A yellow jade scepter associated with the court of the Qianlong emperor sold today for 1.3 million pounds ($2.1 million) as Asian buyers chose the most desirable items in a week of auctions of Chinese artworks in London.
The 14-inch-long “ruyi,” acquired by a British military attache in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, sold at Bonhams for 10 times its 120,000-pound upper estimate with fees. It was bought by a telephone bidder.
Recent multiple-estimate auction prices for Imperial pieces have helped turn the trade in Chinese antiques into a business worth more than $10 billion. The week’s U.K. sales have already raised 41.1 million pounds. Salesrooms were packed with a visiting contingent of more than 100 Chinese dealers and agents, though some high-value pieces failed.
“Chinese bidders have calmed down,” John Berwald, a London-based dealer, said in an interview. “As they’ve become more knowledgeable, they’ve become more selective. And they know there will always be another auction. Sometimes a high estimate was paired with condition issues.”
Christie’s International and Sotheby’s both achieved record totals for auctions of Chinese antiques at their London salesrooms that were about double presale low estimates.
Their failures included a pair of 18th-century blue and white Imperial vases valued at as much as 800,000 pounds, which failed to sell at Christie’s, and a Song-dynasty crackle-glazed vase estimated at 3 million pounds, which went unsold at Sotheby’s. Buyers were put off by high estimates and a repair to the neck of the vase, dealers said.
The yellow color of the Bonhams’s perfectly preserved jade scepter was highly prized by Chinese bidders, as was the object’s resemblance to another example in the Palace Museum, Beijing, said dealers. Bonhams estimated that it would raise at least 7 million pounds from today’s 550-lot auction.
Bonhams also sold a pair of Imperial teapots for 1.3 million pounds, surpassing an estimate of 20,000 pounds to 30,000 pounds. Their phone buyer beat at least four Asian bidders in the room.
The melon-shaped porcelain teapots of the Qinglong dynasty were rediscovered recently in a Scottish collection where they had been for 50 years, Bonhams said.
“If you accept them, they are the rarest of the rarest high Imperial taste,” Roger Keverne, a London-based dealer, said in an interview.
Christie’s raised a total of 20.3 million pounds in its May 10 sale. Seventy-six percent of the 329 lots were successful.
The top price was the 1.7 million pounds paid by a Chinese dealer in the room for a Qianlong-dynasty jade “double-gourd” brush washer valued at just 100,000 pounds to 150,000 pounds. It was offered by a Scottish family that acquired it in the 1960s.
Sotheby’s raised 20.8 million pounds from 339 lots, 28 percent of which were left unsold. All 10 of the most expensive lots fell to Asian bidders, led by the 2.2 million pounds given for a multicolored “doucai” porcelain altar set, valued at 800,000 pounds to 1.2 million pounds.
“At every sale there are more and more new Chinese faces,” Berwald said. “It’s making it impossible for Western dealers to buy Imperial pieces. We just have to concentrate on other things.”
Sales of antiques in China were alone valued at 6 billion euros ($8.3 billion) in 2010 and grew 160 percent year-on-year, according to a European Fine Art Foundation report published in March.
(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)