Art Dealers Get Tough as $83 Million Chinese Vase Goes Unpaid

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

The most expensive Chinese work of art at auction is still not paid for, more than a year after it was bid to 51.6 million pounds ($83 million).

The elaborately decorated Qing-dynasty porcelain vase had been found in a routine house clearance and was included in a sale of antiques on Nov. 11, 2010, by Bainbridges of west London. Its price was more than 50 times the presale estimate and the auction house ceased to comment after several months passed without payment.

Payment is still awaited, a dealer with knowledge of the matter said in an interview. Though some money has changed hands, it doesn’t look as if settlement is imminent, he said.

The record price was the most spectacular in recent sales that saw Asian clients bid multiples of the estimates for rare objects made for Chinese emperors. Bidding hasn’t always been translated into final payment in an international trade that is now valued at $10 billion.

Auctioneer Peter Bainbridge, who broke his hammer as the record was set, wasn’t prepared to publicly comment when visited by Bloomberg News in his West Ruislip auction rooms.

“I’ve signed a confidentiality clause with the buyer,” said Bainbridge, dressed in a frayed crew-neck sweater as he moved pieces of Victorian furniture entered into his next general sale. He would not confirm that the successful bidder on the vase had failed to settle the bill, nor that some money had changed hands.

Hong Kong Offer

“Once you accept a part-payment, your hands are tied,” said the London dealer John Berwald. “Perhaps they should have just canceled the deal and re-offered the vase in Hong Kong. I believe it’s 100 percent genuine. Second time around, it could be worth at least 20 million pounds.”

The piece, thought to be associated with the Qianlong Emperor, went to an agent in the room bidding on behalf of a Chinese collector. The vase featured a pierced “reticulated” body painted in a famille rose palette, and was discovered in the London suburb of Pinner. It was owned by a retired solicitor, Tony Johnson, and his mother Gene, according to the U.K.’s Daily Mail newspaper. The earlier history of the vase isn’t known.

The reluctance of Bainbridges’ Chinese buyer to settle the record-breaking bill has led other auction houses to ask for deposits on high-value works at Asian art sales.

Paris-based Asian-art specialist Pierre Ansas required clients to leave a 200,000 euro ($265,000) deposit to bid on a Qianlong-period Imperial scroll painting and seal offered at auctions in Toulouse, France, on March 26.

Unpaid Seal

The scroll was bid to a record 22.1 million euros and the seal to 12.4 million euros, both by Chinese clients. While the invoice for the scroll was settled within three months, only 2.2 million euros has so far been paid for the seal, Ansas said in a telephone interview.

“The buyer has until Jan. 10 to pay the rest,” said Ansas. ”Otherwise we will re-offer the seal in March. The valuation will be lower then -- maybe 5 or 6 million euros -- and the owners will sue for the difference between the prices.” In the event of the first buyer defaulting, the partial payment of 2.2 million euros will not be returned, said Ansas.

The successful bidder in Toulouse was a Hong Kong dealer representing a Chinese collector.

“He said he couldn’t pay because his client has lost a lot of money in China,” said Ansas. “The economy isn’t so good now. It’s a tough situation and I don’t see how we’re going to solve these non-payment problems. The market has been very speculative.”

Up-Front Payments

U.K. regional auctioneers Woolley & Wallis and Duke’s also ask for up-front payments on ”premium” Asian lots.

“Getting paid is a continuing issue for all auctioneers and dealers,” John Axford, head of Asian art at Salisbury-based Woolley & Wallis, said in an interview. ”We’re reviewing our policy on deposits. The administration can be very difficult.”

The difficulties of dealing with Asian clients are summed up by an anonymous poem currently circulating in the trade:

The Chinese bid with verve and skill,

And hence rack up a mighty bill.

“The money’s coming soon” they cry

But oh, my friend, they lie, they lie.

(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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