“The Chinese value history and tradition in a way that most American don't,” says Deborah Del Gais, a professor at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. By repatriating their country’s past while gaining social eminence, she says, collectors derive public as well as private advantage. “To own an object that the buyer believes was once used by the Qianlong emperor or members of the Imperial family, for example, lends a great deal of prestige to the collector.” The white-jade seal that provoked the feeding frenzy at Freeman’s was accompanied by a yellowing collector’s label, written in French, that claimed it once belonged to Qianlong.
The celebrated Qing Dynasty emperor was an 18th-century Renaissance man so passionate about his art collection that he wrote poems about it. During his 60-year rule, the Chinese empire was politically potent and expanded its geographic boundaries. He’s widely regarded as the country’s last great emperor, and his tenure is remembered as a time of immense creativity in ceramics, when artisans made complex works to impress him and his royal court. “The thinking is, ‘The emperor had good taste, therefore I have good taste,’ ” MacLaren says.
The auction high for a Qianlong piece—indeed, for a Chinese work of any period—was briefly held by an enameled vase auctioned off by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2010. Chinese oil, transport, and communications tycoon Alice Cheng reeled it in for $32.6 million.
Within weeks that figure was eclipsed by the price of another porcelain vase. Though its authenticity has been disputed by a prominent Chinese-art gallery owner in New York, this new record-setting ornament, adorned with a gaudy fish motif, is believed to have been fired in 1740 in the imperial kilns. Supposedly, it was plundered from the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing during the Second Opium War in 1860, a time of widespread looting by British and French forces that brought enormous quantities of Chinese fine art into Western collections.
A century and a half later, the vase was put up for sale in England by a retired lawyer named Anthony Johnson and his 85-year-old mother, Gene. They had found the vessel on a wobbly bookcase while clearing the house belonging to Gene's late sister, whose husband had inherited it from an adventurous uncle.
The vase was expected to bring in between $1.3 and $2 million. After spirited bidding, though, it ended up fetching $85.9 million from a Chinese collector whose identity was not made public. (Several news organizations, citing confidential sources, have reported that the buyer was Liaoning-based real estate billionaire Wang Jianlin—a claim Wang has publicly denied.) The price was astounding in itself, but arguably even more stupendous was the fact that the object wasn’t sold by Sotheby’s or Christie's, but by Bainbridges in the London suburb of Ruislip. The tiny firm’s previous record was $161,000 for a piece of Ming dynasty enamel.
Regardless of his identity, the winning bidder for the $85.9 million vase nearly provoked an international incident when he refused to pay. Some wondered if the bidder had been out to make a political statement. In 2009, despite complaints from the Chinese government, Christie's in Paris auctioned off bronze animal heads also purportedly snatched from the Summer Palace. Cai Mingchao—an adviser to a government heritage fund—made the winning bid of $40.4 million and then held a press conference to announce he had pranked Christie’s as an “act of patriotism.”
In the case of the Ruislip Vase, national honor was not at stake. I’m told that the winning bidder’s beef involved the $13.8 million premium (auctioneer's commission plus value added tax) levied by Bainbridges. The buyer assumed, incorrectly, that there would be a sliding fee—that considering the high sale price, the auction house would be willing to lower the percentage of the commission. In the spirit of compromise, the seller and the auctioneer flew to China for an audience. They came back empty-handed. Though the British press reported last May that a 2 million pound deposit had been made, it’s now been 16 months since the hammer fell and the bill is still not settled.
The buyer’s refusal to ante up spooked many auction houses into establishing rules for their sales of high-value Asian art. In what sounds suspiciously like antique-world profiling, Asian bidders are now routinely vetted and often required to provide substantial deposits. It couldn’t have helped matters when the Chinese Association for Auctioneers revealed that in 2010, 40 percent of the bids that topped $1.5 million at Chinese auctions were still unpaid six months later.
Dodgy buyer behavior spawned an anonymous verse that, Bloomberg reported in December, has been passed around the auction world:
The Chinese bid with verve and skill
And hence rack up a mighty bill.
"The money's coming soon," they cry
But oh, my friend, they lie, they lie.
The damage caused by delinquent accounts has led some people in the Asian art world to wonder if the air is seeping out of the Chinese antiquities bubble. Diplomacy and compromise will be needed in this developing East-West engagement: The Chinese must take the house rules more seriously, and the auctioneers must bend if they want their percentage from these unseasoned, but spectacularly flush newcomers.