Rumours abound in the trade: what is going on in the Chinese auction business?

opinion The View from Here

We reported a couple of weeks ago on the staggering price of £810,000 achieved for a 20th century vase at auctioneers Fellows in Birmingham. It had enjoyed a rather more conservative low five figure estimate pre-sale ( This, in turn, had followed another remarkably high price for a 20th century altar vase sold by Lawrence’s of Crewkerne for 150 times estimate, £252,000. The latter lot did come apparently with some provenance but one was surprised to learn the frank admission from Fellows that their lot was submitted by a Chinese vendor or vendors.

The trade in London, and, indeed, in the provinces, is awash with rumours and talk of ‘money laundering’. There is no suggestion whatsoever that any auction house is involved in any conspiracy. After all, an auction house cannot put a cap on spirited bidding! Nor would they want to.

Set against this scenario is the move to the top of the market of the London auctioneers, exemplified in the closure of Christies South Kensington. The last time we took in an object for sale at South Ken we were rebuffed on the grounds that it would not reach a minimum lot price of £5,000, and was probably worth £2,000-3,000. That is clearly regarded as too low by the bean counters who have ordered the closure of South Ken! Probably realisable values of at least £10,000-20,000 will be sought by the ‘Big Three’ auction houses in London. And, of course, as ever, they will require firm evidence of impeccable provenance.

The inevitable result is that competent provincial auctioneers like Woolley & Wallis, Dukes of Dorchester, Sworders, Bonhams in Edinburgh, Mallams and Lyon & Turnbull will be offered a greater quantity of lots in the £100- 10,000 range for their sales. That could be very good news for auctioneers in the provinces. It will also likely be good news for buyers who will see a level of quality at achievable prices reach the salerooms. However, some smaller auction houses might lack resources in cataloguing and areas of provenance. That is particularly so when schemes originating in the Far East are often exceedingly cunning and sophisticated.

In many such schemes buyer and seller are often in bed together, to utilise a graphic metaphor for a strong relationship. The seller will, effectively, be the same party as the buyer. Let us postulate that you had £1m. of ‘black’ money to remove from a country where the laws have become harsh and uncompromising in terms of corrupt and/or criminal wealth. You might take a vase which looks good enough to actually be an original, and which might have cost up to £10,000 to make in somewhere like Jingdezhen over a period of as much as one to two years. It is offered for sale with a convincing story in a provincial auctioneer’s sale and the seller (who might not, of course, be the seller at all but his agent) agrees to a very modest estimate.

Railtons Feb 17 (14) Section  of a vase catalogued in a recent sale as ‘Republic’ period. Pretty but certainly not . . .

Such a piece will probably generate a considerable degree of interest and the ‘safe’ prevailing feeling will probably be that it is 20th century, Republic period. This era is becoming something of a catch-all description being safely in the 20th century but also producing some increasingly desirable pieces. There will be a plethora of low bids in the £5,000-10,000 range but, exposed at public auction, it will take off as internet bidders push the price to, let us say, £1m.

The piece will be paid for (unlike some other scams), out of, say, Hong Kong and the auctioneer will net buyer’s premium (£200,000, say) and seller’s commission (say, £150,000). Net funds of around £600,000 will have effectively been removed from the maw of the government of the country in which buyer/seller lives and or works. The loss of £400,000 being a perfectly acceptable price to pay , , , And funds of £600,000 have been laundered and are available for whatever legitimate use might be required. The vase can go to the tip or to the back of a cupboard. It does now, of course, have a stunning sales record and, perhaps, it could be returned to the market at some later date with a successful track record . . .

All this is, of course, entirely hypothetical and we are not suggesting for a moment this might apply to any or all of some recent sales. There are endless variations on this theme. Maybe a fruitful area of research for novelist Lord Archer!

‘It’s Edinburgh’s own Asia Week’ as two Asian sales compete

Bonhams Edinburgh  Edinburgh Bonhams saleroom nicely dressed with rather a lot of huanghuali for Wednesday’s sale   Photo Paul Harris

There aren’t usually many Asian sales in Edinburgh. This week there are two – both on the same day. Ribbed about this, Bonhams’ Ian Glennie joked, ‘It’s Edinburgh’s own Asia week’. Of course, two swallows don’t make a summer and there isn’t much else Asian going on in Edinburgh this week . . .

Glennie avers, ‘We set the date for our spring Asian sale last October, then Lyon & Turnbull announce they are having an Asian sale the same day.’ It does seem that some sort of competitive accommodation has been reached between the two rooms: Bonhams sale is at 11 am and the Lyon & Turnbull event has been put back to 2 pm.

We viewed both sales on Sunday. The Bonhams sale is notweworthy for some rather fine pieces of furniture with rather a lot of huanghuali. The Lyon & Turnbull sale is a mixter maxter: you get the impression it is a ‘filler’ in between its more high profile Asian sales held at locations in London and St Neots. They haven’t printed a catalogue for the sale. That is a bit unusual. Even a roneoed list (you remember the roneo machine?) would have been useful, and very cheap. It is, of course, up online, as usual, but you will need to do your homework in advance and do the computer printouts if you are going to bid in person on site. In the event, we’ve left bids (in both sales) and will be off to London for the day . . .


Tales of the unexpected roll on with another staggering price for a Chinese jar

fellows vase Tales of the unexpected: the Fellows vase sold for £810,000. Photo courtesy Fellows Auctioneers

Last month we confidently predicted that ‘unpredictability will set the tone for 2017’ after a miscatalogued Chinese rare altar vase catalogued as 20th century soared to £252,000. Well, folks, it has happened again, on an even more mega scale. On February 27, at auctioneers Fellows in Birmingham, another supposedly 20th century jar, without any convincing provenance, soared 450 times over estimate (£1200-1800) to reach a staggering £810,000.

Mr Huddleston of Fellows said “We are delighted with the house-record sale of the Chinese wucai fish vase. This vase was consigned via a Chinese client.” Surprising, indeed. The jar/vase went into a general antiques and collectables sale after the auctioneers decided it was 20th century. “Initial research when cataloguing had pointed to a number of historic precedents sold in the tens and hundreds of thousands.

“However, we examined the decoration to the collar and felt that it lacked sophistication of these early pieces.” The idea of it being a real Jiajing (1521-7) 500 year-old jar without cover was rejected but the auctioneers were in for a shock, albeit a pleasant one as the house record was broken.

Bidding began at £1,000 with a handful of telephone bidders plus the usual hundreds online and several bidders in the room. Eventually a bidder in the room caved in at £800,000 and the vase went to a telephone bidder.

One bidder had even flown in from Japan but will have returned home empty handed.

Auctioneers faced in recent years with a flood of fakes now, it appears, are becoming too nervous to take an optimistic view on Chinese items submitted for sale without rock solid provenance. That means the trend of ‘surprises’ will be a feature of the market. And, of course, there will be the ones that get away . . .