Once sold for $56, Chinese vase found in a pet-filled house goes for $9M
A long-forgotten Chinese vase, once sold at auction for just £44 ($56), went under the hammer for over 70 million Hong Kong dollars ($9 million) on Saturday after being discovered in an elderly woman’s country home.
Described by Sotheby’s as a “lost masterpiece,” the rare 18th-century artifact spent the last 50 years in a remote house in central Europe surrounded by the owner’s pet cats and dogs, according to the auctioneer.
The highly unusual vase — in which a blue-and-white floral design is visible through the object’s lattice-like body — was made specifically for the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled China for more than 60 years.
“It is a miracle that this extraordinarily fragile vase survived half a century in a home surrounded by countless pets,” said chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, Nicolas Chow, in a press statement prior to the sale.
The “double-walled” item is just one of a handful of similar designs, which were only attempted under the guidance of imperial kiln supervisor Tang Ying in the years 1742 and 1743. Described by Sotheby’s as a “technical tour-de-force,” the pear-shaped vase is an example of a style of porcelain known as “yangcai,” or “foreign colors,” that saw artisans incorporating Western-style coloration and enamels into their craft.
Sotheby’s credits the discovery to Amsterdam-based art consultant Johan Bosch van Rosenthal, who found the vase at a country home. (Sotheby’s has not specified in which European country the house is located). The owner, who is in her 80s, is believed to have inherited the item.
In a video posted to the auction house’s official YouTube channel, Van Rosenthal recalled uncovering the dust-covered object after being invited by the woman to assess her collection.
“We reached a room with a number of Chinese works of art inherited many years ago,” he said. “Her four cats walked around freely among these. She pointed out a … partly gilded Chinese vase on a cupboard — a cherished object which she knew to be something special and valuable.”
The vase was inspected by Sotheby’s experts who matched it to an item in the Chinese imperial household’s archives. Previously kept in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, part of Beijing’s Forbidden City, the item was once praised by the emperor for its design.
Sotheby’s records also showed that the vase had passed through its London auction house in 1954, selling for just £44 ($56), worth around $1,500 in today’s money. The auctioneer’s research found that it was sold again later that year for £80 ($101). The object is known as the Harry Garner Reticulated Vase, named for the collector who owned it prior to the 1954 auction.
The rare item is among a number of other rediscovered Chinese artifacts to attract huge sums at auction in the past decade. In 2010, another vase from the Qianlong Emperor’s reign sold for £43 million (then $68 million — believed at the time to be a world record for a Chinese artwork) after being found in a London home during a clearout. In 2018, an 18th-century vase, found in a shoebox in a French family’s attic, sold for 16.2 million pound (then about $19 million).
There were a number of other big-ticket Chinese antiques up for sale over the weekend at Sotheby’s. A Ming dynasty table and couch-bed went for 60 million and 49 million Hong Kong dollars respectively (around $8 million and $6 million), while a blue-and-white porcelain jar from the same era sold for just under 34 million Hong Kong dollars ($4.4 million).
The sales helped wrap up Sotheby’s seven-day Hong Kong spring sales series, which had been delayed due to the coronavirus. Although the series generated around 15% less than last year’s spring sales, the auction house has announced combined takings of $3.22 billion Hong Kong dollars ($411 million).
A nude painting by French-Chinese artist Sanyu, “Quatre Nus,” was the week’s biggest sale, going for over 258 million Hong Kong dollars ($33.3 million). David Hockney’s “30 Sunflowers” meanwhile sold for HK$114.8 million (US$14.8 million), the second-highest sum ever paid for a Western artwork at auction in Asia.