In a tale that goes way beyond the wildest dreams of any Antiques Roadshow aficionado, a brother and sister found a dusty Chinese vase while clearing out their deceased parents' suburban London house and put it up for sale at Bainbridges Auction House — where it fetched $85 million, a world record for any work of Chinese art at auction. The siblings, who have so far remained anonymous, were stunned by the rapidly-ascending bidding, with the sister leaving the room at one point to get some fresh air.
Bainbridges, a small West London auction house specializing in estate sales, and whose previous sale record was £100,000 ($185,000) for a Ming bowl, had estimated the Qianlong vase at £800,000-1.2 million ($1.3-1.9 million), the London Telegraph reports. After 30 minutes of frenetic bidding in which six men in the salesroom and three telephone bidders vied for the elaborately-decorated piece, a paddle bidder in the room — said to be a Beijing-based advisor — emerged victorious, declining afterward to comment on his purchase. The hammer price was £43 million, with the commission and VAT bringing the total price to £53 million ($85 million).
This sum handily surpasses the previous record for a Chinese artwork, set by a calligraphic work that sold for $64 million at Beijing's Poly International Auction Company last June. Moreover, the vase more than doubled the previous record for Chinese porcelain, set just a month ago by Sotheby's in Hong Kong with the sale of another Qianlong vase for $32.4 million.
"I'm thrilled that a provincial auction room can show what it can do," auction house director Peter Bainbridge said after the event. "I'm also delighted to have handled such an astonishing work of art. I didn't quite realize how exciting it was."
The newly rich siblings do not know how the vase came into their parents' possession, but believe it was acquired in the 1930s. Specialists say the piece was fired in an Imperial kiln around 1740, during the reign of Qianlong, the fourth emperor in the Qing dynasty. The vase has a delicately-crafted yellow trumpet neck and is decorated with images of swimming fish. One unusual feature is its reticulated, double-walled construction: the body of the vase has open lattice-work, through which an interior vase can be glimpsed.
While it is still unknown who the buyer of the work is, it comes as no surprise that the winning bidder hails from mainland China, since the market for traditional Chinese art has shown astonishing strength in recent months. The region's economy has generated enormous wealth — China now has 128 billionaires — and while Western art has begun to establish a foothold, collectors have been especially eager to spent money on Chinese arts and antiquities.
This is, at least in part, a patriotic gesture: He Shuzhong, founder of the nonprofit Beijing Cultural Heritage Foundation, told the New York Times last February that "Chinese people are becoming richer and need to be responsible for our dignity and history." The passion for collecting has spread throughout Chinese society, with a dozen popular television reality shows feeding interest and demand, including one, "Collection World," in which contestants must agree to smash their family treasures to bits if judges decide that they are reproductions.