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Underpriced at Sotheby’s: The “$1,000” Chinese Vase that Sold for $18 Million UPDATED


The $18-million vase: Front and side views (Click photos for magnified images.)

A Sotheby’s auction yesterday, grandly titled, “Informing the Eye of the Collector: Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art from J.T. Tai & Co.,” achieved a strong $36.31 million, which, according to the auction house, “reflect[ed] the reverence for Tai’s legendary
connoisseurship and the electric atmosphere in the salesroom.”

Not exactly.

When it came to Lot 120, the late New York dealer’s “legendary connoisseurship” was called into question by (according to Sotheby’s) “more than seven bidders,” with the anonymous winner deciding that the 16¼-inch vase—which Sotheby’s (presumably relying on Tai’s records) had dated as probably 20th century and estimated at $800-1,200—was really worth $18 million, accounting for almost half the total of the 328-lot sale.

Even the Big Two auction houses sometimes get their estimates (along with the underlying identification of objects) astonishingly wrong. But this was one of the biggest whoppers that I’ve ever encountered. The fact that many bidders were willing to stake megabucks against Sotheby’s considered assessment suggests that the auction house may well have missed what it ought to have caught.

Sotheby’s gave this explanation in the post-sale press release:

The sale was led by An Unusual ‘Famille Rose’ and Gold Decorated Vase, Probably Republican Period, which sold for $18,002,500, having been estimated at $800/1,200. The vase was catalogued as ‘Probably Republican’ (early 20th century) and the estimate reflected this dating.

There was a healthy debate surrounding the age of the piece, with a number of collectors clearly feeling it was significantly earlier. In the end, more than seven bidders competed for the vase, which finally sold to an anonymous bidder on the telephone.

This morning, I asked the auction house: “What caused Sotheby’s to misidentify the vase (if that was, indeed, what happened)?” I received this response from its press office:

Opinions about the date of the vase were divided and we reflected this in our cataloguing by dating it as Probably Republican.

What did the “more than seven” determined bidders believe it actually was?

Sotheby’s own catalogue description (scroll down) gives us a hint:

A group of vases each bearing six-character Qianlong seal marks and of the period [1736-95], show decorative elements that are related to the unusual present example. Compare The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains of Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille-Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, vol. 30, in particular the pear-shaped vase with the cobalt and gilt ground and the iron-red key band on the base, ibid., cat. no. 156, as well as the ruyi-scepter tasseled handles, ibid., cat. no. 118.

Qianlong seal marks? I’ve just been preparing a post, pegged to the current Asia Week in New York, about the current Qianlong Emperor show at the Met. Suddenly, my upcoming photo essay and CultureGrrl Video may have another level of timeliness!

The seal marks on the underside of the $18-million vase

: Here’s another astonishing auction result for a Qianlong vase, at a much higher price—£53.1 million. It happened at Bainbridges, a provincial British auction house, at a sale held four months ago. That vase had been estimated at £800,000 to £1.2 million.

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