An auction record was set this week for a piece of Chinese art, when a 16 inch high ceramic vase decorated with 4 circular cartouches, each masterfully carved and enameled with carp (a symbol of plenty) beneath a primrose yellow trumpet neck sold through the small suburban auction room, Bainbridges in Ruislip, Middlesex UK.
The vase is a tour de force of craftsmanship and exactly what everyone wants at the moment. It was created in the Qianlong period, circa 1740s and a piece from the high Imperial kilns, valued as the best porcelain. It uses all sorts of techniques including grisaille and celadon glaze. There is nothing like it outside the Palace Museum in Beijing. The vase could have been looted by British or French soldiers from the Forbidden City or the Imperial family’s old Summer Palace in Beijing towards the end of the Second Opium War of 1856-1860 – the climax of trade disputes between China, under the Qing dynasty, and the British Empire over Britain’s illegal opium trafficking. “Most valuable Chinese Imperial art from the 18th century turns up in old English or French collections, The vase is undoubtedly a lovely thing, with its double-skinned lattice work, depictions of cavorting carp. and primrose yellow trumpet neck. Michel Lee, curator of the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, says it is also a technical masterpiece. “The double-walled construction is rare and difficult. Both pieces have to be fired at the same time. But the glaze must not stick. More than half such pieces have to be destroyed because they fuse together.”
Bainbridges is a company formed 30 years ago as a partnership between Peter Bainbridge, who previously had run an auction business in West London, having been an articled clerk with an auction company in Nottinghamshire, and his wife, Jane, who after 11 years had left Sotheby’s, where she was an expert cataloguer.
The vase is a piece of exquisite beauty and a supreme example of the skill of the ceramicist and decorator. How it reached Ruislip is something we shall never know. It is a masterpiece. The vase sold for a staggering £43 million hammer price plus commission which adds an extra 8.6 million on to the total.