The Bainbridge vase

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?

Sam Knight

… “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.

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