What you see: A monumental Fencai Imperial vase dating to the Qianlong period. Skinner sold it in 2014 for $24.7 million– a record for any Chinese work of art sold in the Western world.
The expert: Judith Dowling, director of Asian works of art at Skinner.
Can you tell us what we know about how the Fencai Imperial Qianlong vase came to be? Why might it have been made? The theory, and I say theory because in China there are no actual documents, comes from observation of a vase in the Palace Museum in Beijing called the “mother of porcelain.” The Qianlong Emperor wanted a compilation of accomplishments the Chinese had made up to that point in porcelain. By repute, the superintendent [of the Imperial porcelain works] was supposed to be quite extraordinary. We believe he had to fire the vase [put it in the kiln] at least 14 times. It’s very large, with fine enamel work. It had to illustrate different techniques from different centuries–celadon, Ming blue and white–sort of like a sampler of porcelain technology. That’s why they had to fire it so many times, because the clay is fired differently [at different temperatures] for different applications. But there are no diaries that say, ‘Here’s what we did and how we did it.’
So this was an exceptionally challenging piece for the Imperial porcelain works to make? Especially with the ancient firing techniques. It could have exploded. It could have sagged. That’s why the one in the Palace Museum is the “mother of porcelain.” When ours was discovered, it was ‘Aha! There’s another one.’
And would the Emperor have kept this Fencai Imperial Qianlong vase for himself? Yes, he would have been very proud of it. He would have rejoiced in the success of it. We know at least two survive. We don’t know if they came out of the kiln on the same day. It was so famous, even at the time, that reproductions were made. When we discovered our piece, it was listed as a reproduction. Since our sale, people have offered three or four reproductions done in the early 19th or 20th centuries.
How are you sure the Fencai Imperial Qianlong vase is not a reproduction? It was deaccessed from a very small museum. I was there. They said, ‘We have a very large vase that’s had some small repairs. Want to have a look?’ They dragged it out. It was dirty. I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ I didn’t put it in the [Skinner] warehouse, I put it in my office. It sat here for a few months. One day I got a rag and bucket and cleaned it. I thought, ‘Wow, what is this?’ I didn’t know about the ‘mother of porcelain’ until I saw it in a book. Then I started to deconstruct the whole thing. I began to think the vase was from the same time period, and believe maybe it was one of a pair. It is identical [to the one in the Palace Museum]. With all the effort involved in producing this, it’s not conceivable that they’d only do one. We started to get information on the mark on the one in the Palace Museum, and it was identical. We had no one to confirm it. We had to publish it. It went viral in 48 hours. People flew in from Beijing to see it. That’s when we decided to do a preview during Asia Week in New York. It was thrilling to see excitement from people who knew what they were looking at.
How did you put an estimate on the Fencai Imperial Qianlong vase? We had no idea what to put on it. Nothing like it had sold. [Bidding opened at $150,000 to $250,000.]
Did it set an auction record for Chinese porcelain? When it sold for $24 million, that was the most paid for any work of Chinese art in the Western world. The only porcelain that sold for more was the Meiyintang Chicken Cup, which sold in Hong Kong for $36 million. It was thrilling to see the excitement of people all over the world. It was all about the ‘Wow’ factor of finding a second vase.
What was your role in the auction? Our CEO was the auctioneer. I was standing next to her. We had bidders on the phone and some in the room. We limited it to people who could give us a retainer. The only people who bid were qualified. There were 20 at the start. It went very quickly, but it started very slowly, going up by $100,000. Finally someone in the audience yelled, ‘$5 million.’ Then it just started, back and forth and back and forth. Then it slowed down to one person on the phone and one in the audience. The person in the audience won. People jumped up and clapped. It was very exciting.
What is the Fencai Imperial Qianlong vase like in person? [Laughs] We had several very important people come and look at it and say, ‘I think it’s ugly.’ It’s very ornate, and it’s big–38 inches tall. If you don’t like enameled, fancy, big vases, you won’t want to live with such a thing. The Emperor was making a statement. He wanted to have a piece that surpassed anything else in size and technique. That’s what makes it so special.
Why will this vase stick in your memory? Because there it was, hidden away for many years and sort of ignored. It was like Cinderella coming out to finally be appreciated and heralded for accomplishments done at the time. It was wonderful to be able to discover it. It kept speaking to me, in the corner of my big office. It wasn’t until I got a bucket of water that I thought, ‘Wow,’ then that was it. And I think everybody rejoiced [at its discovery]–it was special and touching for me to see. We are a mid-level auction house. Representatives from London, New York, and Hong Kong all came to see the vase. It’s an example of what a masterpiece it is. It speaks to everyone.
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This post for The Hot Bid debuted on the Skinner blog on September 10, 2018.
Image is courtesy of Skinner.
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