Confessions of an Asian Art Auctioneer

imperial robeLast month, Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull held a successful Sunday seminar on various aspects of collecting Chinese art. They rather bravely allowed their Asian art man, Lee Young, to give a vastly entertaining and very frank talk about the most successful Asian items they had sold over the last eight years.

record breaking charger

Scotland’s most expensive piece of Chinese porcelain was sold by L&T last June for a staggering £455,000, inclusive of premium. This was, of course, the highest price ever achieved by L&T in the Chinese market, and it was rendered all the more surprising because of its £2-3,000 estimate. According to Young, once the piece went on show in London “people got excited” and he went back to the family in the West of Scotland who were offering the piece for sale. They then came out with anecdotal evidence relative to the provenance which served to bolster the interest in the market place and produced determined competition for the charger. Young, rather surprisingly, opined that it would be worth more in the marketplace today – maybe £5-800,000.

flambe glaze vase

In the same sale, L& T offered an attractive 18th century flambé vase which had been a failure when it was offered Stateside by Freeman’s, L& T’s associated auction house in the US: it was unpaid for after auction. Accordingly, the Quianlong piece was brought to Edinburgh where it staged a dramatic recovery, fetching £145,000.

Again, in the same sale, was a robe with an Imperial provenance (shown above). Young was asked to visit a house ‘to look at some things’ following some publicity in the press. The robe, formerly used by the Dowager Empress, was in use as a fancy dress item having been acquired 40 years previously from the Leonard Gow Collection. The intention was ‘to send it to the charity shop’. L&T asked to be given the opportunity to sell it and valued the robe at £10-15,000. It fetched £70,000.

Despite problems of attribution amongst a plethora of fakes, a Qiu Baishi watercolour scroll was judged by the market to be the real thing and got £55,000 last year. A  lobed enamel hors d’oeuvre set from a house in Dundeed, where it was not rated as being anything special, was estimated at £8-12,000 and achieved £75,000. Young thought it would get £100-200,000 in the present market.

The only area he saw as now getting more difficult and not showing the same appreciation in the market is objects covered by the CITES regulations. A full tipped entire carved rhino horn which got £73,000 a couple of years ago, might now only get around £50,000. However, ‘most things are gaining all the time’, according to Young. In some instances, prices are substantially better in the US.

However, he asserts, the market is ‘changing all the time’ and trends come and go. Young’s tip for the future is Song Dynasty ware which he feels is seriously undervalued at present.