
Last May, the Salisbury auctioneers sold a Qianlong-period Imperial green jade water buffalo for 4.2 million pounds, a record for any object in a U.K. regional auction room. It had been expected to fetch 800,000 pounds.
(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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