The Story of £53.1m Qianlong Vase That Almost Became World’s Most Expensive Ceramic

The Value has received a leaked photo showing a familiar piece of Qing Imperial ceramic in Sotheby’s. Could it be the Qianlong Yangcai ‘Jiqingyouyu’ reticulated vase that almost sold for £53.1m in 2010? Is it going to lead the coming autumn sales at Sotheby’s Hong Kong?

For more details about the leaked photo, check out the previous article here: EXCLUSIVE PHOTO LEAK: Most Expensive Ceramic Reappears in Sotheby’s Hong Kong?

While we are still awaiting further details from Sotheby’s, let us go through the twisted saga of the Qianlong vase that made headlines worldwide when it was first sold in a small auction house eight years ago.

The Value has received a leaked photo featuring a vase similar to the one that almost sold for £53.1m in 2010

The Value has received a leaked photo featuring a vase similar to the one that almost sold for £53.1m in 2010

The Qianlong Yangcai ‘Jiqingyouyu’ reticulated vase auctioned in 2010

Back in the early 20th century, Mr. Newman, an explorer who travelled frequently to the Far East, took a vase from the Qianlong period (1711-1799) back home. He kept it on the top of a bookcase in the living room as he thought it was just another ordinary vase with beautiful patterns on it. After Mr. Newman died in 2006, his wife inherited his remarkable collection of mementoes, maps, travel books and ornaments, together with the Qing vase.

When Mrs. Newman died in 2010, the estate was left to Mrs. Newman’s sister, Gene Johnson, and her son, Tony Johnson. They found the vase when they were clearing out the Pinner home of Mrs. Newman. Mr. Johnson believed it could be valuable and contacted Bainbridge’s Auctions in Ruislip, Middlesex.

The Qianlong Yangcai ‘Jiqingyouyu’ reticulated vase auctioned in 2010

The Qianlong Yangcai ‘Jiqingyouyu’ reticulated vase auctioned in 2010

Qing vase was not something that the auction house had been dealing with since they usually sell items below £500. Luckily for Mr. Johnson, the vase caught the attention of Luan Grocholski, an expert in ceramics who had worked for Sotheby’s.

Grocholski was struck by the high quality of the vase and began to look in the libraries at other works from the same period. He and the auction house thus estimated the vase at £800,000 to £1.2m.

The saleroom was filled with potential bidders

The auction took place on 11 November 2010 and the saleroom was surprisingly swarmed with many potential bidders. The auctioneer and company director Peter Bainbridge, who was overwhelmed by the crowd, started the bidding at £800,000. Yet, no one showed any interest at that point. He then lowered the opening bid to £500,000.

After a slow start, telephone bidders pushed the price up to £1m and beyond. But the heated bidding battle was just ignited. When the price reached £20m, there were still seven bidders staying in the game. The price went further up to £40m, leaving only two bidders in the battlefield.

The buyer (circled) bought the vase on behalf of his client

Bainbridge brought the hammer down at £43m and sold the vase to a Chinese man sitting in the front row and acting for an unknown buyer. The vase was sold for £53.1m (about HK$658m at that time) after premium, becoming the most expensive Chinese work of art ever sold.

However, after dominating headlines for a while, the record-setting sale grabbed media attention again for another reason – the buyer didn’t settle the payment. A few months after the sale, Mr. Johnson and Peter Bainbridge flew to China for the outstanding millions owed to them but the search was unsuccessful.

Wang Jianlin was one of the alleged buyers

Rumours spread in the art world that the buyer couldn’t pay for the vase due to a downturn in his/her business while some said it was about a disagreement over the buyer’s premium. The buyer was an unidentified Chinese billionaire. It was alleged that Wang Jianlin, the founder of Wanda Group, was the buyer. Another version had it that the buyer was another property developer called Mr. Wang.

Two years passed but the vase was still unpaid for. Just when everyone thought Mr. Johnson’s dream of getting a whopping windfall was broken, the story came with another twist. The international Bonhams, which acted on behalf of an interested party, made a deal between them and Mr Johnson and Mr Bainbridge. The vase was finally sold. Concerning the person who played an instrumental role in arranging the private deal, some gave the credit to Colin Sheaf, Chairman of Bonham's Asia, while the antique world said the credit went to Julian King, Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at Bonhams Hong Kong back then, who is currently working for Sotheby’s.

Colin Sheaf, Chairman of Bonham's Asia

Julian King

The Qianlong Yangcai ‘Jiqingyouyu’ reticulated vase that sold in 2010

Since the deal was made privately, the final price sold was not disclosed. The new buyer was believed to have paid up to £25m (about HK$300m at that time), still much higher than the original estimate. It is even higher than the present record made by a Ru-ware brush washer from the Northern Song dynasty. The Ru-ware brush washer fetched HK$294m (about US$37.7m) at Sotheby's autumn auction last year and became the most expensive ceramic ever sold.

Is this rare Qianlong vase going to lead Sotheby’s 2018 autumn sales in Hong Kong? We are expecting more details from Sotheby’s. Please stay tuned for updates.