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Found Vase Sets $83 Million China Art Record in Auction Battle

An elaborately decorated mid-18th century Chinese porcelain vase made for emperor Qianlong has been resold by Bonhams. It was bid to a record 51.6 million pounds ($83 million) in 2010. Source: Bainbridge's via Bloomberg

A battle between Asian buyers last night pushed a Qianlong-dynasty vase to a price of 51.6 million pounds ($83.2 million), an auction record for Chinese art.

The vase had been discovered during a routine house clearance in the suburb of Pinner in London. Rather than being offered at the central salerooms of Christie’s International or Sotheby’s, it was sold by Bainbridges, a west London auction house, with an estimate of 800,000 pounds to 1.2 million pounds. It made 40 times as much, at a hammer price of 43 million pounds. After a Bloomberg preview report, dealers traveled to the provincial sale from Asia. Others were in town for Asian Art in London’s schedule of gallery exhibitions, shows and lectures.

“Everyone was excited about this vase,” David Baker, one of the 37 dealers exhibiting at Asian Art in London, said in an interview. “It’s an exceptional Imperial piece in perfect condition with the most amazing reticulated decoration. It’s exactly what Chinese buyers want at the moment.”

Asian bidders are prepared to pay ever-higher prices for rare objects associated with Chinese emperors. Even before 20 percent fees on its hammer price, the 18th-century vase beat the record of 436.8 million yuan ($65.9 million) paid for a 15-meter-long Song Dynasty scroll at Beijing Poly International Auction Co. in June 2010.

Last month, another 18th-century Imperial vase was bought by Chinese collector Alice Cheng for a record HK$252.7 million ($32.6 million) at Sotheby’s, Hong Kong. Asian art raised 245.5 million pounds of auction sales at Christie’s in the first half, a 121 percent increase on the same period last year.

‘Astonishing’ Artwork

“I’m thrilled that a provincial auction room can show what it can do,” Peter Bainbridge, director of the auction house, said in an interview after yesterday evening’s sale. “I’m also delighted to have handled such an astonishing work of art. I didn’t quite realize how exciting it was.”

There were about 100 people in the saleroom -- which was cluttered with Victorian mahogany furniture -- including collector Robert Chang, the brother of Alice Cheng, and Hong Kong dealer William Chak.

A bidding battle between six people in the room and three telephone bidders was won by a man in a black jacket who sat on a gilded sofa at the front. The buyer, who refused comment after the sale, was a Beijing-based agent, according to Bainbridge.

Taiwan Porcelain

Wares similar to the 16-inch-high, elaborately decorated Bainbridge discovery were shown in the exhibition, “Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Chienlung Reign,” at the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, in 2008, said the auction house. The piece has a pierced double-wall body with roundels of fish.

The most valuable of Asian Art in London’s dealer exhibits was a Qing dynasty Imperial vase offered by the Mayfair-based dealer Eskenazi Ltd. with a price tag of about $25 million.

The Eskenazi porcelain vase, dating from the reign of the Emperor Yongzheng, is painted with a dragon in purple enamels. It is the sole survivor of a group of puce-decorated wares made in the Imperial palace, Beijing, from 1723 to 1735, Eskenazi said in its 50th anniversary catalog of Chinese pieces spanning three millennia.

The Imperial rarity was one of five items sporting a red dot at the dealership’s exhibition reception on Nov. 8.

“It sold to an Asian buyer very close to the asking price,” gallery director, Giuseppe Eskenazi, said in an interview.

Jade Seal

Earlier yesterday at Bonhams, an 18th-century white jade seal commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor sold for 2.7 million pounds to a Beijing-based buyer in the room against competition from two other Asian bidders.

The seal, carved with a dragon among cloud scrolls and bearing the inscription “Self-Strengthening Never Ceases,” had been estimated to sell for as much as 3 million pounds, said Bonhams.

“There is no other work of art with which the emperor would have been as personally associated as with his personal seal,” Asaph Hyman, a senior specialist in Bonhams’s Chinese art department, said on the company’s website.

The auction record for a Chinese Imperial seal is the HK$121.6 million for a white jade example at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on Oct. 7.

Bonhams’s seal had been in a European private collection since the 1960s. It is documented as having been made in 1793 for the Qianlong Emperor’s 80th birthday celebration and would have been used by the monarch to make impressions in the corners of his artworks, according to the catalog.

A pair of 18th-century Chinese Imperial ivory bowls was the surprise top lot at Christie's Nov. 9 auction, fetching 2.3 million pounds against a high estimate of 800,000 pounds. The following day at Sotheby's, a 14th-century Yuan jar was bought by an Asian collector for a top price of 2.6 million pounds.

Asian Art in London 2010 runs though Nov. 13. Information:

(Scott Reyburn writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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