Chinese fish vase sells for world record $85 million

Chinese Qianlong fish vase, ca 1740An 18th century Qianlong porcelain vase sold at a Bainbridges Auction House for a world record $85 million. It’s the highest price ever paid at auction for a Chinese work of art.

Nobody saw it coming, certainly not the sellers — a brother and sister who found the vase when cleaning out their parents’ house after they passed away — and not even the experts at the auction house. Sotheby’s and Christie’s may be used to this kind of huge ticket item, but a small West London auction company like Bainbridges is not. The pre-sale estimate was £800,000-1.2 million ($1.3-1.9 million), which was already 8 times more expensive than the previous top seller for Bainbridges (a Ming enamel bowl that sold for £100,000 a few years ago).

It only took 30 minutes for the bidding to go insane. There were 6 bidders in the room and 3 on the phone. The buyer was one of the people in the room, a Chinese man who declined to comment on his purchase but is thought to have been an agent for a buyer in Beijing. The sellers were also in the room and saw the madness go down. They had to step outside to get some fresh air at one point because of how surreal the bidding got.

So why this piece?

Standing 16 inches tall and decorated with fish, the vase is thought to date from the time of Qianlong, the fourth emperor in the Qing dynasty, around 1740.

Experts said it probably once belonged to Chinese royalty but was most likely taken out of the country at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860 when the palaces were ransacked. […]

The vase has a yellow painted trumpet neck and a double-walled construction, meaning an inner vase can be seen through the perforations of the main body.

Helen Porter, of Bainbridges, said: “In the 18th century it would have resided no doubt in the Chinese Royal Palace and was most certainly fired in the Imperial kilns.

“It is a piece of exquisite beauty and a supreme example of the skill of the ceramicist and decorator.”

The sellers believe it has been in their family since the 1930s. Obviously they had no idea whatsoever that it wasn’t a pretty vase so much as a winning multi-state lottery ticket. Peter Bainbridge, the auctioneer, hit the lotto too with this one. The buyer’s premium and VAT together comes out to $16 million, so since VAT is 17.5% of the sale price (£43 million), that means $12 million goes to Her Majesty’s government and $4 million to the auction house. That’s retirement money, right there.

This is a testament to the astonishing explosion of the market in Chinese art and artifacts.