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The 8ft (2.44m) high Meiji vase has since been reunited with its pair and a centrepiece thus re-forming a landmark Japanese garniture, last together over 120 years ago. 
“It is moments like these that make me proud to be a collector” said Khalili Collections founder Prof Nasser David Khalili. 

The details of the commission of two huge vases and a centrepiece for Japan’s stand at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago are well known. An all-star team was assembled for the project: working to designs by the Nihonga artist Araki Kampo, a team of craftsmen under Shirozayemon Suzuki of Yokohama and Seizayemon Tsunekawa of Nagoya took over four years to complete the three pieces that were then approved by the emperor. At the time they were dubbed the largest examples of cloisonné ever made. 


The triptych of cloisonné vases as displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The vase on the left resides in the Khalili collection. The censer is in the collection of Hirose Atsushi at the Tokyo National Museum while auction house Clars auctioned the vase on the right on February 17, 2019. Image: Courtesy of UC Riverside California Museum of Photography.

The Khalili Collections, began by the British-Iranian scholar, collector and philanthropist Prof Khalili five decades ago, had acquired one vase from the set in the early 1990s in Los Angeles, later purchasing the centrepiece, displayed at the Tokyo National Museum, from Japanese collector Hirose Atsushi in early 2000.

The whereabouts of the last vase remained a mystery until it was discovered to be hiding in plain sight – in the main dining room at one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s oldest restaurants, Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley. It had been purchased in Chicago by proprietor Frank Spenger and brought to the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. 

Raphael Khalili said his father had been aware of the location of the ‘missing’ vase for some years. “We had approached the Spenger’s restaurant many times to buy it. Unfortunately, they refused. Fast forward a few years, the restaurant chain was sold and the vase put up for auction. We were made aware through a number of our dealers who had seen it in Antiques Trade Gazette.”

It was offered for sale at Clars Auction Gallery of Oakland, California, on February 17 with an estimate of $30,000- 50,000. It had several areas of damage but attracted multiple bidders before selling at $110,000 (plus buyer’s premium).
The three-piece garniture has now been reunited in the Khalili’s collection of Meiji art that is considered, alongside the Japanese imperial collection, to be the world’s finest.