How a Chinese vase valued at €2,000 sold for €8m

Source: The Guardian (10/7/22)
‘A crazy story’: how a Chinese vase valued at €2,000 sold for €8m
French auction house tells of build-up to bidding war that led to an expert losing his job and a seller being left ‘traumatised’
By in Paris

Jean-Pierre Osenat conducts the auction of a tianqiuping-style vase in Fontainebleau near Paris.

Jean-Pierre Osenat conducts the ‘extraordinary’ auction of a tianqiuping-style vase in Fontainebleau near Paris. Photograph: Maison Osenat

In the 41 years of wielding the gavel at his auction house a stone’s throw from the royal chateau at Fontainebleau, Jean-Pierre Osenat had never seen anything like it.

“This is a crazy story,” he said. “Quite extraordinary.”

The story has cost one of the auctioneer’s experts his job, after a Chinese vase he declared an ordinary decorative piece worth €2,000 (£1,760) at most sold for almost €8m, nearly 4,000 times the estimate.

“The expert made a mistake. One person alone against 300 interested Chinese buyers cannot be right,” Osenat said. “He was working for us. He no longer works for us. It was, after all, a serious mistake.”

The extraordinary story began earlier this year when a French woman living abroad decided to sell furniture and various objects from her late mother’s home in Brittany. Having entrusted Osenat with the sale, the vase – which had belonged to her grandmother – was packed up, dispatched to Paris and put in a “furniture and works of art” auction of 200 lots, none of which was valued over €8,000.

Last Saturday, the vase, a Chinese tianqiuping – meaning “heavenly globe’” and denoting the round base and long neck – stood on a display table at the Osenat auction room. The catalogue described it as: lot 36 “large tianqiuping porcelain and polychrome enamel vase in a blue-white style with globular body and long cylindrical neck, decorated with nine fierce dragons and clouds (mark under the base)”. The 54cm by 40cm vase was noted as being in “good condition”.

The estimated price, between €1,500 and €2,000, reflected the expert’s view that it was a 20th-century decorative piece and not a rare artefact.

Osenat said his suspicions this might not be the case were raised when the catalogue went online and the pre-auction exhibition was swamped with 300 to 400 interested buyers 15 days before the sale.

“They came with lamps and magnifying glasses to look at it. Obviously they saw something,” he said. “There were so many registrations [to take part in the auction online] we had to stop them. At that point we understood something was happening.”

Initially, the auction house staff put the unexpected interest down to the passion of the French Chinese community for China’s art and history.

Faced with overwhelming interest, auctioneers decided not to allow online bids and the number of buyers was limited to 30 – half in the auction room the other bidding by telephone, with each required to pay a €10,000 deposit to take part.

The tianqiuping-style vase attracted hundreds of interested buyers to a pre-auction exhibition.

The tianqiuping-style vase attracted hundreds of interested buyers to a pre-auction exhibition. Photograph: Maison Osenat

Almost as soon as lot 36 came up frantic bidding erupted. Osenat was conducting the sale of rapidly increasing bids – €100,000, €200,000, €500,000 – when someone shouted “Two million”. By the time bids reached €5m, 10 buyers were still competing; by €7m only two remained.

When the gavel was finally brought down, to applause from the room, the final bid had reached €7.7m. With fees, the anonymous Chinese buyer will pay €9.12m.

Osenat said for the seller, who had moved abroad 15 years ago,the windfall came with problems and the amount would be “hard for them to come to terms with”.

“The vase had been in her family for generations. She said they used to put flowers in it. She had lived with it for 30 years and never imagined it was worth that much,” he said. “She’s completely unsettled. If it had sold for €150,000 that would have been something, but €7.7m is something else. She’s terrified of being in the press and quite traumatised by it.”

The buyer bid by telephone and lives in China. It has been suggested that in addition to the vase featuring the dragon and cloud, a sought-after motif among east Asian collectors, some may have spotted a stamp of Qianlong, an 18th-century Chinese emperor, who is a sacred figure.

The expert, who was sacked and has not been named, is reported to be standing by his original valuation.

Cédric Laborde, the director of the auction house’s Asian arts department, is still not entirely convinced the expert was wrong. “We don’t know whether it [the vase] is old or not or why it sold for such a price. Perhaps we will never know,” Laborde said.

“The valuation corresponded to what the expert thought. In China, copying something, like an 18th-century vase, is also an art. In this case I don’t have an answer. Over the last few years there have been some surprises in auctions of Asian objects.”

Osenat, whose previous record sale was the €4.8m paid in 2007 for the sword Napoléon Bonaparte carried at the Battle of Marengo in 1800, said he had faith in the auctioneer’s hammer.

“The expert thought it was a 20th-century copy, a decoration, so we didn’t change the estimation. In the end the market decided it was 18th century,” he said. “I have confidence in the market. One expert said what he said … but the real price is what the buyers decide.”

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