Amid all the speculation surrounding payment for the Qianlong Imperial vase sold at Bainbridge’s of Ruislip for £43m hammer, Peter Bainbridge, who has been tight-lipped about the state of affairs in recent weeks, has now told his local newspaper that the sale is going through.
He is reported in the Uxbridge Gazette as saying that
"the buyer is completely legitimate, with no ulterior motives. The
sale is going through and is completely within the time-frame we
are comfortable with".
Bainbridge's efforts to keep the details of the transaction
confidential had left both the trade and the press to speculate
that November's fairytale sale of a Qianlong vase for £43m will not
However, few clear facts have emerged over the last four months
since auction history was made. And until any more definate
information comes to light, we can only take Peter Bainbridge at
his word that the gossip has it wrong.
Indeed, despite all the negative reports, the £43m fairytale
could yet have a happy ending.
Firstly, there is no good reason to doubt the vase's
It was universally declared 'right' by countless leading members
of the UK trade before the sale, when the only talk was how much
more than £18m (the previous record for Chinese porcelain) it would
bring. If the £43m plus premium were never to be paid, the vendor,
if not necessarily the auctioneer, is almost certainly guaranteed a
windfall sometime in the near future.
And what about the speculation that the buyer will pull out?
The fact is that the prevalence of mainland Chinese buyers has
necessitated increasing diligence from the UK auctioneers, who
welcome their presence but fear the bogus transaction. There have
been bad apples who have sought to exploit geographic, cultural and
language barriers to their advantage or use the auction room as a
cost-effective bank/storage unit in a rising market.
But while there have been examples of non-paying Chinese bidders
before - not least the 'buyer' of two bronze animal heads from the
Zodiac fountain at the Summer Palace sold at Christie's Yves Saint
Laurent sale in 2009 who publically declared his intention not to
pay - there are in fact genuine reasons why bidders from mainland
China may take time to pay their bills.
The official currency of the People's Republic, the renminbi
(RMB), remains a domestic rather than a global medium of exchange
and moving large sums of money out of the country is not
straightforward. While the international auction houses maintain
they wait just seven days for payment, the reality is that several
months is commonplace for major transactions.
The question remains, however, in the event of a sale not being
completed, would a consignor have the right to withdraw the piece
and sell elsewhere?
ATG's legal columnist, specialist art and auctions lawyer Milton
Silverman, of law firm Streathers, tackled this point in relation
to another case in his column in ATG No 1960, under the headline
What happens when the buyer fails to pay?
His views bear repeating here:
"My sophisticated client [the consignor] was then astonished to
hear that he did not have the right just to cancel the sale and
pull the work from the auction house in order to sell elsewhere at
his discretion. I had to explain - the way the major auction
houses' terms and conditions are drafted is to seek to give them
"The conditions applicable to the defaulting buyer, found in the
auction catalogue, enable the auction house, if they so choose, for
example, to charge interest to the buyer, commence legal
proceedings to recover the purchase price, stop the buyer bidding
in the future and, indeed, cancel the sale and re-sell
"Separately, in a different document, the sale agreement with
the consignor will make clear that the auction house has, for
example, 'absolute discretion' whether to take the various steps
available, and outlined above, against the buyer.
"Readers will be consigning on the terms of the sale agreements
all the time, but, like my experienced client, many may not
appreciate the relationship between the sale terms which the
consignor signs, and the terms applying to the buyer in the
catalogue. Thus the auction house will, at least on paper, attempt
to control both ends."
Whilst the exact terms and conditions of the vase's consignment
to Bainbridge's have not been made public, the T&Cs published
on the firm's website include the following section:
3 (a) Bainbridge's has absolute discretion without giving
any reason whatever to refuse any bid, divide any lot, to combine
any lots or withdraw any lot and in case of dispute to put up any
lot for auction again.