The Chinese art and porcelain market has completely changed over the last two decades, with rare collectibles reaching millions of pounds at auction. Bonhams director of Chinese Art, Benedetta Mottino, explains the trend to Aston Lark Private Clients’ Director Julie Webb
‘Up to until 20 years ago the Chinese art and porcelain market was dominated by Western collectors but it is now driven by Chinese buyers who are bidding from mainland China, its islands and the West.
Following the economic upsurge in China, wealthy Chinese have started to buy Chinese art and they account for 80 per cent of objects sold at auction.
Like any collectibles, prices fluctuate according to taste or fashion, but what remains a constant in value is Imperial art which is highly coveted by the wealthiest buyers.
Marks on Chinese porcelain most commonly display the dynasty and the reign during its time of production and buyers will spend an absolute fortune on porcelain, jade, textiles and metal works that were made for consumption by the Chinese Emperor and his Court, which often bear an Imperial mark to the base or the body.
‘At the Parry Collection of Chinese Art sale, held in London on November 2nd 2021, we achieved more than £2 million for an exceedingly rare Imperial Beijing blue enamel melon-shaped teapot and cover with a Qianlong four-character mark of the period 1736-1975. It had been estimated at £500,000 to £800,000.
The exquisite teapot (seen above – Image credit: Bonhams) was one of only three examples known, with the other two in museum collections: the first in the collection of the Palace Museum, Taipei, and the second in the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
Each section of the teapot depicts a different subject in miniature with eight paintings symbolising the seasons, peonies and butterflies; you would really need a magnifying glass to appreciate the intricate detailing which represents change, longevity and happiness. Symbolism is very important to Chinese buyers.
The Parry Collection was an important English private collection of Imperial enamel, lacquer, porcelain and jades which was formed from 1919 and kept within the family for three generations.
In total the sale made £7,888,246 and tripled its pre-sale estimates with 100 percent sold. Other highlights included a rare jadeite archaistic incense burner and cover with a Qianlong seal mark but made in the late Qing Dynasty, which sold for £1,222,750 (estimate £60,000 – £80,000) and a rare pair of Zitan-framed kingfisher feather-inlaid ‘landscape’ screens from the Qianlong period which sold for £525,250 (estimate £120,000 – £180,000).
‘We base our estimates on looking at previous auction results and what’s going on around the world, understanding which categories are selling for the highest amounts, but there are always three criteria for valuations whether it is porcelain, jade, textiles, metalworks, furniture and they are: age, condition and provenance.
Age: These periods create the most interest: early Ming, 15th and 16th century, and Middle Qing including the reigns of Kangxi, the second emperor of China in the newly-established Manchu Qing dynasty (reigned from 1662-1722); Yongzheng (1723-1735) and the Quianlong (1735-1796) – the fifth Emperor of the Qing dynasty and the fourth Qing emperor to rule over China.
Condition: If the item is flawless it will receive maximum interest.
Provenance: Collectors want the history and story behind an object, so provenance is as fundamental to the item as the age and quality. If it is associated with a historical figure, the higher the price it will fetch compared to the same thing without the provenance.
Chairs That Ticked All the Boxes
‘As an interesting example, three years ago we auctioned a set of early 17th century travelling chairs made of huanghuali, one of the finest Chinese woods, and they fetched nearly £6 million because they ticked all the boxes – age, good condition and provenance. They came from the Marchese Taliani de Marchio (1887 – 1968), a distinguished Italian diplomat who lived through major historical upheavals of the first half of the 20th century. He was appointed Ambassador to China in 1938 and remained there until 1946.
The provenance of the chairs could be proved by invoices and they also appeared in one of the earliest publications about Chinese furniture by Gustav Ecke. The four huanghuali folding chairs are considered a masterpiece of Ming dynasty furniture making, with no other known identical set.
The sale was amazing because the bidding started at £300,000 but leapt straight to £1 million, then £2 million. In the UK, bidders are keen on waiting, they are patient, but if Chinese individuals want an item, then they will go for it!
‘We achieved a worldwide record of £6.2m for porcelain in 2017 with a fine blue and white porcelain Imperial vase from the Yongzheng period (1723-1735). This was not only a short timeframe but the porcelain produced at that time was impeccable, including many examples produced using the finest enamelling which are highly sought after and inevitably achieve high prices at auction.
The vase was also part of former First Lady Lou Henry Hoover’s collection (1874-1944), which she started while living in London in the early 1900s after returning from two years in China where her husband, Herbert, had served as Director General for the Office of Chinese Mines for the Chinese government.’
Benedetta Mottino’s Tips on How to Start Collecting Chinese Porcelain and Art
First of all decide what your budget will allow and work out what you like most – pottery, jade, wood, textiles or bamboo and bid for the best of the best that your money can buy.
Remember, too, that Western and Chinese taste is different. When appreciating works of art, the Western buyers usually apply a different aesthetic approach than the Chinese collectors, which is based on the classical canons of Greek beauty, order and symmetry. Whereas, the Chinese would often pay the highest amounts for richly-decorated objects depicting a variety of designs underscoring auspicious wishes.
By and large, Chinese buyers tend not to like pottery, as the basic teaching by Confucius in 5BC says ‘don’t disturb the words of the dead or they come back and harm you’. The Chinese believe in the continuation of life after death and that the ancestors could positively influence the life of their living offspring if provided with continuous case, so disturbing a tomb where pottery may have been left would be very wrong.
It is a good time to collect pottery while forming your own category of taste; perhaps animals, landscapes and Buddhism or consider jade ornaments or bangles. It is also worth trying to own something that is linked to a historical moment as this will add interest and value.
Whether you are a long-term collector or new to buying Chinese porcelain or art, these examples of rising values highlight the importance of regular valuations.
Insurers recommend that you obtain a valuation at least every five years, preferably three in today’s market. But check your schedule and policy wording for specific requirements.
Insurers will require any valuation to be for “insurance purposes” and usually for retail value. You should also consider how you would replace your collectible in the event of a loss. Would you want a brand new replacement with a modern equivalent (New Replacement Value) or would you prefer an antique replacement (Antique Replacement Value)? Ensure the items are photographed, kept in good condition and your documentation is in a safe place to help in the event of a claim. It’s a good idea to send a copy of your valuations to your broker, whether or not the insurer requires it.
To speak to us about your art or collections insurance please call 020 8256 4901, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.