When A Woman Took Her Old Vase To Auction, The Price It Sold For Was Simply Staggering

In 2019 a man received a phone call from a number he didn’t recognize. On the other end of the line was an elderly woman. She was wondering what to do with her works of art. The person answering the call was Johan Bosch van Rosenthal, an art valuer and adviser from The Netherlands. The caller asked if he would personally come to her home to assess the collection. And while van Rosenthal had seen numerous beautiful things in many different places, nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to find.

Van Rosenthal was evidently intrigued by the old woman’s unexpected call. Whatever she described on the phone piqued the art expert’s interest to a significant degree. As a result, the Dutchman decided to make the trip and look over the collection. Presumably, he packed up some essentials for the journey and then proceeded to make his way from Holland to her home.

The full extent of van Rosenthal’s journey to the woman’s home has not been revealed. And the same goes for exact location of her residence. Presumably, the safeguarding of her anonymity helps to keep her safe. An elderly art collector would, of course, potentially be a target of unscrupulous thieves.

All we know for sure is that the lady’s residence is a country house somewhere in a remote location. Luckily, van Rosenthal recorded a video detailing his experience for the art and real estate broker Sotheby’s, which was uploaded to its YouTube channel. In it, the Dutch art adviser described the woman’s home as being situated in central Europe.

Upon van Rosenthal’s arrival at the collector’s remote country house, he was evidently impressed by what he found. In fact, the respected Dutch valuer seemed slightly taken aback by his elderly host. In the video for Sotheby’s he narrated, “There I met a charming energetic woman in her 80s, surrounded by her dogs and cats.”

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Van Rosenthal then revealed that he received a guided walk around the remote country pile from the vigorous octogenarian. He continued in the video, “She took me on a tour of the extensive house, and showed me many works of art. Some acquired, some inherited, each with its own history.”

After a period of being shown around the cozy-looking country retreat, van Rosenthal was taken to a particularly noteworthy area. As he explained on the Sotheby’s video, “We reached a room with a number of Chinese works of art inherited many years ago. Her four cats walked around freely among these.”

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Among the cats, in a room jam-packed with works of art, van Rosenthal was struck by a certain item that the old lady owned. He revealed to Sotheby’s exactly what caught his expert eye. “She pointed out a partly gilded Chinese vase on a cupboard. A cherished object which she knew to be something special and valuable.”

Though the item was not an instantly recognizable piece to van Rosenthal, he was quickly wowed by it. He continued,“While I’m not a specialist in Chinese works of art, I noticed that this was no ordinary Chinese vase.” Indeed, so intrigued by the ceramic receptacle was the Dutch valuer that he carefully took it down to have a closer look.

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The vase was certainly something unusual, the likes of which he had never before seen. And, by van Rosenthal’s own admission, he’d come in to contact quite a a few special pieces during his career. Indeed, the Dutchman has accumulated more than 30 years of experience in the global art market, so he is clearly no novice.

Van Rosenthal started out working at numerous art dealers in his home country of The Netherlands back in the early 1980s. During this period, he also found some opportunities in both Germany and England. The Dutchman would, however, get his big break in the industry just after the mid-point of the decade, when he joined Christie’s auctioneers.

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As you probably already know, Christie’s is a renowned auction house in the U.K. It was established way back in 1766 by a man called James Christie, whose surname it bears. The central premises are on the suitably grand King Street in the St James’ neighborhood of London, but the auction house also has a presence in over 40 different countries, including the U.S.

The auction house is now effectively owned by François-Henri Pinault, under his holding company Groupe Artémis. Pinault is a French billionaire and philanthropist from a prominent and extremely wealthy family. According to Forbes, they are worth an eye-watering $34.8 billion. The well-heeled businessman is married to the actor Salma Hayek.

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Van Rosenthal worked in the Amsterdam office of Christie’s from 1986 until 1999. The Dutchman joined the auction house as a leading authority on Old Master Paintings and Drawings, plus Old Master, Modern and Contemporary Prints. He is well known as a doyen in this area of art, having published several articles in this field.

The art expert was also appointed as Head Auctioneer in Amsterdam for Christie’s. During van Rosenthal’s time in the role he learned everything there is to know about art auctions. Furthermore, the Dutchman became an expert in the bi-annual sales of Old Master Paintings, and the yearly trading of both Dutch and Flemish Old Master Drawings.

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To give you an idea of the level of wealth Christie’s regularly deals with, its annual sales totaled $7.4 billion in 2015. The most ever splurged on a single painting happened during a 2017 sale at the auction house, totaling $450.3 million. For that price, the buyer got their hands on Leonardo Da Vinci’s rediscovered depiction of Jesus Christ, the Salvator Mundi.

Van Rosenthal, however, left Christie’s in 1999 to strike out on his own. He founded an autonomous advisory company called Art Consult that same year. Not only is the Netherlands native a certified and sworn art valuer, he’s also a board member of TMV, the association of Dutch auctioneers, brokers and valuers.

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So, as we have discovered, van Rosenthal is a highly-regarded art valuer who has a wealth of experience in the industry. He’s witnessed a great deal of priceless works in his many years on the job. Still, the Dutchman would be dumbfounded by the Chinese vase which caught his eye in the old woman’s country home.

In the Sotheby’s video, van Rosenthal detailed his enlightening experience with the vase. He said, “I carefully took it down. And because of the dust on its surface, only then I noticed the reticulated lower part of the vase through which I could see the blue and white vase inside.”

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Van Rosenthal continued, “The highly refined decoration was extraordinary, the form intriguing. Never before had I come across such a vase. No, this was indeed something special, and the marks at the bottom reminded me of marks seen in special catalogs of auctions of Imperial Chinese porcelain taking place in Hong Kong.”

The art expert then hit upon a way to find out more about the piece. He told Sotheby’s in the video, “I asked the owner if I could take some photos for further research.” After getting the nod from the collector and taking the pictures, the Dutchman sent them on to Nicolas Chow, an expert in Chinese Art.

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Chow currently serves as Chairman of both Sotheby’s in Asia and the Chinese Works of Art department for the company in general. After joining the auction house in 1999, he began leading the Chinese art market in Asia four years later. And, when Chow saw the images, he, too, was wowed by the vase. Van Rosenthal even noted that, “He rang back the same day and was very excited.”

It wasn’t long before Chow paid his own visit the lady’s remote home, and, while there, made a fascinating discovery. As van Rosenthal explained to Sotheby’s, “He made his way to Europe to see the original, and confirmed that this was a highly important yangcai vase, with seal mark and period of Qianlong.”

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Yes, the stunning ceramic receptacle dated back to the period of Emperor Qianlong. Van Rosenthal explained in the Sotheby’s video that the piece “really embodies the glorious times and the extraordinary emperor for whom it was produced.” He further noted that once the auction house had finished its research, “it was clear that this vase had a matching record in the archives of the Imperial Household department workshop.”

That record would date the vase all the way back to 1742. Furthermore, as van Rosenthal explained in the video, the vase “also came from the collection of Sir Harry Garner, who had sold it at Sotheby’s in London in 1954.” Garner was a notable mathematician and avid collector of Asian art. The Englishman gained expertise in the field, penning numerous seminal books and later donated many of his pieces to both the Victoria and Albert and British Museums.

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The vase was, as van Rosenthal told Sotheby’s, “truly a treasure rediscovered.” The Qianlong period during which it was produced spanned from 1735 until 1796. The Emperor for whom the ceramic piece took its name ruled for six decades, making it one of the longest reigns in China’s history. It was a time of considerable power for the nation, with the ruler eliminating both Mongol and Turk threats to the country. In addition, he created the New Province, present-day Xinjiang, thus increasing the empire’s size.

Writing for the Sotheby’s website, Regina Krahl delved deeper into the historical significance of the vase. She is an expert in Far Eastern ceramics who has served as President of the Oriental Ceramic Society. In a section entitled ‘Encompassing China’s Past,’ she initially pondered how the Jingdezhen craftsmen who made it paid “homage to as many classic Chinese art styles as possible while creating a symphonic work of art in contemporary taste.”

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Krahl continued, “To any connoisseur versed in the history of Chinese art – which the Qianlong Emperor unquestionably was – this porcelain masterpiece must appear like a culmination of centuries of ingenuity in Chinese crafts. Its multiple associations spell ‘Glorious Past’ on so many different levels, that even for the expert viewer it takes a while to unravel them all.”

The porcelain expert wrote that the vase was “like a stroll through the imperial collection.” Krahl then went on to explain how it “takes us from archaic bronzes and jades via Longquan celadon and imperial blue-and-white to Rococo flower design.” She added, “What is perhaps most admirable about it – even more than its technical sophistication – is its stylistic coherence, which fuses nostalgic nods to antiquity with fashionable takes on international trends of the day.”

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Krahl then mused on the reticulated vase’s technical mastery and rareness. She wrote, “The extremely small group of pierced, double-walled vases that were produced for the Qianlong Emperor provided probably the greatest technical challenge ever for the potters at the imperial kilns. The complexity of the production process can hardly be overstated and the perfection of the execution is next to miraculous.”

The art expert then got into specifics regarding the crafting of the vase and its few counterparts. She stated, “Works like these could have been developed by the imperial kilns only under the leadership of Tang Ying (1682-1756), who combined superior understanding of the properties of the ceramic medium, vast experience with the intricacies of the production process and an unerring sense of aesthetics, with exceptional ambition. These vases, however, appear to have provided cause for concern even to him.”

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Krahl continued, “After having presented nine single vases, respectively designed with openwork or interlocking sections, Tang reported to the Emperor that he had not dared to create larger numbers or pairs, since they are so expensive and would do so only if the Emperor accepted them. The Emperor replied that he ought indeed to keep numbers low and restrict their production to special occasions, but nevertheless ordered pairs to be created for the singles.”

The porcelain connoisseur then revealed that many reticulated vases “do not have pairs today and may never have had pairs, as no such delivery from Jingdezhen is expressly recorded in the archives.” Krahl then stated that “references in the court archives to reticulated vases date from the seventh and eighth year of the Qianlong period, 1742 and 1743. This reference fits perfectly to the present piece.”

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Finally, Krahl noted the rarity of the vase’s artwork. She writes, “It represents the quintessence of Qianlong style, but with the overhanging ruyi collar at the rim and dragon handles matching the openwork pattern, its design is particularly elaborate. Both features would have complicated the production process further.”

Having been rediscovered, the ancient artwork was then put up for auction by its owner. The Sotheby’s event in which its true market value would be revealed took place in Hong Kong on Saturday July 11, 2020. It concluded that year’s Spring Sales series in the special administrative region of China, with the sale of four pieces of Chinese art as the finale.

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Some observers saw the July auction as a considerable test of the Asian market’s strength and resilience. Four very special items of Chinese art were available to anyone willing to stump up the money. One of them was the newly-named ‘Harry Garner Reticulated Vase,’ all the way from Central Europe. And the price it eventually sold for will likely have made a few jaws drop.

Yes, the reticulated masterpiece from the 18th century would go under the hammer for an eye-watering $70.4 million Hong Kong dollars. In U.S. money, that equates to slightly over $9 million. That’s right, $9 million big ones for a single vase. An amount which could feasibly buy you a luxury mansion in the Hollywood Hills.

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Nicolas Chow – whom we introduced earlier – had shown off the rare Chinese porcelain at a pre-auction media event in June 2020. The Chairman of Sotheby’s Asian operations later remarked on the sale of the stunning artwork. He said, “It is such a great privilege for Sotheby’s to find a new home for this unique reticulated vase, a culmination of centuries of ingenuity in Chinese crafts and a masterpiece made for the Qianlong emperor.”

Elsewhere, other Chinese works of art also went for big bucks. Ten pieces of Huanghuali furniture – including a Recessed-Leg Long Table – sold separately for around $21.5 million. The Wu Guanzhong painting Heavenly Lake in Mount Changbai fetched $3.1 million. The grand total splashed out during the auctions was a massive $60 million, illustrating the unwavering demand for high quality, historic works.

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Given the vase’s distinct, ancient beauty, plus the astronomical price achieved at auction, it is incredible to think that the piece was, for numerous decades, gathering dust in a cupboard. Furthermore, it is more than a little alarming to think that the imperial treasure was often surrounded by cats and dogs freely roaming around the house. Thankfully it survived, and the art world is all the better for it.

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