New York Auction House sells Qing Chinese neckless vase for surprising US$2.45 million dollars

During Asian Art Week in New York, everyone is focusing on international auction houses – Christie's and Sotheby's. Smaller auction houses, in fact, occasionally have important sales worthy of our attention.

A Partial Chinese Imperial Falangcai European Figures Porcelain Vase, was sold at Doyle Auctions, a local auction house in New York. Although the vase is severely damaged and the part above its neck completely gone, it still caused fierce bidding. 

The vase’s starting price was US$50,000 dollars. But after four bids, the price reached US$90,000 dollars. The price then jumped to the US$1 million dollar mark in one fell swoop, which is very exaggerated. Another 11 bids were obtained after that, and the hammer price became US$2 million dollars. The hammer price was ultimately hit at 20 times more than the original estimated value of US$100,000 dollars  at US$2 million dollars. With buyer's premium, the final price was US$2.45 million dollars.

With such an amount, this vase is likely to beat a lot of auction house giants this season and become the top deal in New York's Asian Art Week.

Lot 189 | A Partial Chinese Imperial Falangcai European Figures Porcelain Vase

Qianlong four-character seal mark in blue and of the period (reigned 1735-1796, Qing dynasty 1644-1911)
Height: Approx. 12.4 cm

Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Herschel V. Johnson Collection
  • Sarah Belk Gambrell (1918-2020), and thence by descent

Estimated Price: US$100,000 – 300,000
Hammer Price: US$2,000,000
Sold: US$2,450,000 (including buyer’s premium)
Auction House: Doyle Auctions New York
Auction Date: 20 September 2021


This Sarah Belk Gambrell Falangcai Vase bears a four-character mark in blue indicating its origin as a product of Qianlong Emperor’s imperial workshop.

European missionaries travelled to China during the 17th and 18th centuries. This greatly influenced the creations and development of crafts in the Qing imperial workshops – namely porcelain with painted enamel. The craft of painted enamels that continued throughout the three reigns of Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong (1662-1795).

Each porcelain creation holds the special distinction of applying and firing the jewel-like enamels and then passed Qianlong Emperor’s own inspection. It was exclusively used by the imperial family or the extended royal family for appreciation, thus these types of falangcai (“foreign colours”) wares were uncommonly found.

Amongst the small number of known existing examples, most are now held by major world museums, including the British Museum and Taipei's National Palace Museum. It was the most expensive and the finest porcelain during the Qing dynasty. Enamel is still favoured by many collectors, and the auction price can reach as high as US$20 to 30 million dollars.


All the sides of the porcelain vase put together 


Measuring around 12 centimetres in height, the Sarah Belk Gambrell Falangcai Vase is decorated with a continuous scene of two European women and a child in a garden, reflecting the Qianlong Emperor’s admiration for the European aesthetic. Having this depiction of European figures was not commonly found amongst porcelain with painted enamel. 

It reveals in its subject matter the history of 17th and 18th century imperial court artistry. In its construction, one can begin to surmise the technical and conceptual skill required to create such a graceful scene in 360 degrees on a flawless olive-shaped porcelain body. Even its conspicuous loss invites us to envision the vase whole and in perfect proportion. It is not certain how the porcelain vase's neck was decorated, if at all. 

Doyle Auction's porcelain vase, with a projection of how the artwork's neck could have looked like 

British Museum's porcelain bottle-shaped vase, with ovoid body and also with European figures, is a similar work 

The vase's other side depicts a pastoral scene 

British Museum 

A prototypical falangcai porcelain vase with European figures on display at the British Museum as part of the Sir Percival David (1892-1964) Collection similarly displays two women in a pastoral setting with a young boy. The Sir Percival David Vase provides the best and closest example from which to envision the proportion and possible design of the missing Sarah Belk Gambrell Vase’s neck.

Based on this big vase, we can reasonably speculate that the full height of the Doyle's vase should also be at the level of 20cm. As for the neck, it was originally believed that it was a straight neck with a slight inward curve, and there were no penetrating ears on the neck. The ornamentation around the shoulders is also worth noting. It is estimated that they are based on traditional balana and curling leaves. However, under the influence of Western art, the upper layer is more three-dimensional, while the lower layer's design is more simple.

Doyle Auction's inscription base has the Qianlong four-character seal mark in blue and of the period

The British Museum's inscription base has the Qianlong four-character seal mark in red and of the period

There are two biggest differences between Sir David's and the Doyle Auctions' vases:

1. Although both adopt the perspective method similar to that of European paintings in the 18th century at the same time, the environmental patterns of Sir David's vase are more Westernized, such as the European-style architecture of the vase's body.

2. The four-character Song type style Qianlong imperial system inside the two ware circles. Sir David's vase is a red model, while Doyle Auctions' vase is a blue model. Whether this distinction is related to court customisation remains to be determined.


This vase sold at Doyle Auctions was previously owned by two collectors – Herschel Vespasian Johnson and Sarah Belk Gambrell. 


Herschel Vespasian Johnson (1812-1880) was an American politician. He was the 41st Governor of Georgia from 1853 to 1857, and the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party during the 1860 American presidential election. 

His great-grandson (1894-1960), of the same name, was a foreign service officer and participated in the United Nations' foreign affairs. 

When this great-grandfather was born, China was in the Jiaqing period (1796-1820) of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). It is not certain of whether the great-grandfather or great-grandson owned the vase, but it gives a sense of confidence in the object's provenance. 

Some pieces from the great-grandson's collection of antique Chinese ceramics are now owned by the Mint Museum in Charlotte, United States.


Sarah Belk Gambrell (1918-2020) was the daughter of department owner, William Henry Belk. She served on the Board of Directors at Belk Stores during her lifelong career.

Sarah was also an advocate for women and other marginalised groups nationwide, including her native city of Charlotte. She served on the national, New York and Charlotte  boards of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and donated generously to the Mint Museum, Opera Carolina and the Charlotte Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as numerous cultural, educational, medical and social service institutions.

A passionate collector, Gambrell had an extensive collection of important English and Continental porcelain. She passed away last year at the age of 102, and parts of her collection went on the market. 

Doyle Auctions' A Partial Chinese Imperial Falangcai European-Figures Porcelain Vase | Qianlong period (reigned 1735-1796), Sold for US$2.45 million dollars in Doyle Auctions, September 2021

Falangcai porcelain vase with medallions enclosing various flowers and European figures and a pair of tubular handles | Qianlong period (reigned 1735-1796), China | Sold in 2007, Sotheby's Hong Kong for HK$33.92 million (approx. US$4.36 million) dollars 

A similar work is in Taipei's National Palace Museum | Qianlong period (1735-1796)

Similar works 

Doyle Auctions' A Partial Chinese Imperial Falangcai European Figures Porcelain Vase, was sold for a final price at US$2.45 million dollars.

Falangcai porcelain vase with medallions enclosing various flowers and European figures and a pair of tubular handles was sold for HK$33.92 million (approx. US$4.36 million) dollars in Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2007. 

Taipei's National Palace Museum's Collection also has similar vases – depicting two European ladies, a child and pastoral scene.