Two pieces of Yuan dynasty blue and white porcelain smashed coveted auction records in the UK salerooms last week.
An exceptional blue and white jar from 14th century China shattered the auction record for any work of Asian art after London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi, bidding on behalf of a Western overseas collector, clinched it for £14m (plus buyer’s premium) at Christie’s King Street on Tuesday July 12.
Equally remarkable was the £2.6m (plus 15 per cent buyer’s premium) bid by an anonymous buyer for a double gourd of the same period at Salisbury auctioneers Woolley & Wallis on Friday July 15. It establishes a massive new UK landmark for any work of art sold at auction outside London.
Seven other jars comparable to Christie’s record-breaker exist but this so-called guan is the only one decorated with legendary literary scenes taken from China’s History of the Warring States. Apart from its exquisite painting and rich vivid cobalt blue tones, the 13in (33cm) diameter jar was also remarkable for its perfect condition.
The private vendor, who had inherited it from a Dutch officer stationed in Beijing from 1913-1923, had been unaware of its potential commercial value before Christie’s estimated it to bring in excess of £1m.
Before the sale Christie’s specialist Desmond Healey had hoped it could fetch £6m-8m although Mr Eskenazi – who has never bid more than £5m for a single work at auction – had been prepared to go considerably higher.
“It was a very good price for the Asian market but it was also good for London [as a centre for the Chinese art market],” commented Mr Eskenazi, who added that the telephone underbidder had been a London-based private buyer.
Also in the fray earlier in proceedings were London dealer John Berwald, Hong Kong dealer Chak & Co., Taiwanese dealer My Humble House and two other telephone bidders. The jar trumps the previous Asian art record held by a Shang/Western Zhou dynasty archaic bronze wine jar that sold for $8.4m (£6m) at Christie’s New York in 2001. The guan is also the most expensive lot sold by Christie’s this year.
The history-making 183/4in (47.5cm) high double gourd vase that closed out the sale in a sweltering Salisbury Salerooms last Friday betters by more than £2m the previous provincial high. That was the £540,000 (plus 15 per cent buyer’s premium) bid by Agnew’s for a portrait of the Richardson family by Francis Hayman at John Nicholson’s Fernhurst salerooms in November last year.
Cameras were at Salisbury from Meridian Television and the BBC to film the titanic battle that entailed between several telephone bidders.
The price was just £10,000 short of £3m when the premium is added.
The gourd form is a favourite Oriental shape regarded as auspicious in China, but what singles this piece out is the highly naturalistic underglaze blue painting of a gourd vine which snakes from the bottom to the rim in a continuous coil. Such a naturalistic treatment coupled with the twinning of shape and decoration is highly unusual at this early date.
Only one comparable but fragmentary example has been recorded. In 1994 Sotheby’s London rooms offered the lower half only of a vase of the same period that carries very similar vine decoration but by a different hand.
Woolley and Wallis’s vase was not only complete, it came with a noted provenance. It belonged to William Cleverley Alexander (1840-1916), a connoisseur and collector of Oriental art and western paintings whose collection featured Tang, Song, Ming and Ching wares, some of which are now in the British Museum. This vase has passed down by direct descent through his family.
John Axford, Woolley and Wallis’s ceramics specialist who made the discovery, had estimated the vase at £200,000-300,000 making it the centrepiece of the firm’s first sale devoted solely to Oriental works of art.
Having experienced a sleepless night, he was on the rostrum for his finest hour as auctioneer, his wife Caroline and son Freddie there to support him.
Young Freddie let out a brief yelp of joy moments after his father brought down the hammer.
Chairman and managing director of the firm Paul Viney told ATG he had long harboured an ambition to become the first provincial saleroom to sell something for over £1m.
His firm has now bettered that milestone by some distance.