On May 18 the Newbury firm sold a Qianlong (1736- 1795) mark and period tianqiuping or ‘heavenly globe vase’ of a previously unknown type, worked in a striking palette of gold and slightly raised silver against a vivid blue ground with bats and flying cranes, each holding emblems associated with the eight immortals of Daoism. The message is one of longevity and prosperity.
The 2ft (60cm) vase, with a six-character mark suggesting an imperial past, was purchased by a surgeon in the 1980s for a few hundred pounds and passed to his son who, for a while, displayed it in his kitchen.
Mark Newstead, specialist consultant at Dreweatts for Asian ceramics and works of art, first saw it in the 1990s.
The vendor decided to sell this year with hopes of £100,000-150,000. In good condition (it had a hair crack to the neck), it was widely predicted to be a seven-figure lot and after 15 minutes of bidding it did not disappoint. It sold to one of a number of international phone bidders for a price that with 25% buyer’s premium added was close to £1.45m.
This was the second of two £1m-plus lots in the the May series. The Important Chinese Art sale at Sotheby’s on May 11 had been topped by an exceptional Qianlong doucai ‘nine dragon’ vase that came for sale from a Scottish private collection and by family descent since the 19th century.
Decorated with nine dragons soaring across the sea and sky, this vase is one of just two known – the other (its pair painted in mirror image) is in the Porzel lansammlung, Dresden.
At 2ft 2in (67cm) high, Sotheby’s vase has been reduced a little at the neck but the imperfection was more than reflected in the estimate of £100,000-150,000. Worth perhaps £3m-5m in perfect condition, it took £1.5m (plus 26/21% buyer’s premium).
Despite the general observation that ‘it gets harder every time to build a sale’, several of the UK’s premier auctioneers found well provenanced objects to appeal to the upper echelons of the Chinese market.
The sale at Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury on May 17 included seven jades purchased from Spink & Son, London, in the 1960s by Gordon Quance (1931-2017). The original invoices survived including one dated July 17, 1963, recording the £1100 purchase of an 8in (20cm) pale celadon archaistic vase (fangu) that was formerly in the collection of Queen Maria of Yugoslavia (1890-1961).
The Qianlong emperor was a passionate collector of Chinese antiques and this vase is one of many pieces that carry his words of appreciation.
Dated to the year of the snake (or yisi year), 1785, it translates as: ‘This precious jade comes from Hetian and has been carefully carved into a gu-shaped vase. Modern designs are too vulgar to use, and so instead I have imitated an archaic style. It is a rare shape with taotie mask designs. The vase was once used as a drinking vessel during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, whereas I now use it to enjoy flowers.’
One seal reading hui xin bu yuan can be translated as ‘enlightened mind not far’. Another reading de chong fu can be translated as ‘sign of virtue within’.
Objects carrying Qianlong imperial poems have a deep resonance with Chinese buyers. This vase, modestly estimated at £10,000-15,000, sold at £250,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).
A Qianlong mark and period green enamelled ‘dragon’ jar and cover was one of several lots in Salisbury that came by descent from the collection of Admiral Robert Coote (1820-98).
Enlisting in the Royal Navy in 1833, he was made commander of HMS Volcano from 1845, HMS Victory from 1860, HMS Gibraltar from 1864 and HMS Arethusa from 1867. Between 1878-81 he served as commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy China Station, with bases located in Singapore, Hong Kong and Wei Hai.
This 8in (20cm) jar carried a paper label inscribed Green & white jar; from Peking Oct.6 1879. Arrived Shales and unpacked Dec. 12. 1879. very good. It made £155,000.
Famille rose ‘birds’ dish
Chiswick Auctions’ sale of Asian art on May 16-17 was topped by a Qianlong mark and period famille rose ‘birds’ dish. Estimated at £30,000- 50,000, it took £130,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).
The dish, a front and back cover lot in a Christie’s Amsterdam sale back in 1993, is typical of the synthesis of Eastern and Western technological and artistic traditions that characterise wares from the long reign of the Qianlong emperor.
This mixture of styles is highlighted by the very different decoration to the three planes of the piece: the sides (five-clawed dragons against a lapis blue ground), the interior (birds and a border decoration akin to decoration on Beijing enamels) and the base (a phoenix encircled by five bats against an Imperial yellow ground).
Unusually, the mark of the emperor is codified within two seal marks on the interior of the piece, while the palace mark, Gu yue xuan, is carefully placed within a decorative border around the foot.
The last emperor
Also at Dreweatts, a 12in (30cm) high flambé hu vase with a mark for the last emperor Xuantong raced away to bring £145,000.
It was one of four vases and two bowls given by the court of Emperor Xuantong (Puyi) to Joseph Carson (d.1949) following his help in tackling the fire that engulfed the Jianfu Palace Garden complex in the Forbidden City on June 27, 1923.
The vase came by family descent together with a painted fan and palace documentation. It is believed Carson and his wife Tatiana knew Puyi personally, referring to him by his chosen Western name ‘Henry’.
The exception to this array of Qing magnificence was the sale of a bronze figure of the deity Amoghapasa that took £210,000 (plus 25% buyer’s p r emi um) at Sworders’ Asian Art sale in Stansted Mountfitchet on May 13.
The 3in (8cm) high figure made by the cire perdue (lost wax) casting process is thought to date from the 11th or 12th century, made towards the end of the Pala dynasty which f lourished from the 8th-12th century in far north-eastern India.
At the time the region bordering Nepal was one of the last strongholds of Buddhism in India and became a centre for production of Buddhist artefacts for pilgrims. The use of silver and copper inlay suggests this sculpture was an object of particularly special veneration.
It sparked an extraordinary phone battle between UK dealers. It is among the highest prices ever paid at auction for a Pala bronze.