The story of an antique Chinese vase, found in a house clearance in Pinner and sold for £43m in a small auction room, was a suburban fairytale. Was it also too good to be true?by Sam Knight / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
On a Thursday evening in late March, with the clock above his head showing twenty past six, Peter Bainbridge climbed into the rostrum at his auction room in West Ruislip. A large man in his early sixties, with owlish eyebrows and thin grey hair that he combs back, Bainbridge was wearing a tweed jacket with a handkerchief in his top pocket. He folded himself into a wooden chair hidden by the rostrum and leaned forward.
Bainbridge was resuming an auction of antiques and general effects that had started at 11am. As yet, the murmurings in the saleroom—a beige warehouse crammed with dining tables, rocking horses and grandfather clocks from the 954 lots that day—had not died down. A freelance auctioneer had spent the afternoon selling off “the smalls”: the clocks, books, records, china and bric-a-brac that clutter the homes of the nation. Bainbridge, as he always does at his monthly sales, was about to get rid of the furniture. He picked up his gavel and without waiting for the talking to stop, introduced lot 800, an uncertain family of pine furniture that included a coffee table, chairs, a “magazine rack-cum-television table” and two shelving units.
Bainbridge opened the bidding: “OK-twenty-pounds-to-go-going-to-start-at-twenty-pounds-anyone-for-twenty-pounds,” he said in a voice that held no space for a pause. “Twenty-pounds-now-showing-ten-I-will-take-your-bid-now-ten-pounds-anybody-for-a-tenner-nobody-for-ten-pounds-OK.” Finally he took a breath. “Remember if you don’t buy now it will cost you double afterwards.” There were no buyers, and 154 lots to go.
Next up was 801, which went without a fuss: a dining table and chairs for £20. Then Bainbridge was off: he sold a sewing machine, a mahogany bureau and an oak desk in quick succession. The saleroom, whose atmosphere was a cross between a National Trust tearoom and a bookmakers, began to wake up. “Let’s sell these quickly before they find they’re missing,” joked Bainbridge, as he rattled up the bids on a set of old gates. Bidders, perched on chairs that were to be sold later that evening, either sat glazed, listening to the march of money—“thirty-thirty-five-forty-forty-five-fifty”—or else ticked through their catalogues, doing sums in their heads. When Bainbridge opened the bidding on something they wanted, they stiffened and nodded. A man in a black fleece delivered his winning bid of £240 on a set of garden furniture with a short punch to the air.
These, though, were the embers of the day’s trade. By the time the auction entered its eighth and final hour, the room had thinned out and most of the lots were being sold to a group of a dozen regular buyers, men in jeans who milled at the back of the room. Some of the sales acquired an informal air: “Did I get that, Peter?” A teenage porter, wearing an apron with Bainbridge’s logo (a rabbit leaping from right to left), leaned against the wall. Outside in the car park, hard up between West Ruislip Tyres and an old people’s home, night had fallen. Buyers sorted through cardboard boxes of loot and an old red Volvo was trying to turn around, its engine screeching in the gloom.
Four months earlier, at another Thursday sale at Bainbridge’s, lot 800 was a Chinese vase. “A Superb and Very Rare yang cai Reticulated Double-Walled Vase, six-character mark in underglaze blue of Qianlong and of the period,” began its three-page description, printed on A4 paper for the occasion. It sold for £43m, around 40 times its estimate, and was by a factor of seven the most expensive thing that Peter Bainbridge had sold (he used to auction rare cars). In his own saleroom, which he has run since 1979, the record was £100,000, for a Ming alms bowl in 2008. This vase, at 430 times the price, was a leviathan. At £8.6m, the buyer’s premium (an extra charge levied by the auctioneer to cover administration) was about the same as the total turnover for the auction house for the past decade.
The sale made the television news that night. In a country short on money and fond of its knick-knacks, the story was a November tonic. Cash in the attic. On acid. Details that crept out—the vase had recently been valued at £800; it was from a house clearance in Pinner; the owners had to step outside “for a bit of air” when the hammer came down—were gifts to headline writers. A “wobbly bookcase” it was kept on and an “adventurer uncle” who brought it back from his travels (both tabloid inventions) only added to the fun. But it needed no embellishment. The vase is the most expensive work of Chinese art ever auctioned and, by £20m or so, the world’s most valuable porcelain.
It was shaking the international art market before it even got into the newspapers. Most of the people at the saleroom that evening were dealers, specialists, agents and collectors in London that week for the annual autumn sales of Asian art. They had come to West Ruislip from a day-long sale of fine Chinese art at Bonhams, and got into taxis heading back into town calling and emailing their colleagues in Beijing and Hong Kong as they went. “When I first heard the result, I had to chat with my customers and calm them down,” an agent in Shanghai told me. Months on, that community, which travels the world dealing in the heightened and opaque world of Chinese art, is still wondering what to make of what happened that night.
That is because the future of the vase is nothing like resolved. Within days of the sale, there was speculation on the internet that the bidding had been rigged by Chinese agents, seeking to bump up prices ahead of the big sales in Beijing two weeks later. Then, in December, a respected American dealer expressed doubts about the vase’s authenticity. Since February, there has been a drip-drip of stories in the British press, mostly unsourced, questioning whether the anonymous buyer—a mysterious “businessman in Beijing”—is going to pay, or pondering the possibility of a conspiracy involving the Chinese state.
Whatever the reason, the most expensive vase in history is in limbo, in a high-security vault at an undisclosed location, not yet paid for. When Peter Bainbridge finally agreed to speak to me, he insisted, as confidently as he could, that the sale would go through. “If this whole transaction is two feet deep, you have covered a foot of it,” he said. “And the other foot is very interesting.” The next day he flew to Beijing, to get to the bottom of it himself. As the weeks have gone by, the sight of a tiny auction house at the end of the Central Line wrestling with the whims of China’s macho, multibillion pound art market has gone from agonising to comic and back again. It is also, according to those who make their living in this world, a warning to others. “The whole market,” one dealer told me, “is not for the ill-informed.”
The vase turned up at Bainbridge’s last September. Along with some mahogany furniture, it was from the house of Patricia Newman, an elderly woman who had died in Pinner, about three miles up the road. Newman’s sister Gene, and her nephew Tony Johnson, a solicitor who lives on the Isle of Wight, had come across a leaflet for Bainbridge’s when they were going through the dead woman’s possessions. After the sale of the Ming bowl in 2008, Bainbridge invested the proceeds in a mailshot across northwest London, aiming to increase the number of probate instructions and house clearances that provide most of his stock. On the evening of 22nd September, when he and Luan Grocholski, a consultant valuer, were going through the monthly haul, a porter lifted the vase onto one of the shelves reserved for ceramics.
Grocholski was cataloguing something else at the time. But the vase—16 inches tall, with bright yellow shoulders and a pale green base, enswirled everywhere with decoration, and with four panels showing cavorting fish—distracted him. It was, he said, “a sort of light source,” and he couldn’t help going over to it. “My natural reaction was to think, ‘It can’t be real,’” he told me, “I just thought, ‘What an amazing copy, what an amazing fake.’ Amazing, wonderful, superb… but.” Picking it up, he saw on its base the reign mark of Qianlong, the 18th-century emperor who was the last great imperial ruler of China. He told the room that a genuine vase of this kind could fetch up to £1.5m. “They all went, ‘Oh really,’ and opened their eyes wide,” he said. “Then I put it down and we went off to supper.”
Over dinner at a nearby pub, the vase flickered in Grocholski’s mind. When he went back to finish cataloguing he took it and sat alone in the office, turning it over in his lap. His mind began to turn as well. “The more I looked at it, the more everything started going the other way, the seesaw from being fake to real,” he said. “You’re looking at the enamelling, and the quality of it, and the gilding, and this and that, and the mark, and the way it’s done and the overall feeling of it… Suddenly you think actually there is no reason for me to think it is a fake. Why isn’t it real?” Grocholski asked Bainbridge to remove the vase from the next sale and let him take it home to research it. That night he drove to his terraced Victorian house in Highbury, north London, with the vase packed in a Waitrose box.
Luan Grocholski, who took the vase home in a Waitrose box to value it
Grocholski is a tall, sloping man with a persistent cough. The son of Polish aristocratic émigrés, he has passed his working days in discovery of old things in British houses. The way he speaks, invoking “one” (“one would have liked…”, “there is an awful lot one doesn’t know…”), is marked by gentility and the deprecating jargon—the kit and nice things—of a life lived in the antiques trade. When I went to meet him one afternoon at his house, Grocholski answered the door accompanied by a writhing King Charles spaniel. “This is Hettie,” he said. “One false move and she’ll lick you to death.”
Not academic, but interested in the arts, Grocholski left school in the 1960s and took a year-long course at the Victoria and Albert museum. At the time, ceramics struck him as the most arcane and terrifying of fields, with its unknowable subtleties of paste and glaze. Yet it became the mainstay of both his first job, as a porter and cataloguer at Phillips auction house (now part of Bonhams), and at his second, as a valuer at Sotheby’s in the mid-1970s. At Phillips, Grocholski worked under a ceramics expert called Gordon Lang, who went on to become a celebrated teacher at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art. At Sotheby’s he had occasional contact with Julian Thompson, one of the foremost porcelain connoisseurs of the 20th century.
It was an invigorating time, and Grocholski, who was in his twenties, was drawn to the fragile china—British, European and Asian—that passed through his hands. “It can be a sensuous material,” he told me. “A sort of almost edible material.” He had a feel for it. While at Sotheby’s, he challenged a decision by Thompson, then head of the ceramics department, to reject an 18th-century vase that Grocholski had spotted in a client’s house, converted into a table lamp. Thompson, who at first believed the vase was a copy, was persuaded otherwise and the cleaned-up piece sold for £15,000, a considerable price then.
But as of last September, Grocholski hadn’t worked at a leading auction house for more than 30 years. In the late 1970s, he left Sotheby’s to work as a roving valuer, instructed by solicitors and auction houses operating in the national churn of probate sales and house clearances. It was in this world that he met Peter Bainbridge, a young estate agent turned auctioneer, who was about to open his own saleroom. At first Grocholski worked occasionally for Bainbridge, but in the last ten years the two had become close, and now he was involved in almost every sale.
Grocholski put the vase on his desk next to his computer and set about investigating it. He photographed it, searched the internet and walked the galleries of the British Museum and the V&A, which house Britain’s finest porcelain collections, amassed across four centuries of trade, diplomatic exchange and war with China. All the visual and sensory signals from the vase told Grocholski that it had been fired, glazed and enamelled at Jingdezhen, the site of China’s most sophisticated kilns, during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong (1736-95), a period of prodigious porcelain-making for the imperial court. He could see that the vase was highly unusual. Not only was the top half enamelled in yellows and pinks—a palette borrowed from European art and known in Chinese as yang cai (foreign colours)—but it was also double-walled, or reticulated, and so of extraordinarily complex construction, and would have needed to have been fired in the kiln several times.
“The loneliness of the outside expert,” is how Grocholski described his research. “I’d never handled a thing like this.” He had scarcely any solid information: the Johnsons only recalled that the vase had been in the family since the 1960s, and no relative was known to have been to China. For a time, Grocholski focused on finding a matching vase anywhere in the world, and came tantalisingly close in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which has a Qianlong piece of the same construction, but red and with panels of painted landscapes rather than carved fish. Then Grocholski wondered whether a matching vase might make his more rather than less likely to be a copy. “The weight of responsibility was considerable,” he said.
Still, Grocholski did not seek outside help. He did not approach Sotheby’s or Christies, or any of the 30-odd prominent Asian art dealers in London, for fear of complicating the sale. When I asked him why he didn’t consult with an academic authority, he said: “There was no one that I know well enough.” Instead, he sat with the vase. “One lived with it.” The more he read and probed, the more his confidence grew. Finally, in late September, with his mind all but made up, Grocholski turned to his old colleague Gordon Lang, who was then dying of cancer. Grocholski drove the vase to the Trinity Hospice in Clapham, and showed it to Lang. “He was already very ill,” said Grocholski, “but he did see it and he thought it was all right.” Lang died on 8th October. Around the same time, Grocholski called Bainbridge to tell him he believed the vase was genuine.
Bainbridge did not question his friend. Instead, he took out a full-page ad in the Antiques Trade Gazette. “Peter went for it,” said Grocholski, “in a big way.” Asian Art in London was about to start—a seven-day series of exhibitions and sales that sees around £20m change hands each year—and they decided to schedule Bainbridge’s November auction, featuring the vase, for the same week. Grocholski estimated its value between £800,000 and £1.2m. On Monday 8th November, the beginning of Asian Art, the vase was put on display for the afternoon in a company boardroom, borrowed from one of Bainbridge’s friends, above an Eat sandwich shop on Dover Street in Mayfair.
The biggest creatures in the Chinese art world came to see it. Removed from its box and placed on a grey blanket, the vase was inspected by a procession of the curious and the expert from noon until 6.30pm. For Grocholski, it was an enormous validation. The leading US dealer in Chinese antiques, James Lally, came, as did Giuseppe Eskenazi, London’s finest. Jules Speelman, whose family has dealt in Asian ceramics since the late 19th century, ran his finger round the base, complimenting the wear. The great Julian Thompson, by then frail with illness, came and smiled his approval. No one seemed to doubt it.
For Grocholski and Bainbridge, though, the revelation was in the reaction of the Chinese who came into the boardroom. Dozens of dealers, agents and collectors—many in London just for the week, clutching their catalogues from Bonhams and Christie’s—stopped by and admired the vase. “It was like, I don’t know, it was like a hot water bottle radiating happiness,” said Grocholski. For Bainbridge, who is prone to flights of oratory, seeing the vase reintroduced to people who instinctively understood it made a powerful impression. “My whole viewpoint changed,” he said. Bainbridge found himself imagining the labour of porcelain-making in 18th-century China. “There would have been no light,” he told me, “just the light of the kilns… You know, sweating bodies racing around, dealing with their various duties. There would have been huge mess everywhere, I imagine, clays all over the floor, lots of these high-pitched instructions going on. Or would there have been silence?”
Either way, the day in Mayfair could not have gone better. When Grocholski left that night, his only fear was that his estimate was too low. “It was like a taxi meter,” he said. In his mind, “the figures were click, click, clicking upwards.”
It was the perfect week to sell the vase. Many of those who saw it in Mayfair went to a nearby reception the same night at Eskenazi’s, the five-floor headquarters of Giuseppe Eskenazi and his son Daniel, London’s most glamorous dealers of Asian art. In 2005, Eskenazi senior paid $27.7m for a 14th-century blue-and-white jar at auction at Christie’s in New York, a record price for Chinese porcelain that stood for five years. That evening, he was celebrating 50 years of business with an exhibition of “Twelve Chinese Masterworks.” The centrepiece, a dragon vase painted in the studio of Emperor Yongzheng (Qianlong’s father), had already sold for $25m. Five clients, all from mainland China, were rumoured to have been willing to meet the asking price.
Giuseppe Eskenazi, a leading London expert on Chinese antiques
In another year, the purchase of the Eskenazi vase would have been breathtaking, but 2010 was an annus mirabilis for the Chinese art market. In April and June, records were set for works by a living Chinese artist and for calligraphy, with a painting and a scroll selling in Beijing for $14.8m and $64m respectively. In October, shortly after Grocholski had decided on his estimate for the Bainbridge vase, Sotheby’s sold a similar Qianlong piece to Alice Cheng, one of Hong Kong’s leading collectors, for $32.6m, eclipsing the record set five years earlier by Eskenazi. Using auction results as a guide, the Chinese art market grew by 150 per cent last year, with sales in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan worth more than $8.3bn. In March, an annual study by the European Fine Art Foundation reported that in 2010, China overtook Europe to become the world’s number two art market after the US, with 23 per cent of the world’s sales. A week later, Artprice, a respected compiler of auction data in Beijing, announced that China was number one.
It is not easy to grapple with these kinds of forces. One afternoon in March I went to see Giuseppe Eskenazi at his offices off Bond Street. Drilling was taking place outside and in the window a 1,200-year-old earthenware horse had its head cast down, looking pained. Eskenazi drew me a graph of the prices in the market in which he has dealt for the last half-century. After the lull of Japan’s recession in the 1990s, the line crossed into the 2000s and began to climb astonishingly quickly as new clients from mainland China—“big punters,” according to Eskenazi—arrived on the scene. “Up to a point,” he said, “we can’t find enough objects to satisfy a market like that.”
There are various explanations why China’s art market is growing so fast. On the one hand, there is brute economics. According to the Hurun report (China’s rich list), there are now 189 US-dollar billionaires in China, around six times the number in Britain. They have few places to put their wealth. Currency controls prevent them moving their funds offshore, while in mainland China, there is inflation, a flat stock market and a property bubble—the outlet for spare cash during the last ten years of growth—that the government is now trying to prick. Almost by default, expensive, collectible things have become an asset class worth piling into. “How are they going to spend their money?” Colin Sheaf, the head of Asian art at Bonhams, asked me before answering his own question: “Whack it on a piece of Chinese art and keep your fingers crossed.”
But antiques also have a special allure. Pearl Lam, the daughter of Hong Kong billionaire and a leading gallerist of contemporary Chinese art, explained to me that “cultural enhancement”—the acquisition of knowledge and artefacts from China’s pre-communist past—is an important vocation for many of the country’s first-generation rich. Most grew up under Mao’s abhorrence of the “four olds”: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. “If you don’t have it and you’ve never had it, then you want to have it,” said Lam. With money no object, you expect to get it too. But at the apex of China’s antiques market, where the best pieces of porcelain and calligraphy carry the seals and inscriptions of the imperial court, there is a permanent shortage of supply. Competition, as a result, is heady, and nowhere more so than in public auctions, which remain the most reliable way to guard against buying fakes. In the phrase of Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, who runs the company’s Hong Kong sales: “We see some very, very gutsy collecting styles.”
No one pretends the world of Chinese art is an easy place to operate, however. One major, and contrary, player is the Chinese government. With one hand, it plays sponsor: in 2002, it set up the state-funded Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Programme to buy back artefacts that were sold or looted from China; Poly Auctions, meanwhile, one of Beijing’s most profitable auction houses, is state-owned. With the other hand, though, China plays wrecker. In 2009, two bronze heads, taken by French soldiers during the sacking of the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860, were auctioned at a sale of Yves Saint Laurent’s estate in Paris. A dealer, widely believed to be working for the Chinese state, sabotaged the sale by winning the auction but then refusing to pay.
Then there are the big punters. Beyond its attractiveness as an investment, and as a source of prestige and knowledge, Chinese art is also a currency for scoundrels. As long ago as the 16th century, China’s porcelain, jade and calligraphy markets have been associated with the twin sins of fakery and bribery, across spectrums that run from dutiful historical replicas and honest gift-giving to sophisticated counterfeits and organised crime. Antiques frequently turn up in the prosecutions of corrupt Chinese officials. “Art has always been a suitable thank you for services rendered,” the agent in Shanghai told me. In 2010, Wen Qiang, a former senior justice official in Chongqing province, was executed after being found guilty of rape and taking over £1m in bribes, including 36 art objects and 69 paintings. A year earlier, an official in charge of construction projects in Zhejiang earned the nickname “Bureau chief: antique collection” for the trove of porcelains that police found buried under his house.
When you stop to consider its hectic entirety, the world of Chinese art is a fraught place to do business. On a rainy day in Mayfair, I met Elton Chau, a dealer who has been trading Chinese art in London since the 1980s. Before we even sat down to talk, Chau, a small man carrying a silver-coloured umbrella, started shaking his head. “The market has gone crazy,” he said. “Some of the prices people pay now, they are frightening.” Chau no longer takes clients whom he has not met face to face.
Like most of the people who wanted to buy the Bainbridge vase, Chau saw it first in the Antiques Trade Gazette. “That is amazing,” he thought. He made an appointment to see the vase alone in West Ruislip where he could inspect it closely and without interruption. Then he called a client in Beijing and told him to fly to London and see it for himself. The client, whom Chau did not name, came and instructed him to bid up to £15m. From discussions with fellow dealers and agents, Chau was convinced that what he called the fish vase (many Chinese people struggle with the name Bainbridge) would fetch twice that.
Just before six o’clock on the evening of 11th November, Chau was in the crowd at Bainbridge’s to see Grocholski, wearing a grey suit, red tie and an armistice poppy, emerge from the office carrying the porcelain. Bainbridge was in his place at the rostrum. By chance, it was lot 800, an auspicious number for Chinese buyers. “The vase. Let’s welcome it,” said Bainbridge, leading a round of applause. “It’s a very, very solid item.”
The bidding opened at £800,000. At first it fell down to £500,000 before a series of telephone bids—handled by Bainbridge’s wife Jane, among others—pushed the price over £1m. Then the bids moved in £200,000 increments. Grocholski stood behind the vase, watching his estimate fall away, his hands folded in front of him, as the auction took on an abstract quality. “Of course it was a lot of money,” he said, “but as it goes up, it’s only figures. It becomes less and less, it’s… It’s a game really.”
There were seven bidders at £20m. At £30m—a record for Chinese porcelain—Bainbridge flicked his hands to the rest of the room and said: “Now the rest of you can join in.” By the time the two final bidders, one a young Chinese agent in the front row, wearing a black V-neck sweater, closed in on £40m, Bainbridge’s gestures were solemn. When the price settled at £43m, he began his peroration: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are coming to a conclusion now this evening. We have the most wonderful, wonderful sum of money.” Then he began to count down, lingering over the number, repeating it three times, raising his left, then his right, and then finally both hands, a conductor guiding his orchestra to their last magnificent note. “Sold!” Bainbridge shouted. “Sold!” On his second swing, Bainbridge broke his auctioneer’s hammer and the room erupted with noise. Grocholski stooped and carried the vase out.
There was a month of celebration—of interviews and plans—before the sale suffered its first serious knock. In a conversation with a journalist from CNBC, James Lally, the leading American dealer who came to see the vase, said he was “very sceptical” of its authenticity. “There are a number of people who do not find that piece convincing,” he said. “And I think people who were bidding on it, some of them on the telephone, were taking an enormous risk.”
Lally’s comments surfaced in the British press five days before Christmas, and all the dealers and experts that I talked to were surprised that he made them. Dealers and auction houses do not disparage each other’s stock. Most disagreed with his analysis too, albeit off the record. When I asked a ceramics expert at a major London auction house, he said the vase was “absolutely right.” Jules Speelman said the vase “struck me as real.” But the verdict is not unanimous. “Frankly my first impression when I saw the pictures was that there was no way that was Qianlong,” a prominent academic who has not handled the vase told me. “Other people have that opinion too.” In an email, the expert said there were three aspects to the vase—its carved relief fish panels; its green latticework, which was not used on imperial wares; and the unusual motifs displayed on its neck—that made it unlikely, in his view, to have been created in the 18th century. There is no way to settle the question definitively. Thermo-luminescence testing—in which a small hole is drilled in the vase and its porcelain is dated in a laboratory—is not considered accurate for objects less than 300 years old.
The comments from the sidelines infuriate Bainbridge’s. “Because it’s so much money,” Grocholski told me, “you find all the sharks and piranhas swimming towards you.” When he bumped into James Lally at a memorial service for Julian Thompson, who died in January, Grocholski confronted him about his remarks. Lally was civil but he did not retract them. Peter Bainbridge is sure that such comments—as well as media speculation that his buyer does not have the money to pay—have damaged negotiations to conclude the sale.
The persisting anonymity of the buyer has fuelled the rumours as well. At first, even Bainbridge’s did not know his identity, only his agent’s; now they guard it zealously. Research by Prospect in Beijing, which included an interview with the chairman of an auction house who claimed to know the buyer, could ascertain only that he was a businessman with interests in real estate and the steel industry. Knowing his name might not help in any case. As Elton Chau told me, there is little incentive for him to identify himself now. “Even if he has bought it, he will say, ‘You got the wrong guy,’” Chau said, adding: “It is mainland Chinese. It is a mystery. End of story.” Buying a major antique abroad can subject Chinese collectors…