Published: November 16, 2010
Bainbridges, a small English auction house that advertises probate “house clearance” among its specialty services, more accurately “cleaned house” with its November 11 auction, selling an Eighteenth Century Chinese vase for a record $85.9 million, including buyer’s premium and taxes.
The vase is of yang cai decoration and reticulated double walled construction, which means there is an inner vase that can be viewed through the perforations of the main body. It is 16 inches high and the ovoid body is decorated with four circular cartouches, each masterfully carved and enameled with whimsical fish, all beneath a primrose yellow trumpet neck exquisitely painted.
Offered as the last lot before the furniture section of the sale, the vase dating from the period of China’s Qianlong emperor (1735‱796) had stirred up a lot of interest in the weeks leading up to the sale. Still, according to David Reay, the firm’s auction manager, no one at the firm expected the stratospheric final price †least of all, the consignors, a mother and son from Pinner in London’s West End, who had inherited a semidetached residence and its contents there from the mother’s sister and could hardly afford to pay for the packing services.
“About half my job is going into houses, usually after someone’s deceased, to see if there’s anything worth auctioning,” explained Reay. “So as I was going through the house, I noted some items of furniture, such as a long case clock, a nice table and so forth. Then I was taken to a room and was asked, ‘What about this bookcase?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, maybe we can get a couple of hundred pounds for it,’ and then I saw this interesting vase sitting on top of the bookcase and asked them if they knew anything about it. They said they had previously got it valued at about 800 pounds, but I could tell that it was worth probably more than that.”
Reay brought the vase to the attention of the firm’s consulting appraiser Luan Grocholski, who specializes in Asian art. “Now, Luan has been in the business for about 45 years and it takes a lot to get him excited. So when I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ he said, “[expletive deleted], either it’s the best reproduction I’ve ever seen or it’s the real McCoy.” Even then, however, the specialist put only a $1.3/2 million estimate on the vase.
Subsequent hours of research at the Victoria and Albert and British Museums solidified the estimate, and then, the weekend before the sale, Bainbridges decided to show the vase privately in Mayfair during Asia Week, so hired a room in an office block and stood back amazed as the lines grew to queue up to see the vase. “On Monday, we thought $1′ million; on Tuesday, $3‵ million; on Wednesday, $10‱5 million,” said Reay, who added that actual bidding on the vase during the sale brought further surprises.
The vase opened at $800,000 and after 30 minutes of robust bidding, it hammered for $69.5 million †the highest price ever paid at auction for a Chinese antiquity.
The sale also puts Bainbridges on the collector’s map for a lot more than house clearances. The company was formed 30 years ago as a partnership between Peter Bainbridge, who previously had run an auction business in West London, and his wife, Jane, who had previously been a cataloger at Sotheby’s.
When asked if the Chinese vase represented the largest sale price realized to date by the firm, Reay chuckled and said, “Believe it or not, our largest sale before this vase was $160,000.”
For general information, www.bainbridgesauctions.co.uk or +44 1895 621991.
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