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Antiques & Collectibles: Imperial vase fetches record royal sum

Chinese Imperial Qing dynasty vase sold for a record-setting $24.7 million at Skinner’s Asian Works of Art Auction this month. Handout

The monumental Chinese Imperial Qing dynasty vase that sold for
$24.7 million at Skinner’s Asian Works of Art auction set a record not only for the top grossing lot ever sold in New England but also for Chinese art sold in the United States.

The 18th-century vase of the Qianlong period also surpassed every object sold at this month’s Asian Week auctions in New York.

The nearly 3-foot multi-tiered baluster-form flower and landscape-decorated vase, which sold in 1964 for $750, was from a New England collection.

“The vase is a tour de force of Chinese ceramic techniques, and it is believed the emperor ordered it to be made,” said Judith Dowling, director of Skinner’s Asian Works of Art department.


She estimated the vase conservatively at $150,000-$250,000 because of damage that had occurred over the years.

Similar to a vase in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Beijing, it bears the seal mark of the Qianlong emperor whose reign (1736-95) was considered the golden age of porcelain production in China.

The palace in Beijing’s Forbidden City, occupied for over 500 years by the Ming and Qing dynasties, became a museum in 1925, at which time the vase may have been in the museum’s imperial collection, possibly as a mate to the one now there.

In 1933 after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, many of the treasures were moved south to Nanjing, then the capital of the Republic of China, for safekeeping.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, most of the treasures were returned to the museum, but in moving between the two sites some of the treasures found their way into Western collections. It may have been then that the vase came to this country.

Its provenance includes Ton-Ying & Co., which was established in 1902 in Paris by a Chinese diplomat serving in France. The company, which imported works of art, tea, and silk from China, later opened a branch in New York.


Prior to the Qing vase going on the block at Skinner’s Sept. 17 Boston auction, it had been shown in a preview at the start of New York’s Asian Week, adding to the growing interest in it.

A large number of Chinese collectors, some of whom had flown here for the sale, were in the packed room when the auction began and competed heatedly with bidders there and on the phones.

Most of the bidders rose to their feet when the vase soared past the $10 million mark, and when the hammer fell on the final bid there was a round of applause. The winning bid was placed by a Chinese collector in the room.

The second top-selling lot was a late Ming dynasty bronze covered censer that brought $243,000, which was nearly 30 times above its $8,000-$10,000 estimate. It also went to a Chinese buyer.

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With the Chinese art market on the rebound after a slump in 2012, many works at New York’s Asian Art Week also soared multiple times above their estimates. Among them was Doyle New York’s top-selling lot, a pair of 19th-century Chinese 16-inch Famille Rose porcelain covered vases that brought
$1.2 million, more than 120 times the low of the $10,000-$15,000 estimate.

The top seller at Christie’s four-day auction was a rare 15th-, early-16th-century Ming 6¾-inch-diameter cloisonné bowl that sold for $2.6 million against a $300,000-$500,000 estimate.


Sotheby’s top seller, Bamboo and Rock, a hanging scroll by the Chinese artist Zheng Xie (1693-1765), also brought $2.6 million. The estimate was $850,000-$1.2 million.

The current world auction record for a Chinese porcelain is the $36 million paid at Sotheby’s April auction in Hong Kong for a tiny 15th-century 3.1-inch-diameter porcelain cup called the “chicken cup” for its depiction of a rooster, hen, and their chicks, an allegorical representation of the emperor, the empress, and his subjects.

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An extremely rare Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref. 1665, formerly owned by the filmmaker and oceanographer Philippe Cousteau (1940-79), will be offered with a $100,000-$150,000 estimate at Antiquorum Auctioneers’ sale of important modern and vintage timepieces Tuesday in New York.

One of the most important diver watches designed in the second half of the 20th century, it introduced the first-ever use of the helium gas escape valve in a wristwatch. This enabled the watch to withstand great underwater pressure while maintaining the functionality of timekeeping.

The watch bears one of the earliest serial numbers (1’ 602’ 920) of this reference ever recorded, which places it in the era of single Red Sea-Dwellers, only six of which are known to exist.

Cousteau, son of the celebrated oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, wore the watch for 10 years before giving it to a family friend. Philippe died at 38 in a plane crash near Lisbon. Photos of him wearing the Rolex, a red “Cousteau Crew” shirt, and other items are included in the sale of the watch.


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A circa 1970s glass and bronze console table by the Swiss sculptor and designer Diego Giacometti (1902-85) was the top seller at Kaminski Auctions’ 20th Century Modern and Contemporary Design Auction this month. The table with two birds perched on the horizontal support sold for $204,000 to a European phone bidder.

An upholstered Peacock chair by the Danish designer Hans Wegner (1914-2007) sold over the phone to a French bidder for $42,000.

Five tapestries from a series of six designed by Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and woven in Aubusson, France, by les Ateliers Pinton celebrating the 1975 American bicentennial all sold above their $2,000-$3,000 estimates with “Trois Spirales” bringing the top price of $11,400.

A small watercolor depicting the landscape of Provence by the French artist Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) brought $19,680 and a lithograph by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) of a nude reclining in a chaise lounge fetched $6,765.

Virginia Bohlin can be reached at vbohlin@comcast.net.