Treasures: China in your hands
Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column
HOW many houses in Ireland have a Chinese vase that might (or might not) be worth something?
Let's do a bit of maths.
In 1876 the Local Government Board published a list of Irish people holding at least one acre of land. The list shows that around 8,000 of the 32,614 landowners had sizeable properties. According to the auctioneer Philip Sheppard, most of these houses would have had at least one Chinese vase. Many of them had more than one: a pair of large vases in the hallway, one in the dining room, and possibly even a couple in the drawing room.
Even at a guesstimate, that's a lot of Chinese vases - 8,000 to 20,000 perhaps?
"Chinese vases were the branded handbags of the 18th century," Sheppard explains. "Everyone wanted them." Oriental porcelain was the height of fashion. It was made in China, specifically for the export market, and shipped to Europe along with tea, silk and spices. When the ships arrived in Cork or Dublin, the landed gentry flocked to the docks where the goods were often auctioned on the spot.
As the great estates were dispersed much of their furniture was sold off, Chinese vases included. "Very few people knew what they were worth but the parish priest always had a good dining table and he might get a Chinese vase to go with it," Sheppard says.
Imagine, then, a Chinese vase made in 18th-century Jingdezhen, purchased by an Irish landlord, sold on to the parish priest, and inherited by his housekeeper. The vase stays in the housekeeper's family for generations, gathering dust, until someone takes it down from the attic to the local auction rooms.
Earlier this year, the auctioneer David Herman was looking through the contents of a house in County Wicklow when he came across a blue and white vase in the middle of a dusty attic. "It was about 18 inches tall with two handles, like butterflies, on either side. It had been in the family for generations and it was obvious that it wasn't a reproduction, but I didn't expect it to make more than a couple of thousand." After an initial flurry, two interested bidders battled it out until the vase finally sold for €9,000.
That's the success story. More often than not, the people who go into the auctioneers with a Chinese vase that's been in the family for years find themselves being let down gently. The protocol is to photograph your vase, including the underside, and send the photographs in to the auction room. The auctioneers will know from the image whether it's worth your while to bring it in for a valuation.
Nineteenth-century plunder is potentially much more valuable than the made-for-export porcelain of the 18th century. Some really valuable Chinese vases were brought home back to Ireland by soldiers who served in the British forces in China.
Charles George Gordon of the Royal Engineers described the sack of Beijing's magnificent Old Summer Palace by British and French forces in 1860: "It made one's heart sore to burn them … we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass." The palace was sacked and looted once again in 1900. On both occasions large quantities of porcelain were carried carefully home. The soldiers may not have known gold from brass, but they knew the value of a Chinese vase.
In 1861, Victor Hugo wrote that he hoped that "a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China."
Interestingly, the British Museum has just been asked to open its archives to Chinese investigators who seek to document the "lost" treasures of the Summer Palace. There has, as yet, been no move to request the return of these treasures.
The items coming up for auction at Sheppard's this 30 June and 1 July include a number of Chinese vases with estimates between €50 and €3,800. Some of these may go for much higher prices. Just over a year ago, a very ordinary looking blue and white Chinese vase sold at Sheppard's for €170,000. The pre-sale estimate was €2,200 to €3,300. So you never know!
In the forthcoming sale, it's possible that a pair of late eighteenth-century flared polychrome vases (€800 to €1,200) may surprise us. A pair of Chinese famille-rose vases from the same period also has the potential to exceed an estimate of between €2,000 and €3,000. "They are impressive pieces, almost two and a half feet high," says Sheppard, who feels that the vases "could do anything". While a rural Irish auctioneer could once take a fairly astute reading of an auction room, online bidding has made the process much less predictable.
He remembers an incident, several years ago, when a man came into to the auction rooms with six Chinese jade seals in a plastic bag. His mother, recently deceased, had always said that they'd bury her. Everyone took this with a pinch of salt. When the jade pieces sold at auction for €116,000, the mother's case was posthumously proven. "They'd better dig her up and give her a proper funeral," commented one of the neighbours.
Sheppard's auction, Glenmalire House, Laois, and Other Important Clients, takes place in Durrow, County Laois, on 30 June to 1 July, with full details on www.sheppards.ie. See also www.hermanwilkinson.ie.
In the salerooms
A hilarious and engaging pair of 18th-century St James double chamber scent bottles - one in the shape of the monkey and another in the shape of a parrot (pictured) - sold at Adam's Sunday Interiors Auction on 14 June for €5,000, following competitive bidding and exceeding the upper estimate of €1,200. Charlotte Blakeney Ward's Portrait of a Lady with a Large Hat also sold well, reaching €3,200 and more than tripling its upper estimate. The top lot of the sale was an imposing George IV mahogany breakfront bookcase by James Winter & Sons, which sold for €9,200. An exceptional graceful pair of glass fronted cabinets sold for €4,700. Described as 19th-century style, the serpentine-fronted cabinets were inlaid with vernis martin, an early substitute for lacquer, and painted kingwood. The full results are available on www.adams.ie.
An Antique and Decorative Interiors Auction will take place at Mitchell's Auction Rooms, Roscrea, on Wednesday 1 July at 10.30am. The auction will include many lots from the Old Castle House, Roscrea, including a Regency mahogany dining table on a central pod (estimated at €600), a 19th-century 6 foot 2 inlaid bed with cabinets (estimate €1,500), and two Regency child's cradles (estimate €350 each). The sale also includes an Irish mahogany peat bucket (estimate €500) and a 19th-century Scottish cast iron hallstand by Falkirk (€400 to €500) as well as a late 19th-century model of the steamer Isle of Arran (estimate €250). Full details are on www.victormitchell.com.
A rare gentleman's Chaumet dress set sold at O'Reilly's auction rooms for €15,200 as part of their most recent Auction of Fine Jewellery, Watches and Silver on 17 June. The dress set, which had been estimated between €5000 and €6000, probably dates from the 1940s with cufflinks and studs showing princess cut diamonds and calibré sapphire surrounds, all signed Chaumet, in the original fitted case. Other top lots included a diamond solitaire ring, the brilliant cut diamond mounted in platinum, which sold for €26,000; and a diamond line bracelet, the brilliant cut diamonds mounted in 18ct white gold, which reached €14,400. The full results are on www.oreillysfineart.com.
Antiques and Vintage Fairs
County Meath is antiques and vintage central this weekend with two fairs in different parts of the county. An Antiques and Vintage Fair conducted by Vintage Ireland will take place in the Conyngham Arms Hotel, Slane, County Meath, this Sunday 28 June. The fair will include a collection of Irish and world coins and a quantity of Waterford glass, along with the usual decorative accessories, jewellery, silver, and porcelain. There will be free guided tours of the Hill of Slane conducted by local historians at 2pm. Full details on www.vintageireland.eu. That same day, another Antique Collectors and Vintage Fair will take place in the Ard Boyne Hotel, Navan, from 11am to 6pm, with dealers from the north and south of Ireland. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.