RECORD! A Monumental Fencai Imperial Qianlong Period Vase Sells for $24.7 Million

Monumental Fencai Flower and Landscape Vase sold for $24,723,000

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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A George Owen Covered Vase Made in 1913 Could Sell for $21,000 at Bonhams

A Royal Worcester reticulated vase and cover, made by George Owen in 1913 and standing just over five inches tall.

What you see: A Royal Worcester reticulated vase and cover, made by George Owen in 1913 and standing just over five inches tall. Bonhams estimates it at £10,000 to £15,000, or $14,000 to $21,000.

Who was George Owen? He was a British artisan who spent his entire career with Royal Worcester, which was founded in 1751 and still produces porcelain and earthenware. Born in 1845, Owen began his career in 1859, while he was barely into his teens. He enjoyed watching his colleagues who handled piercing work–making porcelain decorated with artful holes–and thought he could do a better job. He was right. He invented his own tools and techniques and he jealously guarded his methods. Owen died in 1917.

The expert: John Sandon, international director of European ceramics and glass at Bonhams.

How rarely do George Owen pieces come up at auction? Individually, they are scarce. We [Bonhams] sell more than anyone else, about half a dozen a year. Over the last ten years, we’ve had 50 pieces. Maybe a dozen a year are on the market worldwide.

Has anyone done a count or survey of the number of pieces Owen made? Because he was always secretive, he didn’t keep records. But I imagine maybe there’s a thousand. Over 40 years he produced pieces, each taking several months stretched over a long period of time.

Is the shape he used for this reticulated vase unique, or did he return to this shape over and over again? The shapes are never unique. They’re the factory’s vases. The same vase could be painted with flowers or other decorations. Owen adapted them by cutting holes in them. He added the pearls around the top–they’re his own invention. I don’t know of another piece that’s precisely like this. He did a small number of each shape, but no two are ever the same.

And he came up with his own tools and techniques to create these pieces? He worked in the Royal Worcester factory’s ornamental casting department. The [pierced pieces] were molded and they cut holes out. He thought he could do better without the molded pattern. He was the only one who tried to cut out holes without any guide in the mold. He developed his own tools to cut the tiny holes. A great many in the pottery industry like to make their own tools–there’s a long tradition of that. He supposedly got the steel for his tools from the staves of corsets.

How did George Owen remove the tiny piece of wet clay waste from the body of the vase after he finished cutting a hole? He would dip the tool into something sticky [most likely oil or honey – Ed.] so with the last cut, it would stick to the tool. If it [the waste clay] did fall inside the piece, there was no way to get it out.

Punching thousands of tiny holes in a wet clay vessel makes it vulnerable to falling in on itself. How did Owen stop his works from collapsing before they reached the kiln? That’s a skill. If it was too wet, it would collapse. Potters learn over the years to get the right consistency. Owen’s difficulty was stopping the clay from getting too dry. To keep the shape, he had to handle it very carefully so it wouldn’t become distorted. Usually he managed to pick it up by the base or the top so it wouldn’t lose its shape. He must have been very careful with it. He had to cut each hole without putting pressure on it [the surface of the vessel].

George Owen used what he called ‘wet boxes’ to rehumidify a piece so he could continue to work on it. How many wet boxes might he have going at once? He must have had a room full of these being worked on. Owen could work a piece for half an hour or an hour before it became too dry to carry on. His work took many hours. A bigger, more elaborate piece might go back into the wet box ten, twenty, forty times. We just don’t know.

Moving a piece in and out of a wet box raises the risk that it won’t make it to the kiln. The losses must… Once it was out of the biscuit kiln, there must have been a great sigh of relief.

And George Owen didn’t let anyone at the factory watch him work? Not even his son, George Potter Owen? That’s always been claimed, but I don’t know how true that is. Craftsmen tend to be secretive to protect their livelihoods. If others learn to do it, they lose their work. They certainly don’t let apprentices learn too much. George Potter Owen may have had a go [at learning his father’s techniques] but he might not have been any good. That’s probably the case. It’s said that no one else, including his son, could do it. Different people at different times have tried to emulate George Owen. I tried too, and made a mess of it. It’s easy to cut big holes. Trying to cut smaller and smaller holes, keeping the holes even, and keeping them in even rows that are the same size–that was his great skill. No one has come close to what George Owen did, and they’ve certainly tried.

And while this might be an obvious point, let me hit it anyway–George Owen did this on his own, without the help of a computer, which wouldn’t have been available to him anyway. He worked out the geometry for himself. He measured the circumference of a piece and planned it by putting tiny dots [on the surface]. We’d use 3-D printers to do this nowadays. Other than the little dots that you see on the clay sometimes, that’s all he did. Each piece is unique in that sense. There’s no other guide than what he achieved himself.

Was this George Owen reticulated vase with cover a commission, or did he make it on spec? It wasn’t on spec, though he occasionally made special orders. He made the vases and the Royal Worcester factory bought them off him and sold them at a profit to a china shop or a department store. It would have cost two pounds when it was made in 1912, and it would have sold for three or four pounds. At the time, that would have been quite a lot for a single piece of china. Another in the factory would have done the gilding.

Bonhams has seven George Owen pieces in the May 2 sale. Is it unusual to have so many? It is. Most often there’s one or two. Sometimes there’s none. Sometimes there’s four. It’s a coincidence on this occasion that we attracted seven pieces. Lot 449 is one of two from the same consigner.

How have you seen the George Owen market change over time? George Owen works have always been expensive and costly. They were not appreciated in the 1960s, but in the late ’70s and early ’80s collectors realized they were something special and paid real money for them. I joined [the profession] in 1975, when a nice George Owen would sell for £700 to £1,000. At that time, that was a lot of money. It seems cheap now that they’re getting £15,000 to £20,000.

What condition is this George Owen reticulated vase with cover in? And how much does condition matter with a George Owen? It’s as it left the kiln. It’s perfect. No problems. But George Owen vases don’t bounce if they hit the floor. They can smash into dust if broken. Even tiny damage can make a difference. If a tiny little hole is nicked in a piercing, that can halve the value. I have to check carefully, row by row. If there’s a tiny nick, it’s no longer perfect, and a restorer can’t bring it back to life again. The fact that this vase is perfect is to its favor.

What is it like to hold this George Owen reticulated vase with cover? Every time you pick it up, it’s a pleasure. It’s light. It feels so fragile that the fact that it’s here at all gives you a bit of a buzz. It’s always exciting to have a piece like this. It calls you over to admire it–it’s one of those pieces.

How to bid: The George Owen reticulated vase with cover is lot 449 in the Fine Glass and British Ceramics auction at Bonhams on May 2, 2018.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.

Also see a 2014 Bonhams video in which John Sandon and his father, Henry, enthuse over the artistry of a different Royal Worcester George Owen vase. Estimated at £60,000 to £80,000, Bonhams sold it for £65,200, or $92,623.

And also see the Museum of Royal Worcester’s web pages on its peerless artisan, George Owen, which shows him “working” on a reticulated vase that’s actually finished.

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SOLD! Rare René Lalique Vase Commands $25,000 at Rago

A Tortues (Turtles) vase by the French glass master and entrepreneur René Lalique, rendered in amber glass with a hand-applied white patina. It was designed in 1926 and produced between 1926 and 1945, when Lalique died.

Update: The Lalique Tortues vase sold for $25,000.

What you see: A Tortues (Turtles) vase by the French glass master and entrepreneur René Lalique, rendered in amber glass with a hand-applied white patina. It was designed in 1926 and produced between 1926 and 1945, when Lalique died. Rago Arts and Auctions estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

This Lalique vase was made from amber glass. Why does it look ruby red, then? “It does come across that way. Without light penetrating them, the colors on a Lalique vase can look different, definitely the darker colors,” says David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions. “My understanding is this is the best of them. You don’t see this color in many pieces to begin with. The patina brings out some of the detailing.”

How rare is this Lalique vase? Rago can only recall handling one other example, which was also a dark amber. His auction house sold it for $34,000 in 2006. While it was in production for almost 20 years, not many were made, probably because of the thickness of the glass and the unusual bulging shape.

How does its relatively large size (10 1/2 inches by 9 1/2 inches) enhance the Lalique vase’s value? “The larger vases were not made in great numbers. It’s not a massive piece, but it’s bigger than a lot of them,” says Rago. “It’s a statement piece of Lalique.”

What else makes this Lalique vase special? “Glass can be feminine by nature. I find this to be a fairly masculine piece in the form, the size, the weight of it, and the design,” says Rago. “It’s not a soft pink. It’s not a particularly pretty color. Instead of being fluid and curvilinear, this is heavy, large, and thick. Most of his vases tend not to have that type of strength. And it’s big, it’s rare, and it’s in perfect condition. If you have a checklist for a major molded piece of Lalique, you have it all.”

How to bid: The Lalique Tortues vase is lot 1000 in the Solana Collection of Lalique Glass auction, taking place May 20, 2017 at Rago.

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Surprise! A Chinese Cloisonné Vase Fetches More Than $812,000

Chinese Cloissone vaseJPG(1)

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 for the Chinese Cloisonné vase? “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 Chinese Cloisonné 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 the Chinese Cloisonné vase 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 Chinese Cloisonné 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.

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SOLD! A Qianlong Chinese Vase Commanded More Than $224,000

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.

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 on the Qianlong Chinese vase 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 Qianlong Chinese 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, 2017.

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Image is courtesy of Christie’s.

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SOLD! Wright Sold That Amazing Macchie Vase for $8,450

A macchie (mah-key-aye) vase created circa 1890 by the Italian company Francesco Ferro e Figlio.

Update: The macchie vase sold for $8,450.

What you see: A macchie (mah-key-aye) vase created circa 1890 by the Italian company Francesco Ferro e Figlio. Wright estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

What is Francesco Ferro e Figlio? It was a company founded in 1880 by Francesco Ferro and his son, Ferdinando. It ceased doing business under this name after Francesco died in 1901.

Wait, this vase was made in 1890? The late 19th century? Seriously? “So many 19th century pieces really do look modern,” says Sara Blumberg, a consultant for Wright. “This has no handles and no great ornamentation except for the glass itself. They really were making a step forward out of the baroque.”

How difficult would this macchie vase have been to make in 1890? “Regardless of the technique, there are great losses. There’s a level of difficulty when dealing with different types of glass in the same vessel. You can think of it as studio glass in that regard,” she says. “A lot of the aspects are dependent on the day, the blower, the conditions, and luck as well.”

The macchie vase stands 12 inches tall. Did its size pose a challenge to the glassblower? “Generally speaking, the larger a vessel becomes, the more difficult it is to make,” Blumberg says. “Twelve inches may not seem incredibly large, but for the 19th century, it is.”

Is the macchie vase unique? “It’s unique in the sense that every vase is hand-blown. But in 25 years, I’ve never handled one,” she says. “It’s really very rare.”

What does “macchie” mean? It means “spot,” or “spotted.” It’s a literal description of the vase’s appearance.

What else makes this macchie vase special? “It’s rather startling to look at. It’s a simple vessel, but there’s all this activity on the surface. It’s like looking at an abstract painting,” she says. “It’s quite early, but it has a modernity to it. There’s an artistic presence here that’s very intentional, and beautiful to see. That’s what makes the piece so exciting and rare. You don’t come across it very often.”

How to bid: The macchie vase is lot 223 in The Design Collection of Dimitri Levas, taking place June 8, 2017 at Wright.

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Image is courtesy of Wright.

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