An $86 Million Vase and Other Items from the Chinese Antiques Boom

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 4 2012 8:30 AM

Expensive China

A $31 million scroll, an $86 million vase, and other items from the Chinese antiques boom.

Chinese Antiques Gallery Launcher

"One-hundred-and-eighty thousand ... $200,000. Two-hundred-and-five thousand ... 210 ... any advance on $210,000?" On this September afternoon at Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia, the auctioneer's chant becomes a kind of elegy for China’s Cultural Revolution and the Little Red Book. The competition is fierce, tenacious, and heated, with bidders vying for everything from porcelain bottle vases to elephant-ivory fruit baskets, from amber pendants to carved hornbill heads, from bronze Buddhas to zitan floor screens. It’s a small miracle that many of these objects survived the mindless destruction of the Boxer Rebellion, the second Sino-Japanese War, and the Red Guard.

The big-ticket item turns out to be a white-jade seal topped by intertwined dragons, their nostrils flared, eyes bulging, whiskers curled. The piece, cautiously described in Freeman’s glossy 194-page catalog as “Imperial-style,” was acquired by a local consignor in 1970. Though the object has been valued between $30,000 and $50,000, a nearly identical seal with a long and impeccable provenance was auctioned at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2010. It went for $15.6 million.

When the item comes up for sale, four cellphone-brandishing Asian bidders alternately raise their paddles in a game of high-stakes pingpong. Three of the volleyers sport Lacoste polo shirts, in blue, green, and orange; the fourth, a white button-down oxford. All four tell me they are agents for buyers in mainland China but decline to identify themselves or their employers.

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As the price rises rapidly in $100,000 intervals, a quiver of excitement flows through the salesroom. "Two-million-three ... and I have a two-million-four,” says auctioneer Charles Freeman, his voice taking on a rhythmic urgency. “I hear two-million-six. Do you care to bid?" Green Lacoste does. Everyone else gasps. Everyone but White Oxford, who whispers into his phone and raises him $300,000.

Green Lacoste whispers into his phone and raises him another $100,000. "Do I hear 3.1 million?" asks Freeman. White Oxford whispers and tentatively holds up his paddle. Freeman looks at Green Lacoste and asks, "3.2? Do you care to bid?" Green Lacoste sighs and bows out. "Three-point-one million is the bid." Bang! "Three-point-one million dollars takes it." The room erupts in applause.

With fees and commission, the final tally is $3.5 million, almost triple any lot sold in Freeman’s 206-year history. The entire sale is the auction house’s most successful ever, with an $8 million haul—more than double its appraiser’s prediction. Blue Lacoste doesn’t join in the merriment. “I should have won the seal for 2 million,” he grumbles, “but the people bidding against me were crazy.”

Mad money is driving the boom in Chinese antiques, a prime emblem of affluence for a status-obsessed people. Chinese works—particularly those that might have an Imperial pedigree—are selling for up to 10 times what they did five or six years ago. Bypassed, if not exactly ignored in the past by collectors, the finest Chinese furniture has surpassed the top European and American pieces in value. In a cultural phenomenon with fascinating economic and sociological underpinnings, the mainland’s nouveau riche are paying emperor’s ransoms to reclaim their country’s treasures. Their knowledge of antiques may be shallow, but their pockets are incredibly deep.

Last year, despite the global recession, the London salesrooms of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams set house records as dealers and mainland collectors pushed up prices. In New York, Christie’s robust September sale of Chinese ceramics and artwork took in roughly $38 million. The highlight was a rare blue and white Ming-style moonflask that dated from the mid-to-late-17th century and bore a Qianlong seal mark. The moonflask fetched $2.65 million, nearly quintupling its estimate.

Earlier in the summer, at the French provincial auction house Labarbe, seven Asian bidders tried to outmuscle each other for a 1739 scroll painting that had allegedly been stolen from the Forbidden City in 1900. The gavel fell after a $31 million bid by a Beijing-based collector. Even that was chump change compared to the staggering ascent of a famille-rose vase last May. Though Sotheby’s New York had timidly listed the vase as “probably Republican period,” Chinese bidders ignored the $800 to $1,200 estimate and propelled the price to more than $18 million, around 20,000 times the suggested price.

In all three auctions, bidders decided the salesroom’s description had been too conservative. That is precisely what happened in Philadelphia, where Freeman’s assessment of the jade seal’s value turned out to be breathtakingly inaccurate.

The delirium that has possessed collectors of Chinese antiques is largely a reflection of new wealth. During the repressive Mao era of the mid-20th century, all but the most didactic art was denigrated, collecting was outlawed, and learning about the imperial past was illegal. Over the first half-century of Communist rule, the antiquities market was pretty much limited to a small pool of buyers in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan.

Around 2005, stateside auction houses began to see an increase in mainland buyers who had been absent due to limitations on travel and restrictions on the outflows of money. In the years since, access has widened and that small pool of Southeast Asian buyers has been engulfed by a vast ocean of freshly minted Chinese collectors and their freshly minted cash. According to the Boston Consulting Group, more than 1 million Chinese are now worth more than $1 million. And according to the latest Hurun Rich List, China’s version of the Forbes 400, more than half of the mainland’s 95 billionaires reached that plateau over the last few years.

Many got rich quick on the back of their country's huge export trade and construction boom. The new elite is eager to build collections quickly, even at a premium. Impatience helps account for the soaring prices. “Too many people are chasing too few goods,” says Lark Mason, an expert in Asian art who appears frequently on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow. “During the 1980s, ’90s, and into the new century, there was ample Chinese material available because there were not enough buyers to drive the prices up and create scarcity. Today, vastly more people are capable of and interested in buying, but there’s not enough material on the market to satisfy them.”

The appetite of Chinese collectors is so prodigious that rhinoceros-horn drinking cups—intricately carved ceremonial vessels that once sold for a few hundred dollars and contributed to the near-extinction of the animal—are now commanding hundreds of thousands of dollars. At a taping of Antiques Roadshow last July in Tulsa, Okla., Mason valued a set of late 17th- or early 18th-century rhino mugs at between $1 million and 1.5 million, the highest appraisal in the program’s history. The owner told Mason he had been collecting the cups since the ’70s and was clueless about their worth. “I was hoping the guy wouldn’t collapse,” Mason recalls.

Finds like that are why Chinese collectors aggressively troll Internet auction sites. “The market is such that if something is good, it’s not going to be missed,” says Bruce MacLaren, a Chinese-art specialist at Bonhams. “The market is too global, and too many people are paying attention because there’s a lot of money to be made.”

Some auction prices have been inflated by political protest bidding. Some of the wild price fluctuations at auctions have also resulted from the difficulty of nailing down the provenance of objects that were allegedly stolen from China centuries ago. Though there’s a long tradition of making and selling reproductions in the Middle Kingdom, in a nation where the stock exchange and real estate market are famously volatile, antiques are seen as one of the more stable investments. “The Chinese have a lot of American dollars,” Mason says. “Buying Chinese antiques helps to diversify their portfolios.”

The boom has benefited enormously from the Chinese love of gambling. A significant number of buyers are speculators, for whom bidding is a kind of hedged bet. “The Chinese really enjoy the auction process because of the competitiveness,” says Michelle Liao, owner and proprietor of an Asian antiques and textiles emporium in Philadelphia. “They think bidding is a great, exciting game. They want to win and discover things that no one else knows about. They want to make a noise, to shake things up, to stir fry.”

***

Born in mainland China and raised comfortably in Taipei, Liao reigns over a realm of jade and ivory and silk like a dowager empress exiled out of her time. Since 1977, the high priests and priestesses of the fashion world—Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein—have made pilgrimages and sent emissaries to the Liao Collection, a cavernous space that you don’t so much walk into as wade through.

Among the bower bird's nest of Chinese treasures are ancient brush pots, flywhisks, cricket cages, beaded slippers, velvet scarves, bamboo vests, embroidered Shanxi baby shoes, and mahogany tansus. For several decades Liao went to her homeland on biannual buying junkets, sometimes venturing to the farthest reaches of the hinterlands. But the heirlooms she hunts for have become so expensive that she has cut back her expeditions to once a year.

“The dealers I used to buy from now sell mainly to buyers in China,” she says. “Demand for antiques is so tremendous over there that the wholesale cost is often higher than what I can retail them for in Philly. Yet as mind-blowing as the prices have become at Chinese-antiques auctions in the states, at least it’s still possible to get a steal. In China, those days are over.”

Liao says few Americans collect Chinese antiques on a grand scale anymore. Her Chinese clients tend to care more about rarity than quality, connoisseurship, or aesthetic appeal. “They are very, very picky,” she says. “They want stuff that’s Imperial, or could be. They’re only interested in furniture carved from four kinds of rosewood, all scarce. Especially zitan and huanghuali, the trees used for much of the interior decoration in the Forbidden City.”

Bruce MacLaren attributes the Imperial Craze to “the desire of many Chinese to own objects with a connection to status and power and authority.” For a populace so long silenced and oppressed, showy displays of prosperity can be liberating. And few prestige symbols are showier or more liberating than wares with imperial reign marks indicating that they were designated for palatial use. Imperial jade and porcelain, in particular, have considerable cachet.

“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.

Franz Lidz is the author of the memoirs Unstrung Heroes and Fairway To Hell and the urban history Ghosty Men: The Strange But True Story of the Collyer Brothers.

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