High hopes for sale of the so-called Thornhill Cup

L & T Thornhill stem cup

It is rare that such high hopes are evinced for a piece of Chinese porcelain but Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull are rather more than bullish about the prospects for what is known now as ‘The Thornhill Cup’. Such are their ambitions for this object that they are to sell it in the Far East (Hong Kong) on May 31 , near to the big spending buyers. Even they will have to dig deep in their pockets with an estimate of between £2m. and £4m. Step forward Liu Yiqian?

According to L&T, the Ming Xuande (1426-35) mark and period blue and white stem cup is an excellent example of its type and is certainly a museum quality piece. This rare masterpiece is part of the Ernest S. Thornhill Collection of Asian Ceramics, comprising of some 270 pieces belonging to Staffordshire University, where it was bequeathed in 1944. The University’s Board of Governors has approved the sale of the stem cup, which, together with the rest of the collection, has been hidden away in storage for a significant number of years.

L&T’s Lee Young implies in his press release that the company is sparing no effort in bringing all experts and art advisers on board in recommending the stem cup to clients and potential purchasers. “In our industry, it is a privileged position when one is charged with selling an item of such historical importance. We have assembled a dedicated specialist team comprised of some of the leading lights in Asian art to ensure the best possible outcome is achieved.”

stem cup mark

The stem cup is crowned by the elegantly painted six-character reign mark within the cup, and circled by double rings, repeated on the inside and outside rim, and on the foot.

This is a truly remarkable and rare piece, of a type not seen at auction for many years. The motif of flying dragons was popular in the Yuan dynasty, but was revived in the Xuande as can be seen in this case. The fearsome five-clawed dragon flies amongst flames, chasing the eternally flaming pearl, above a sea with crashing waves tipped in white, with rocks seen around the base. The wares’ unique qualities include the glaze, which is thick and lustrous, with a buttery softness to it that responds to touch, and a luminosity unsurpassed in later wares.

This glaze is untainted by age, and, says L& T,  ‘consequently the piece still gives us the same pleasure today as when the Emperor Xuande held it in his hands. Today, very few examples exist outside museum collections. ‘


Are UK owners of ivory in panic mode?

There are no statistics available so this might just be a guess on our part . . . but it does seem to us, at chineseart.co.uk, that there is an awful lot of Chinese worked ivory coming onto the market in the last few months. Indeed, there seems to be a plethora of beautifully worked pieces around at the moment. Are owners disposing of their collections in fear of the present Conservative government fulfilling its rash and ill thought out election pledge to ban the sale of ivory?

The many recent Asian and Chinese auctions have featured a considerable amount of ivory – certainly, rather more than usual. Some auctioneers, however, are abjuring ivory and not accepting it for sale at all. Chiswick Auctions went down that road after their prosecution and £3,200 fine in 2014 for selling a piece of worked ivory which turned out to date from the 1960s. In a recent Antiques Trade Gazette article on Asian Art in London, Lyon & Turnbull’s Lee Young went on record as stating his company would only accept some of the very best pieces and was drawing away from the area.

Effectively, if auctioneers stop selling historic ivory pieces they will simply pave the way for government legislation allowing the politicians to say, “Well, the market has decided not to sell the stuff so all we are doing is formalising it.”

Although there is a welcome academic initiative from the School of Law at Portsmouth University, which has just embarked on a year-long study of the possible outcome of a ban, it may well not have a direct impact on law making apart from spurring more unwelcome attention..

Our position here has always been that we think the existing CITES regulations are perfectly adequate as a basis for dealing in historic, worked ivory; and that any ban on trading such items would be unfair in the extreme on reputable dealers, collectors and those who have unwittingly inherited items of beauty and history which happen to be made of a material now ruthlessly condemned by the politically correct. As much as we deplore the killing of endangered elephants for modern use of ivory, it is not possible to turn back the clock. Historic pieces of worked ivory, many of them exquisitely accomplished centuries ago are a part of our heritage and should remain so. Any ban will, of course, drive the market underground, closing down availability and pushing up prices. So maybe now is actually the time to invest . . .

Illustrated below is one very fine piece which will be exposed for sale in Hannam’s next auction on December 11.

hannams lot 612

hannams lot 612 detailhannams lot 612 detail end

Lot 612 A Canton carved ivory tusk. Most probably 19th century, if not earlier, and particularly well carved.


Lyon & Turnbull presents China Insight@ The Burrell


Forever sharp marketeers, Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull have got together with Glasgow’s famous Burrell Collection for a weekend of events April 25-6 centred around the Chinese art market. It’s sure to be a hit with collectors, dealers and aficionados of Chinese art.

The location is as prestigious as the event is promising: The Burrell Collection, Pollok Country Park, 2060 Pollokshaws Road, Glasgow G43 1AT

These are the bullet points:

  • Lyon & Turnbull partners with The Burrell Collection for the first time to raise money for Glasgow Museums
  • One-off opportunity for lucky few to tour the stores led by Curator Dr Yupin Chung
  • World experts make their Scottish debut

L&T and The Burrell will produce a two day fundraising event centred around the art and marketplace of the 21st Century’s most rapidly developing sector: Chinese art. A subject area close to the heart of Sir William Burrell, proceeds from the events will be donated to support Glasgow Museum’s, in particular the valuable work at The Burrell Collection.

The weekend’s activity is tailored to suit appreciators of Chinese art, as well as owners and collectors; Saturday will feature specialist lectures and guided gallery tours, while on Sunday there’s an opportunity to get your own artwork or antique appraised by experts including top specialists as seen on The Antiques Roadshow.

Councillor Archie Graham, the Chair of Glasgow Life, said: “This promises to be a fascinating weekend, where not only can you find out more about Chinese art – one of Sir William’s greatest interests – but there will be special tours and an opportunity to find out if that old painting or trinket in the attic is actually a lost treasures. We’re delighted to be working with Lyon & Turnbull on this event at a time when the city has just committed to the next step in transforming the Burrell Collection with a major refurbishment and redisplay of the gallery – creating a home worthy of the world-class status of Sir William’s incredible gift.”

Perhaps the biggest coup is the opportunity to win a one-off guided tour of the Burrell Collection stores with Dr Yupin Chung Curator of Chinese & Far Eastern Civilisations. Taking you beneath the award-winning Burrell Collection building, the lucky few will benefit from Dr Chung’s unique insight into Sir William Burrell’s commercial success and meticulous method of collecting.  There are 12 places to be won, and anyone that buys a ticket to China Insight will automatically be entered into the ‘store tour’ raffle announced at the event’s opening at 11am on Saturday 25th April.

The lecture programme that same day will feature leading specialists from the Chinese Art world. Jacqueline Simcox, published author and world authority on Chinese textiles will speak on Chinese Imperial and court costume. Jacqueline has previously lectured at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Royal Academy and the British Museum and will be making her debut in Glasgow. Joining Jacqueline will be Nixi Cura co-founder of the Arts of China Consortium at New York University who will speak on Chinese painting. Nixi is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. Lee Young, Head of the Asian Art department at Lyon & Turnbull and Dr Yupin Chung, Curator of Chinese & Far Eastern Civilisations at The Burrell Collection will represent their respective institutions on stage.

On Sunday, the Burrell Collection main atrium will be buzzing around valuation tables where members of the public can bring in their own art and antiques to be valued and appraised. Lee Young & Steven Moore, as seen on the Antiques Roadshow, will head the team of specialists from Lyon & Turnbull with expertise including – Chinese & Japanese works of art, as well as items of other origin from jewellery & silver, to paintings and ceramics. All items will be seen. This type of event often throws up hidden treasures.


Lyon & Turnbull auctioneer Paul Roberts at their highly successful December 2014 sale in St Neots, Cambridgeshire Photo Paul Harris

Opening times:

Saturday 11am – 5pm

Sunday 11am – 4pm

Entry fees:

Saturday Talks & Tours

Day ticket £10, call 0141 287 2591 to book or visit the

Burrell Collection. All proceeds go to The Burrell Collection

*Purchase of a Saturday day ticket will automatically enter you into the ‘store tour’ raffle announced at the event’s opening at 11am on Saturday. Lucky winners will take the tour at 4pm that day.

Sunday Valuation day

£5 for first item and £1 for items thereafter.

All proceeds go to The Burrell Collection







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.






New Asian auction venue announced by L&T for next sale

The Edinburgh-based auctioneer Lyon & Turnbull has announced that its end of year Asian Works of Art sale will not be held in its elegant Edinburgh auction room. Instead, the sale, which is usually bi-annual in June and December, will be held at Crosshall Manor, St. Neots, Cambridgeshire, a relatively short distance from London. It will take place on Tuesday, December 2.

The head of the Asian department, Lee Young, formally advised the move in public last Sunday at the L&T China day in Edinburgh (see our report). Surprisingly frankly, he observed, ‘Most of the market tends to be in London . . . (on a recent trip) I was told in Hong Kong that Scotland tends to be just a little too far away (for foreign buyers.’

lr Lee Young uned

Lyon & Turnbull’s Lee Young announces a ‘near London’ venue for Asian Art sale

We understand that no final decision has been made on moving Asian sales away from Edinburgh in the future. The only other auctioneer offering high quality specialist Asian sales in Edinburgh is Bonhams who, again, hold biannual catalogued sales. Doubtless, L & T will be weighing up the impact on sourcing goods in Scotland (where a large amount of Chinese material remains in private collections) if they were to abandon Asian sales in the Scottish capital in favour of a location in the south of England.

lr December sale slide




L&T present ‘China Insight’ Sunday school

lr China Insight slide

Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull yesterday presented their first Sunday event titled ‘China Insight – Appraising the Market and Your Antiques’. Four speakers addressed an audience made up of a collection of collectors, dealers and journalists specifically involved in the Chinese market. Around fifty people attended – what the event lacked in quantity was probably more than compensated for by the quality of the attendees – to hear four speakers address very different areas of the current market.

James Robinson, Keeper of Art & design at The National Museums of Scotland, reflected on the success of the current exhibition Ming: The Golden Empire (closing October 19). He also outlined the renovation plans for the NMS in Chambers Street, Edinburgh. The Asian Gallery is currently closed and will reopen in a more modern style sometime between 2016 and 2018 ‘dependent on funding’.

lr James Robinson NMS uned

James Robinson addresses attendees at L&Ts China Insight in Edinburgh

L& T’s own Asia department chief Lee Young gave an entertaining account of the human stories behind the sales of some of their most successful Chinese items over the last eight years (a summary of this talk will form the basis of a future posting).

After lunch, former British diplomat Claire Smith, formerly based in China and Hong Kong, identified the links between Scotland and China: sailors, captains, botanists, explorers, civil servants, soldiers and employees of the East India Company. The latter allowed its employees to trade on their own account and engaged a disproportionately large number of Scots. One of that number, William Jardine, went on to found the company which would become Jardine Matheson and the company would go on to give preferential treatment to young Scots when it came to employment. Factors such as this have led to the presence of a surprisingly large amount of Chinese antiques, collected purely as ‘souvenirs’, in Scottish houses.

The last speaker was Douglas Strang Stewart, a Scottish-based expert in ceramic conservation (www.ceramicconservationscotland.co.uk). He identified many of the challenges facing restorers and conservationists.





Staggering 100 times estimate paid for charger at Lyon & Turnbull

We are all used to certain lots at auction going for three or four times the estimate, sometimes as much as ten or twenty times . . .  but 100 times the estimate is kind of unusual!

Lot 368 at today’s Lyon & Turnbull sale in Edinburgh looked a fairly pedestrian lot: a blue and white dragon charger with what the auctioneer clearly regarded as an apocryphal Quianlong mark to the base. It was catalogued as late 19th/early 20th century and estimated at £3,000-5,000. In the event, in a long bidding process involving buyers on internet and telephone it sold on the hammer at a staggering £355,000, to an outbreak of applause in the room.  In reality, with premium and VAT, it sold for £427,250.

£427,250 moment of sale

Moment of sale. Blue and white charger, Quianlong or not, knocked down to a telephone bidder for £355,000 by Lyon & Turnbull auctioneer Lee Young Photograph Paul Harris

Auctioneer Lee Young was visibly shocked and was somewhat thrown off his stride in succeeding lots in what was otherwise a fairly muted sale. However, there were two other lots which did do particularly well. The Empress Cixi dragon robe, estimated at £15-25,000, sold for a very respectable £60,000 hammer.

A very fine flambé bottle vase, catalogued with an enigmatic ‘estimate upon request’, sold for £150,000. It was these highlights which carried a sale with many unsold lots, reinforcing the message that things at the top of the market continue to do well.

Of course, whether or not the blue and white charger which commanded the guts of half a million pounds is Quianlong or not must be a matter of opinion. The experts are divided. A member of L&T’s staff said they had been told by  many dealers and other auctioneers in London that the charger was the real McCoy. The website www.chineseantiques.co.uk last night published a prediction that it would do well and were clearly impressed by it.

record breaking charger


Others in the room who had seen and handled it had rather different opinions. Personally, I thought that whilst it was impressive, it looked distinctly recent and noted it down at £2,000 top bid.  Either way, L&T are well covered. After all, they clearly state in the catalogue that it is ‘late 19th/early 20th century’ . . .