Chinese Scroll Fetches Record $31 Million at France Auction

Chinese 18th-century painting
A section from a 79-foot (24 meter) scroll showing the Quianlong emperor reviewing his troops. The 18th-century Chinese painting was originally estimated to fetch between 5 million euros ($6.9 million) and 6 million euros at the Toulouse, France-based auction house, Labarbe, on March 26. It sold for 22.1 million euros and the invoice was settled within three months. Source: Labarbe via Bloomberg

A Qianlong-dynasty scroll painting sold today in Toulouse, south-west France, for a record 22.1 million euros ($31 million), the latest in a series of big-ticket auction prices pledged by Asian bidders keen to buy back China’s heritage.

The price of the 79-foot (24 meter) scroll, including fees, was the most paid for a Chinese artwork at a French auction. The work, showing the army of the Qianlong emperor at a military review, was originally estimated to fetch between 5 million euros and 6 million euros by the Toulouse auction house Labarbe.

“The bidding was secure,” Pierre Ansas, the freelance Asian art specialist who catalogued the painting, said in an interview. Ansas, who will earn a commission of more than 5 percent, said the estimate was raised to 13 million euros to 15 million euros after seven Asian bidders registered to take part.

The values of Chinese antiques are rising even outside the country’s own art market, which is now second only to the U.S. On March 22 at Sotheby’s in New York, a Chinese vase decorated in gold and the “famille rose” palette sold for $18 million against an estimate of $800 to $1,200. While the piece had been catalogued as “probably Republican (early 20th century),” some people thought it was an 18th-century piece, according to Giuseppe Eskenazi, a dealer in Chinese art.

Today, the small salesroom in a quiet side street in the east of the French city was packed with more than 300 people including 40 Asian dealers, agents and collectors.

Bidding Contest

Bidders competed for 10 minutes before the scroll was knocked down to a Chinese buyer at the back of the room, brandishing paddle 109. He refused to comment after the sale. Both he and the underbidder, sitting in the second row, are Beijing-based collectors. They fought off competition from at least two other people in the room and a client on the telephone.

Five months earlier, in November, a Qianlong-dynasty vase was bid to 51.6 million pounds (then $83.2 million) at a Bainbridges sale in west Ruislip, on the outskirts of London. The price was a record for any Chinese work of art offered at auction. Auctioneer Peter Bainbridge said on Feb. 3 that he hadn’t yet received payment from the successful Beijing-based bidder.

Forbidden City

The Toulouse scroll, dating from 1739 and bearing the seals of 10 court painters, was being sold by a Paris-based family. It was one of four Imperial examples looted from Beijing’s Forbidden City in 1900, when the area was overrun by French troops, said art historians. Another painting from the quartet, featuring the Qianlong emperor on a white horse reviewing his troops, sold for HK$ 67.9 million ($8.7 million) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2008.

The version sold at Labarbe lacked a portrait of the emperor, as well as the original jade baton round which it had been rolled. The family had also retained its original case.

“The case would have added at least another 300,000 euros to the price,” Ansas said.

Mindful of recent non-payment issues with Chinese bidders, he had insisted that would-be buyers had to pay a returnable deposit of 200,000 euros to allow them to bid at the sale.

“It’s not popular,” said Ansas. “I need to be responsible, though. I have a business to run. I would have rather have sold the scroll for 8 or 10 million euros to someone with money in the bank, rather than for a crazy price to someone I don’t know.”

Wang’s Vase

The buyer of the scroll is committed to pay a third of his bill within a week and the balance within three months. An agent representing the Liaoning-based real estate billionaire Wang Jianlin -- identified by dealers as the successful bidder at Bainbridges -- was not allowed to register for the sale because of the payment delay for the record-breaking Ruislip vase, Ansas said.

The same rules applied to bidders for an Imperial Qianlong-dynasty white jade seal offered a few hours later by the fellow Toulouse auction house, Chassaing-Marambat.

The 4-inch wide seal, surmounted by carvings of intertwined dragons, was one of a number used by the Qianlong Emperor to sign his calligraphic paintings. Like the scroll, it was thought to have been looted from the Forbidden City in 1900.

Competed for by seven Chinese bidders, it sold for 12.4 million euros, exceeding an estimate of 1 million euros to 1.5 million euros. It was entered by a Toulouse-based family which owned it for more than 80 years.

Imperial Seals

The seal's price was explained by its high-quality white translucent jade and fine carving, dealers said.

Chassaing-Marambat has a history of selling Chinese Imperial seals. Other examples associated with the emperors Kangxi and Qianlong sold for 5.5 million euros and 3.3 million euros respectively in June 2008 and April 2010.

The most expensive Chinese artwork sold at a French auction before today was a cloisonne vase that sold for 6.5 million euros (then $8.7 million) at Christie’s, Paris, in June, 2007.

The most expensive artwork sold at a French auction was a limestone head by the 20th-century sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, which fetched 43.2 million euros (then $53 million) including fees at Christie’s International, Paris, in June last year.

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

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