Kangxi dragon vases continue to challenge the collector

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Lot 34 in Auctionata sale of December 18 Meiping dragon vase detail

Just over a year ago, on December 3 2014 auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull at Crosshall Manor, Cambridgeshire, sold a Kangxi meiping vase 23cm. in height and with dragon decoration for £240,000 hammer. It was something of a surprise because it was estimated at £2,000-3,000, which was probably just about right as a selling price for a pretty but modest vase which had, historically, suffered damage. However, it came with a missive which revealed that it was a gift to its erstwhile owner, the late Lady Stewart, from her respected Hong Kong dealer (who sold her much of her very fine snuff box collection), Hugh Moss. This excellent provenance duly propelled the price into the stratosphere. There was much merriment in the room as it was knocked down to telephone bidder . . .

In case you were outbid on that vase, there is what might be good news. A very, very similar one comes up for sale on Friday on Auctionata (Berlin), lot no. 34. It is estimated at around euros 10,000. It is of the same form (meiping), same height (23cm.) and is also decorated with a very similar dragon design, but which is not exactly the same. To the base, however, there is a very different mark: a horizontal in-line mark as opposed to the two column vertical mark on Lady Stewart’s vase.

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The Lyon & Turnbull vase

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 Auctionata vase

During the Kangxi period vases were made in this style in blue and white, as well as in copper-red. They are not that common, however, these days. Auctionata, in their catalogue notes aver, ‘Meiping Vases with such [a] brilliant painting and bearing the mark of the Kangxi Emperor are very rare. A very similar vase is illustrated in: Elias, A Dealer’s Hand: The Chinese Art World through the Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi, New York 2013, p. 345, fig. 423. Another closely related example is in the collection of the Shanghai Museum and was exhibited in the exhibition Sovereign Splendor in 2011. Cf. Eliëns (ed.), Keizerlijk porselein uit het Shanghai Museum, Zwolle/The Hague 2011. Furthermore, other related versions can be found in some of the best collections of Chinese porcelain worldwide. Cf. a vase from the Palace Museum in Beijing, illustrated in Kangxi Yongzheng Qianlong, Hong Kong 1989, p. 23, pl. 6 and one from the Wang Xing Lou Collection, illustrated in Imperial Perfection, The Palace Porcelain of Three Chinese Emperors, Hong Kong 2004, no. 1.

‘The five-clawed dragon continued to be an Imperial symbol throughout the Qing Dynasty. The depiction of the dragon as on the present vase is characteristic for the Kangxi period, which is exemplified by a fierce and dominant demeanour adding a stronger impression of authority and majesty. This representation is shown by the detailed painting of the head and the scales, which demonstrates a development of the later Ming Dynasty versions. The full-faced view of the dragon already existed in Ming times but was extremely popular in the Qing Dynasty, distinguished by a greater feeling of vitality and a warlike spirit. ‘

We have compared both vases from photographs (we have only handled one and that was the Lady Stewart version). They are both equally well painted using the skills developed over the centuries by Chinese craftsmen. Such skills are, of course, extant to this day, particularly around Jingdezhen where exquisite work is achieved. Of the two marks, however, we much prefer the mark on the one sold by L&T last year. In our view, there is considerably less assurance in the creation of the in-line mark. As one expert put it, “The writing of the mark suggests someone trying to write in somebody else’s style, whereas the Stewart mark looks like someone just writing who has done it a thousand times.”

Marks, of course, are a tricky area and experts will often disagree on the very same mark. It is only our opinion and is not to demean what looks like a very pretty vase! As ever, it is a matter of caveat emptor . . .

lot162 mark cu   lot 34 draogn vase base

The marks to base: above, top The late Lady Stewart’s vase  Above Auctionata vase

Literature: Vgl. Eliëns (ed.), Keizerlijk porselein uit het Shanghai Museum, Zwolle/The Hague 2011. Vgl. Elias, A Dealer’s Hand: The Chinese Art World through the Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi, New York 2013

Condition: The vase to be sold this week is in good condition with a minimal chip on the underside of ring stand, barely visible to the naked eye. The height measures 23 cm.

 

If the Chinese art well is drying up, how will the market change?

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Putting together a well balanced catalogue with a few star items to carry along the sale and boost the prices on some of the less desirable pieces is a perennial problem for auctioneers. Nowhere is this more true than in the market for Chinese art objects where a few particularly desirable items tend to build interest in a sale as a whole. If you’re flying in from Beijing to buy a tasty thangka or a piece of particularly promising porcelain, then you might as well look closely at the catalogue for other lots to amortise your costs.

There was an interesting observation made in last week’s Antiques Trade Gazette by correspondent Roland Arkell. ‘Each year, as the well of market-fresh material from old Western collections begins to empty, it seems a little harder to put together a box-ticking sale of Chinese works of art than it was 12 months before. The squeeze seen in London this season – where takings in the Chinese marketplace effectively halved – is being seem elsewhere too. The low-hanging fruit has long been picked.’

This is an issue which is consuming auctioneers and dealers alike. Their livelihood depends on constantly unearthing interesting new things to sell. It is a given that a substantial proportion of the purchased or looted Chinese art imported into the UK during the 19th and 19th centuries has been unearthed by auctioneers trawling country houses, by specialist dealers approached to handle sales and, to a lesser extent, by ‘knockers’ accessing smaller and more remote collections. How much is actually left in the UK, whether reposing in glass cabinets or lurking unloved under the sink, is anybody’s guess but there can be little doubt of the fact, as Arkell puts it, that ‘the low-hanging fruit has long been picked’.

However, capitalism is a resilient phenomenon with a remarkable ability to regenerate under the most difficult conditions. The demand in the marketplace for Chinese art has, thus far, been very selective. It has been for the very best pieces, for large and instantly impressive pieces and for the undamaged. Nice large vases, Qianlong or Yongzheng mark and period, pairs of preferably, have tended to sail through the auction rooms amidst rising price hysteria. But what will happen when the most beautiful big vases and the most exquisite little pieces of jade are no longer to be had?

Well, of course, buyers will move on (or be directed by the cleverer dealers and auctioneers) to some rather more abstruse, currently unappreciated, areas of Chinese collecting currently not in favour with the market. There will be a renewed enthusiasm for more ordinary but, nonetheless, well crafted objects. And damaged items, presently abjured, will become acceptable if well and professionally repaired.

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The Mary Stewart meiping vase: some small change out of £300,000

Last week at the Lyon & Turnbull sale in Cambridgeshire, a relatively small but quite pretty 19th century blue and white meiping vase, with an apocryphal Kangxi mark to the base, was offered for sale. You know the sort of thing, some of us have half a dozen of them in the storeroom . . . It was a vase that might reasonably have been expected, on a good day, to get £2,000. Although indubitably pretty, it has been extensively restored at some point in its history. Incredibly (it seemed in the room), it leapt up to a hammer price of £240,000 (premium would add another £59,250 to the bill taking it within a whisper of £300,000). Admittedly, it had a little bit of provenance, coming from the collection of the late Mary Stewart. She had been given it by her dealer Hugh Moss ‘to put on her desk and keep flowers in’. Of course, it may well have provided the inspiration for a slew of highly successful romantic novels, but that is hardly the point. It was simply a well crafted, relatively recent object in far from triple A condition.

We believe that we shall see, in the not so distant future, rather a lot of results like this as the market starts to dry up. (There was also a carved wooden brush pot in the same sale estimated at a few hundred pounds which got £48,000). Particularly attractive blue and white 19th century pieces, earlier Song dynasty pots, Chinese export ware (almost totally unappreciated by the Chinese market today) and 18th and 19th century cloisonné will make their mark in the auction rooms as the market moves on irrevocably.

Such is capitalism and the Chinese are now amongst the most enthusiastic adherents to this form of international economic activity. And, of course, there are more than one and a half billion of them harbouring a middle class which is growing dramatically in wealth and aspiration. One of the wells may be drying up but a lot of new boreholes are going to have to be sunk to satisfy a demand which will be seemingly insatiable.

Drama and surprise mark auctioneer L&T’s southern foray

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Crosshall Manor Lyon &Turnbull Asian Sale today   Photo Paul Harris

It was always going to be a brave venture. Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull decided to forsake their magnificent metropolitan Edinburgh auction rooms for the back room of a modest home counties manor house in the backwaters of Cambridgeshire. Are they mad, or what?

Well, of course, they want to crack the remunerative Asian market big time and, somehow, Edinburgh is a bridge too far for Chinese buyers who want to fly into Heathrow, nobble the goods and get out with them without the pain of connecting flights. And so, they came to Cambridgeshire, just an hour or so from London and its own repository of big money. As the sale opened this morning, one wondered whether or not the strategy was going to work. The Chinese had certainly arrived in some force: in a small room with just forty or fifty seats, Chinese buyers occupied almost thirty.

The London trade was almost completely absent although L&T said they had viewed and would be on telephone and internet from their gilded cages in Mayfair and St. James’s . Anyway, probably just as well they did not appear: it was a tight enough squeeze for the Chinese and a dozen or so UK buyers in between the glass cases surrounding the buyers and the large enclosure for L&T staff (some 15 at one count) manning computers, telephones and cellphones (goodness knows which provider they were using – I certainly could get virtually no signal on my Three mobile . . . ).

The enclosed geography of the auction room had something of the atmosphere of a gambling den – which was, on second thoughts, probably approaching the reality of the proceedings. The sale started slowly and unexcitingly. There were many passed lots and quite a number of bargains to be had: on reflection that was probably the time to buy well because things were to change dramatically . . .

It seemed that as soon as Paul Roberts took to the rostrum things really rather picked up. Now that should not be ascribed to the considerable charisma of this senior executive of Lyon and Turnbull. Rather, he chose his entrance well . . . to sell the Asian contents of the estate of romantic novelist (Lady) Mary Stewart. She had some rather good stuff, courtesy of her top rank dealers Hugh and Sidney Moss. A carved rhinoceros horn libation cup kicked off her collection with £44,000 on the hammer . . .

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Happy or what? Auctioneer Paul Roberts knocks down a little blue & white vase for £240,000    Photo Paul Harris

However, the surprise of the sale was an unpretentious little Meiping blue and white vase catalogued as ‘Kangxi mark but later’ and estimated at £800-1200. Nothing special really – as the dealer sitting beside me observed, ‘It’s a £2,000 vase.’ Well, it took rather a long time to sell. But it’s a long way up into the stratosphere for a £2,000 vase to reach £240,000. As the competing bids came in, the reaction of the Chinese in the room, who had the vase in clear view, turned from utter bemusement to open derision. With premium and the rest it cost the telephone bidder around £300,000.

As far as we could see the factor which commended it to putative future owners was The Provenance: ‘Gift from Hugh Moss, 1970s, early 1980s.’ As you know, dealers of the quality of Hugh Moss don’t give rubbish to one of their best clients. However, I hazard a guess he may be a trifle amused when he reads about it . . .

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Telephone and internet dominated proceedings with a dozen or more L&T staff manning the lines    Photo Paul Harris

From that point in the sale, things never really let up. On some lots, there would be twelve to fourteen L&T staff rising to their feet with telephone and internet bids. A couple of lots later, an unassuming  Wucai dragon and phoenix dish estimated at £800-1200 was knocked down for £25,000. Three lots later a pleasant carved wood brush pot estimated at £1,200-500 was sold for £48,000. The snuff bottles, with their impeccable provenance, went crazy.

Other collections similarly did well and the only disappointment was The Max Lowenson Tang Horses. As handsome as they were, the Chinese market demonstrated its distinct lack of enthusiasm for funerary ornaments. However, a Yongzheng celadon and blue charger from the same collection as their June blue and white charger success (£345,000 hammer) was knocked down for £200,000. A pair of doucai ‘butterflies and flowers’ medallion bowls got £75,000, against an estimate of £20,000-30,000.

All in all, it was a rather good day for Lyon & Turnbull.We asked a representative of the company if they would be coming back to Crosshall Manor for their next Asian Sale. “I imagine so,” she cheerfully confirmed. However, with the level of telephone and internet bidding which characterised this sale, the same result might have been achieved from the basement at 25 Acacia Gardens . . . oh, and a note to L&T admin. For goodness sake, if you are returning, get wifi access installed for your bidders. The Chinese buyers were very frustrated not to be able to get onto their life support system, WeChat.

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