There’s a chance that you’ve searched feverishly through the items you’ve collected over the years, hoping to find something that the Antiques Roadshow would love – and which would also be worth a fortune. However, few of us are lucky enough to discover any treasures hiding among the old newspapers and video tapes.
But in March 2018 that’s exactly what happened to one lucky woman in France. A little digging yielded an incredibly rare piece of art, which had been tucked into a shoebox in an attic. And when the vase in question went to auction, it fetched a quite incredible sum of money.
After all, it’s not every day that a stunning item dating back to the Chinese Qing dynasty is discovered. That phase of imperial rule ended in 1912; the vase itself, however, appears to originate from the period in which the Qianlong Emperor was ruler, from 1735 to 1796.
The Qianlong Emperor came to the Imperial throne when he was just 24 years old, and he oversaw one of the largest empires that the world has ever seen – one that is said to have spanned a mind-boggling three million square miles. You might think that being in charge of such a huge area would involve quite a lot of conflict in order to maintain that supremacy, and you’d be right. But the emperor wasn’t just a military man; he also had a penchant for preserving Chinese culture.
You see, the emperor himself was an art lover, and thanks to him, China’s imperial collection – the personal art museum of the ruler – grew ever larger. Indeed, while the haul itself had been around for centuries, Qianlong was particularly invested in expanding and curating it.
The emperor amassed everything from jade to mirrors and bronzes and had a team of consultants to help him acquire pieces. And at around that time, artworks looked arguably even more magnificent than they had ever done before. A new color palette had been imported to China from Europe, with the tones subsequently used likely elevating already beautiful objects to the realm of the sublime.
Centuries after the Qianlong Emperor’s reign, though, one piece of particularly stunning Chinese art would be found in a French attic, nestled inside a shoebox. And perhaps aware that the vase’s apparent age and Chinese style may well mean that it had value, the owner decided to take the piece to an auction house in the French capital of Paris to see exactly what it could be worth.
And here’s where the story takes a couple of interesting – and surprising – turns. After having transported the vase to Sotheby’s in Paris, the woman in possession of the item handed it over to Olivier Valmier – the auction house’s specialist in Asian arts. And in June 2018 Valmier would tell the BBC, “When [the owner] put the box on my desk and we opened it, we were all stunned by the beauty of the piece.”
Sotheby’s employees would also find that the vase is decorated with the symbol of the Qianlong Emperor – making it over 220 years old. Valmier added of the object to the BBC, “This is a major work of art. It is as if we had just discovered a Caravaggio.”
And the piece itself is arguably as richly hued as any work by the old masters. It’s highly decorated, too, complete with intricately painted details of birds and deer among other animals. But despite the item’s magnificence, the owner herself wasn’t enamored. “We didn’t like the vase too much,” the BBC has quoted her as saying.
And that’s even though the vase is said to be one of only a handful of its type ever made. Indeed, Sotheby’s claimed in its listing for the piece that “such elaborate and challenging designs are exceedingly rare on Qing imperial porcelain.”
Then in June 2018 the vase went up for auction with an estimate of $588,000 to $823,000. And if the random attic find had sold for even the lower end of that range, it still would have been a highly impressive feat. As it happens, though, there was one final – and incredible – twist to the tale.
When the vase received its moment in the auction room, the bidding went on for a marathon 20 minutes, with several hopefuls attempting to grab a piece of Imperial Chinese history. Then, as the hammer dropped for the final time, the singular vase had sold not for the estimated half a million dollars – but for a staggering $19 million.
That final bid meant that the piece hadn’t just broken its estimated value; it had smashed it, making the vase the most expensive item ever sold by the French arm of Sotheby’s. It was a record-breaking, multi-millionaire-making event – and all because one lucky lady decided that it was time for a clear-out.
So, it may very well be a good idea to go antique hunting in your own attic this weekend; after all, you may just find something that ends up changing your life. And that notion is not beyond the realms of possibility, either, as the French vase owner isn’t the only one to have found a fortune in old ceramics.
In 2017, for example, a millennium-old Song dynasty bowl was sold for a truly astounding $37.7 million. The ceramic piece, which is thought to have originally been intended for cleaning calligraphy brushes, was bought by an anonymous individual. The winning bid fetched a record sum for the sale of a piece of Chinese porcelain at Sotheby’s.
And in 2010 another vase from the Qianlong era was auctioned in the U.K.; the intricately formed piece went on to fetch an incredible $57 million. However, the vase’s sale was controversial – and not just because of the whopping sum involved. That’s because the unnamed buyer allegedly chose not to pay their bill, leaving the ceramic languishing in the not-collected pile for more than two years – despite auctioneer Peter Bainbridge’s best efforts to unite it with its new owner.
There was a happy ending for Bainbridge, though. In 2013 the Antiques Trades Gazette reported that the vase had finally found a home – albeit with a different customer – for around $26 million. And while that may not be a record-breaking figure, it’s still a huge amount of money.
But what of the vase found in a French attic? Well, the name of the new buyer remains a secret – although it has been revealed that they are Asian. Meanwhile, the previous owner is likely very happy indeed with the turn that her life has taken.
So whether it’s an unassuming old bowl, or a vase that nobody really likes, it seems that precious artworks have a habit of popping up and changing lives in the process. Keep hunting, then, and one of those lives may just be yours…