Surprise! A Chinese Cloisonné Vase Estimated at $400 to $600 Fetches More Than $812,000 at Quinn’s

 

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What you see: A 10-inch-tall Chinese cloisonné bottle vase, initially believed to date to the 18th or 19th century, and estimated at $400 to $600. In April 2017 it sold for $812,500 at Quinn’s Auctions, via the iGavel online platform.

How did you arrive at the $400 to $600 estimate? “The first thing we did was look at the condition. It was heavily restored,” says Matthew Quinn, executive vice president of Quinn’s Auction Galleries. “We try always to have super-conservative estimates. We didn’t know the full extent until we watched it play out. We thought the vase might be 18th century. We didn’t know it was 14th century.”

Why did you describe the vase as dating to the 18th or 19th century? “It looked like it had sufficient age to fit that category. We were still wrong. That’s the beauty of the marketplace,” he says, laughing.

What marks it as being from the 14th century? “The form more than anything. The bottle form, and the colors of the enamels. We were told it’s from the late 14th or early 15th century. The bottle form was only done then, and it wasn’t copied until late in the 20th century. And the yellow and red–those particular colors were only used in that time frame,” he says.

Were you the auctioneer during the sale? “We sold it through iGavel, an online-only site,” he says. “Bidding comes in on iGavel every five minutes toward the end. It mimics what goes on in a sale room. With the five minute extensions, it took a long time to sell the vase–an hour, an hour and a half at least. It was fascinating to watch it go.”

Where were you as you watched the sale? “I was on the road. I expected it to do OK. A minute to close, it was at $12,000, then $15,000. I thought, ‘Eh, it’s doing OK.’ It got close to close. Then it was $30,000, and it went pretty handily up to $50,000. I called Lark [Mason, founder of iGavel] at that point. It kept going and going and going. It was wild. Bidders were taking two to three minutes to place each bid. They were taking their time, not like the high pace of an auction room, where the bids come in two or three seconds. I’m not sure if it was part of their strategy or not.”

Did the vase set an auction record? “We haven’t been able to find much [corroborating information],” Quinn says. “Lark thought it might have been in record territory for a bottle vase, but there are so few of them [reflected in auction archives] we weren’t able to find much. Rarity is not always a good thing. Just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it’s valuable, but in this case, it was.”

What else makes this vase interesting? “Everybody wants to know how we find these treasures. You find them in the places you least expect. This vase was stuck up in a barn, in the back of the butler’s pantry,” he says, explaining he was called in to sort through the contents of a family farm to prepare it for sale.

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Image is courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries.

SOLD! The Qianlong Chinese Vase Decorated in Europe Commanded More Than $224,000 at Christie’s

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Update: The vase sold for £173,000, or about $224,300.

What you see: A Regency ormolu-mounted Chinese flambe-glazed vase and cover. The porcelain vase has a Qianlong incised seal mark of the period (1736-1795). The ormolu mounts are attributed to Vulliamy & Son, circa 1806. Christie’s estimates it at £120,000 to £180,000, or $153,000 to about $229,000.

Is flambe glaze a Qianlong-era Chinese invention? Was it difficult to make a flambe-glazed vase? Yes and yes. “It was a development of the late 18th century and it was desirable almost from the moment it was developed. It must have been very experimental at the time. This is probably one of the rarer types of glazes,” says Marcus Rädecke, director and head of the department of European furniture and works of art at Christie’s, explaining that the viscous glaze slowly ran down the curving body of the vase during the firing process, and the heat of the kiln caused a chemical change that created the multi-color effect.

The lot notes say the vase has a “Qianlong incised seal mark and of the period (1736-1795).” Could you explain that aspect in more detail? “The six-character reign mark identifies it as an Imperial piece,” he says. “In three rows, from right to left it gives the dynasty, the emperor, and the reign. It lets us date it precisely, and it gives the vase extra value.”

How many flambe-glazed vases managed to leave China in the 18th century? “Few made it over to Europe at that time,” Rädecke says. “They must already have been incredibly valued then. When they [the European artisans, known as bronziers, who added the ormolu] mounted it, they took great care not to damage the porcelain or pierce it. You cannot lift the vase by the handles. They’re purely decorative. They’re not attached to the vase.”

The mounts are attributed to Vulliamy & Son, an elite British clockmaker that would have had an ormolu workshop. Why would this have been a challenging commission for them? “It must have been quite complicated to construct this without drilling holes in the porcelain to hold the bottom ends of the handles,” he says. “If you carefully pull and turn the lid, it comes off with no marks on the porcelain. The stopper [not visible in the picture] comes out completely and you can look into the mount. The handles are attached to the neck and sit loosely on it. The mounts are so precisely made. The neck fits without any gaps anywhere. It reflects the quality and precision you’d only find with a clockmaker.”

This vase was made in China and has European decorations that were added later, perhaps decades later. Does it appeal equally to Asian and European bidders? Oh gosh yes. “We sold it five years ago when it came from Harewood [House] and there was great interest at that time,” Rädecke says. “The winner and the underbidder were Chinese clients, but we had bids from English and American clients. It appealed to an incredibly wide audience.”

What else makes this vase special? “To me, as a specialist, there are items I like because they’re beautiful and items I like because they’re incredibly well-made. Sometimes it all works together. I’d love to take this vase home,” he says. “The porcelain is fantastic and enriched in Europe, but not too much. Both cultures do their bit. The harmonies are perfect, I feel.”

How to bid: The vase is lot 8 in The Exceptional Sale, scheduled at Christie’s London for July 6.

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Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

UPDATE: Christie’s Sells a Chinese Zitan Bed with Bodacious Legs for $3.6 Million

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Update: Christie’s sold the 18th century Chinese Luohan bed for $3.6 million.

What you see: An 18th century Chinese Luohan bed, made from Zitan wood, estimated at $2 million to $3 million. (A Luohan is someone who is enlightened, but has yet to become a Buddha.) Though it’s at least three centuries old, the three-rail bed is as sleek and as modern-looking as anything you’d find in a Holly Hunt showroom.

What is Zitan wood? It’s a dense, slow-growing Chinese hardwood that was prized by the wealthy, and by scholars. It has a tight wood grain and a wine-purple color.

It’s called a “bed”, but did its 18th century Chinese owners use it like a bed? It might have had pillows on it, and owners and guests might have napped on it, but the bed served as an indoor-outdoor couch, according to Christie’s specialist Michelle Cheng: “It’s so expensive, it would have been used for various activities throughout the day–sitting on it to look at antiques, discuss poetry, and contemplate scenery.” Servants would have moved the heavy bed around at the bidding of its owner.

What else made this bed a status symbol with the Chinese elite? “Zitan wood is a prestigious, luxurious material, and the carver had to waste a lot of it to get to this form,” Cheng says.

What sets the bed apart from other Chinese furnishings of the time? “It’s unusual for the dramatic curve of the legs, and their sheer chunkiness,” Cheng says. “It seems like they can’t support the bed, they’re so curved. They are bodacious legs.”

Why is the bed estimated at $2 million to $3 million? “This is a great example of the type, and the quality of the material is extremely high,” Cheng says. “And it’s a very elegant object. It’s really stunning. When you stand in front of it, you’re overcome by its subtle quietness.”

How to bid: The bed is lot 643 in The Marie Theresa L. Virata Collection of Asian Art: A Family Legacy, which takes place at Christie’s New York on March 16, 2017.

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Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

UPDATE: Sotheby’s Dishes Up an Ultra-Rare Piece of Ming Dynasty Porcelain

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Update: The Ming dynasty reserve decorated peony dish sold for $2.1 million.

What you see: An exceptionally rare and large fine blue-and-white reserve decorated peony dish, estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million.

When was the Xuande Period? It lasted from 1426 to 1435. Though it was brief, it was a productive and important period for Ming dynasty porcelain. “Everything came together,” says Angela McAteer, vice president and head of Sotheby’s Chinese works of art department. “There was widespread use of the imperial reign mark, the dragon became symbolic of the court, and the court really took control of the kiln production,” she says, explaining that it focused the Chinese porcelain works on its own needs rather than creating its greatest prizes as diplomatic gifts.

How was this Peony dish made? With skill and difficulty. “In this period, even firing something of this elegance, form, and size is challenging,” says McAteer, who notes how “well-potted” it is. “Getting a uniformity to the blue color is a challenge. Getting a realistic, crisp outline on the floral decorations is a challenge. There were various points where they could have been tripped up in making something like this.”

What makes the dish exceptionally rare? Only three others like it are known. As visually striking as its reserve decoration is–rendering in blue what would normally be in white, and vice-versa–it was technically difficult and far more expensive to make. “Cost is primarily the thing. It involved more layers of production, and more steps,” McAteer says, stating that the cobalt needed for the blue color probably was imported. “It’s a large dish, and the cobalt covers the inside and the outside. It would have required a huge amount of raw material.”

Was the dish ever used? “Absolutely, it would have been used to furnish the court, presumably for banqueting,” says McAteer, while adding that we cannot be sure of exactly how the Chinese court used it. Its most recent European owner refrained from putting it to work. “It has a wonderful, brilliant glaze that is remarkably unscuffed,” she says. “It would have had a wall mount. That’s why it’s so wonderfully well-preserved. It wasn’t used to hold keys.”

How to bid: The peony dish is lot 6 in the Ming: The Intervention of Imperial Taste auction at Sotheby’s New York on March 14.

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Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.