Interview with Marco Almeida on Ming Blue and White Dragon Jar Used as Umbrella Stand

A seemingly ordinary blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, guan, from the Xuande period, had been used as an umbrella stand in a French family, until two years ago. It surprised the antiques world after selling for a whopping HK$158m at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2016.

The Value talked to Marco Almeida, International Senior Specialist of Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art for Christie’s, who once handled this special Ming treasure. He told us the story of how he first encountered this piece and was immediately drawn to it.

Marco Almeida, International Senior Specialist, Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, Christie’s

Q: Of so many great works you have handled, which one is your favourite?

Marco: We sold a very important blue and white Dragon jar from the Xuande period. It had a very nice story on how it came about, how it came to light. And I think it was an incredibly interesting object that had survived since the 15th century in an almost unchanged condition. When you look at it, you are immediately drawn to it because the painting was so bold and strong, very akin to contemporary ink painting. It was a fantastic object.

A rare large blue and white 'dragon' jar, guan, from Xuande period sold for HK$158m at Christie's Hong Kong in 2016

Painting on the dragon jar

Q: As an expert, how do you confirm the 'dragon' jar’s authenticity?

Marco: As soon as I saw it, I knew that I was in front of something special. It wasn’t just a decorative vase that was just sitting there. So when I saw it, the first thing that I did was inspect it very closely, look at the base to check the quality of the body. Then you look closely to check the quality of the cobalt blue used in the painting, the style of the calligraphy of the mark, the texture of the glaze etc. And that combined with the story of how that vase came to be in that house with that family, it all made perfect sense.

Marco: It was a family heirloom that was acquired in France in the early 20th century. In various European countries in the early 20th century, there were good places to acquire good Chinese works of art. At the time, I am sure they were expensive. But when we look at them with today’s mentality, we feel they were quite cheap.

As a Brazilian, Marco is a polyglot who speaks fluent Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian. His versatility is not only shown in his exceptional language proficiency, but also in his profound knowledge of Chinese works of art. How did he become a specialist in the field?

Q: As a Brazilian, how did you find a passion in Chinese art and become a specialist?

Marco: From an early age, I was always fascinated by Asia, particularly China. I remember being very young and getting a little toy, a little truck. And on the box there were a lot of Chinese characters, from there I started to wonder how this language worked, How it was possible to communicate with these symbols. I became more and more interested in Chinese history. I combined my two passions: languages and history. And I decided to go to University to have Chinese as my major. After that I lived in Beijing and then I came back to the UK and did my master’s in Chinese art and archeology.

Marco also handles Chinese Furniture

Q: How did you acquire the knowledge of Chinese works of art?

Marco: You read books, follow the auction market, visit museums and galleries and you handle as many pieces as possible. The knowledge comes from spending time with, handling the objects and speaking to people that have been in the business for a long time, such as very prominent dealers, other specialists from auction houses and your colleagues. So that’s how I got to be who I am today.

Q: What’s your favourite type of antique? Why?

Marco: Porcelains from the main three reigns, Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. Porcelains from this period have something very immediate. You look at them and it is very easy to appreciate them. Like Song ceramics, they are much more scholarly. I think you need to have a little understanding of the circumstances that they were made in and a little bit of academic knowledge to fully appreciate them. Not that you don’t need these things to appreciating porcelain, but I think, particularly enamelled pieces of porcelain, they are very beautiful. They have this intrinsic beauty that when you look at them, you can appreciate their quality straight away.

A pair of famille rose 'butterfly' double-gourd vases from the Qianlong period sold for £14.72m at Christie's London on 9 May 2017

Marco: I remember going to the British museum and just looking at this magnificent tianqiuping with peaches, wondering how was it possible to achieve such beautiful shading with the pink enamels and so on. So I am very much drawn to the aesthetics but also to the technology of how these pieces are made.

'Famille rose' enamelled vase decorated with a peach branch and flowers, Qianlong reign, Qing dynasty. Collection of British Museum

In our next interview with Marco, he is going to share some insights on the market trend, as well as to give us some useful tips about collecting. Please stay tuned.