For the second time in three years Middlesex saleroom Bainbridge’s turned up the most talked-about consignment of the recent Asian art sales.
The 31-lot sale of the Gertrude Harriman collection, until recently on loan to Nottingham Castle Museum, generated £2,977,350 (£3,572,820 including the buyer's premium set at a flat rate of 20%) at the West Ruislip saleroom on the afternoon of Thursday, May 17.
Gertrude Harriman (1903-1970) had worked with her husband Otto (1900-1950) in the paste jewellery trade in Bohemia, but the couple moved to London before the war, where they had a wholesale jewellery business. In 1945 they established Ulster Pearls Ltd, a factory making artificial pearls in Co. Antrim.
The couple developed an extensive knowledge and love of Chinese art, acquiring, in the War and immediate post-War years, a varied collection of wares from well-known London dealers such as Bluett's and John Sparks. When Gertrude died in 1970 the collection was loaned initially to Bristol City Museum and from c.1989 until this year to the Nottingham museum. It was the majority of these pieces that were offered for sale by the family at Bainbridge's.
Most lots included multiple paper labels and original documentation detailing their exhibition and purchase history. These included a 10in (26cm) diameter Ming dynasty Xuande (1425-1435) mark and period blue and white dice bowl painted with five-clawed dragons among cloud scrolls, bought by Bluetts on August 6, 1948, for £25 and quickly sold to the Harrimans on August 30, 1948, for £65. It was slightly misshapen but was in good condition with a slight fire crack to the rim and some ground-out chips to count against it.
Bainbridge's vendor was happy to offer it for sale at £20,000-30,000, although the auctioneers pointed to other examples sold in London, Hong Kong and New York - including the very similar bowl sold by Sotheby's for just shy of HK$10m in April 2006.
In a packed Ruislip saleroom (many London dealers chose to attend the sale of this eminently buyable collection rather than the concurrent sale at Bonhams Bond Street) bidding opened at £100,000 before settling down to a contest between London trader Alastair Gibson and a Chinese agent who was also in the room.
The latter won his prize at £1.4m - and two lots later took an 8in (20cm) diameter Hongwu (1368-1398) period underglaze copper red bowl, painted with a peony within a broad band of scrolling chrysanthemum, at £850,000. It had been purchased by the Harrimans from Bluett's for £57 in October 1944.
With the sale bringing a fraction shy of £3m, it appears lightning did strike twice for Peter Bainbridge who famously shattered the world auction record for a Chinese work of art when a Qianlong yang cai reticulated double-walled vase fetched £43m (£51.6m including buyer's premium) in November 2010.
That deal, of course, turned sour, when it joined the long list of Chinese works of art 'sold' but as yet unpaid for.
Bainbridge's sale was scheduled to take place during London's spring series of Asian Art sales where, between them, the three major rooms - Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonhams - offered over 3700 lots in a run of ten sales held between May 14-18.
Auctions were still taking place at Christie's South Kensington as ATG went to press but, as always these days in this market, the series had yielded several dramatic prices.
These were led by Bonhams' sale of a 3½in (9cm) Imperial Qianlong vivid green carved jade seal of double-gourd form for £3m, more than double the estimate, bought over the phone to return to China. Sotheby's too had a very strong individual jade result when a 6½in (17cm) high Qianlong cylindrical white and russet carved brushpot eclipsed its £250,000-350,000 estimate to sell for £1.35m to the Asian trade.
At Christie's a small 3in (8cm) wide Ge type Song dynasty lobed bowl overturned a £20,000-30,000 guide to take £700,000 to an Asian private buyer.
But equally, perhaps because of the sheer volume on offer, these auctions were characterised by a selective overall response from bidders. Looking at the three main Chinese ceramics and works of art sales, the take-up rate by volume was only 50% for Christie's King Street sale on May 15; 66% at Sotheby's the next day and 60% at Bonhams on May 17.
Bonhams' single-owner sale of Japanese works of art from the Edward Wrangham collection on May 15 was better received with an 83% take-up and a new auction high for a work by Shibata Zeshin of £250,000 for a single case lacquer inro.