Fine Chinese art is melting auctioneers’ gavels

Fierce bidding and rocketing prices coloured the latest auction of fine Chinese art by Bonhams in London.
A pair of Chinese famille rose `melon’ teapots and covers sold at Bonhams in London on May 12, 2011. The pair sold for 1.3 million pounds, beating an estimate of 20,000 pounds to 30,000 pounds.

There was barely standing room and a tangible buzz at Bonhams Fine Chinese Art Sale in London last week, which saw many items rocket way beyond their pre-sale estimates. The sale ended with a sold total of £16.9m with 95 per cent sold by value.

This takes Bonhams Asian Art week total – including two Japanese Art sales (£1.6m and £1.7m) and an Asian Works of Art sale (£1.2m) at Knightsbridge to a massive £21,473,200. This result puts Bonhams in the lead on Asian sales in London at close of play today.

Colin Sheaf, Bonhams Asia Chairman and Head of Asian Art at Bonhams said: “This sale once again shows the power of the Chinese art market and the wish of buyers to obtain the best works of art. This sale set a new record total for Chinese Art at Bonhams and gives us the lead for Asian Art in London today. It is a fantastic feeling, especially after being on the rostrum selling the 556 lots  from10am to 7.30pm with one five-minute break!” 

Top item in the sale was Lot 368, a rare pair of famille rose ‘melon’ teapots with iron-red Imperial Qianlong seal marks, moulded with five lobes in a naturalistic form, were estimated to sell for £20,000-30,000 but went on to achieve an astonishing £1,341,600.

These small delicate teapots had come from a Scottish private collection where for 50 years they had remained unsuspected as being of much value. Gordon Mcfarlan, Bonhams Director in Glasgow found them by chance. “I was asked by a client to collect a number of items from her home that she wished to sell. While I was there I spotted the teapots and told her I believed they might be important so she decided to consign them too. She had lived with the teapots for more than 50 years after her father collected them.”

Because expert opinion was divided over the provenance of the teapots Bonhams felt it could not guarantee the Imperial Qianlong history and so opted for a lower estimate allowing the market to decide their true value which it did decisively. The buyer from China will be taking them home.

Lot 81, a yellow jade sceptre (ruyi), linked to the court of the Qianlong emperor sold for £1,308,000, ten times its £120,000 estimate. According to the consigner’s family history, which is supported by records illustrating the progress of British troops in Beijing at the time, this ruyi was acquired by a military attaché posted to Beijing at the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.  He was attached to the staff of Brigadier-General A. Gaselee, the commander of the British contingent assisting in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion on behalf of the Imperial Court, as one of the Eight Allied Powers.

Yellow jade was a favourite at the Qing court, and is believed to have been particularly admired by the Qianlong Emperor. The large number of Imperial vessels and decorative items worked from this sought-after colour that are held in the Qing court collections demonstrate its popularity.

Among other top lots were two 3,000 year old bronze ritual vessels that emerged from a little known Canadian collection created by a family who fled the Nazis and spent WWII in China, joining relatives in Canada after the war. Lot 249 sold for £1,200,000 and lot 250 for £636,000.

A set of ivory and zitan wood mounted erotic carvings sold for £804,000. This unique set of Chinese erotic ivory panels mounted in zitan wood screens possibly comes from the court of the Qianlong Emperor.  The exquisite 18th-century ivory scenes show couples enjoying amorous embraces in a variety of leafy palace gardens. These superb panels of Oriental erotica are the latest discovery that will doubtless attract competition from Chinese bidders keen to buy back their heritage.  Asaph Hyman, a senior specialist in Bonhams Chinese Department, says of the carvings: “The exquisite ivory panels mounted in zitan wood are a superb example of Qing dynasty ivory carving at its zenith. Given the rare quality and the use of this scarce zitan wood, an imperial court attribution is highly plausible.”

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