Thursday 14 December 2017

Treasures: Chinese God of War rules at auction

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Guandi that sold at Bonhams for £371,000
Guandi that sold at Bonhams for £371,000
The Chinese god off his throne
William Moorcroft Burslem china vases

There was once a little Chinese god made of gilded bronze. He was small, just over 23cm high, but he looked as though he meant business. He wore a dragon coronet and a wrathful expression. His long flowing robe, etched with stylised dragons, parted to reveal the armour on his chest. One hand rested commandingly on his knee, the other, in the manner of a storybook villain, fingered his long flowing beard.

Chinese art can be impenetrable to western eyes, but the body language of power is universal. This was obviously someone of importance. The god sat on a gilded throne from which, with slightly less dignity, he could be removed.

The throne's surround was made of intertwining dragons and scrolling clouds and, at the top, perched a demonic-looking bird (known as a garuda). A tiger skin was spread over the seat of the throne, its head at the deity's feet. Once again, the symbolism may be unfamiliar but it's clear dragons and tigers are not to be messed with.

The figure represented Guandi, the Chinese God of War. He was once a real person, Guan Yu, who lived in the third century AD, a Chinese version of Robin Hood. His heroic exploits are recorded in the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms (1522). In 1594, he was deified by a Ming dynasty emperor and officially became the God of War - protector of China and all its citizens (deification works in much the same way as canonisation).

In China, there are many shrines and temples devoted to Guandi, but this particular gilt-bronze figure was made in the 17th or 18th century. At some stage, history doesn't relate when or how it came to Ireland. There it stayed, one assumes on the mantelpiece and was handed down through the generations. The Irish owners of the little Chinese god may or may not have known that Guandi has power over spirits and demons, opposes disturbers of the peace and is the patron saint of those who sell bean curd (tofu). But it's fair to assume that they knew that the little figure was valuable. With faded gilding, it was obviously old and its craftsmanship was superb.

In 2016, for whatever reason, the little Chinese god was brought to a Bonhams' valuation day in Dublin. When it was valued at £12,000 to £15,000 (€14,108 to €17,639), the owners decided to sell. The bronze Guandi travelled to Bonhams' auction of Fine Chinese Art in London where, on November 10, it sold for £371,000 (€430,869). The object had been catalogued correctly, but the auctioneers underestimated the level of interest among bidders. "We knew what it was. We just didn't know how excited Chinese people would get about it," says Colin Sheaf, Bonhams' expert in Chinese art.

Now, the piece has gone back to China. This is part of a wider migration of Chinese objects from European ownership back to their native land.

"China has the longest continuous culture on the planet. When the Battle of Hastings was being fought, the Chinese were printing books about their own Bronze Age Art," Sheaf explains. "It also has the world's most hungry and knowledgeable collectors. Chinese people are buying back their culture."

In 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China. Presciently, many of China's cultural leaders fled to neighbouring countries, including Hong Kong and Taiwan.

By 1970, the children of these refugees had come of age. Many were well off, well educated and in a position to bid for aspects of their lost heritage at auction.

In China, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) wiped out as much ancient culture as possible and left an administration that was not inclined to encourage a collectors' market. This too is changing.

"Since 2000, people living on the Chinese mainland have begun to buy Chinese art. The buyers are connoisseurs, but they also see it as a good investment." The market favours outstanding objects in porcelain, gilt bronze and white jade, made between 1350 and 1950.

Anything made for the Imperial Court is of interest: Chinese goods made for export are not.

Although Ireland has less Chinese art than countries that had an East India Company, it's quite possible that potentially-valuable pieces are sitting undetected in houses around the country. And while some people may worry that their imperial vase was looted by their marauding forebears, it's much more likely that it wasn't.

"A great number of imperial works of art left China legitimately," Sheaf says. "In 1911, when the Chinese Revolution overthrew the Qing Dynasty and shut down the Imperial Palace, tens of thousands of people lost their jobs. Many of them took a few souvenirs for resale."

If you have a piece of Chinese art and want to learn more about it, Sheaf suggests you bring it along to one of Bonhams' specialist valuation days. There's no obligation to sell and the owners of possibly priceless pieces shouldn't be concerned about being fleeced.

"Auctioneers are brokers, like estate agents," says Sheaf. "We don't buy art, we just arrange the sale."

If an object is sold, the auctioneers take an agreed percentage of the price.

The next Chinese Art valuation day takes place at Bonhams' Irish office, 31 Molesworth Street, Dublin 2, on Tuesday, May 16. The event is free, but you need to book. Contact Kieran O'Boyle: 01 6020990 or

In the salerooms


As with most January sales, the "attic auction" that took place at Adam's on January 29 represented a general clearout of unwanted items. But even an attic sale can bring surprises.

In this case, a pair of William Moorcroft Burslem china vases (est €300 to €500, pictured below) sold for an unexpected €6,000. The vases, decorated with a row of tall blues trees, were stamped "Florian Ware, Jas MacIntyre & Co Ltd, Burslem, England".

William Moorcroft Burslem china vases

Moorcroft was an early 20th century English potter whose work was influenced by Art Nouveau. In the same auction, an elaborate French gilt and porcelain confection comprising a clock and twin urns (est €600 to €1,000) sold for €1,800 and a 19th century inlaid marble table (est €700 to €1,000) for €1,300. See


On Sunday, Hibernian Antiques Fairs will hold a fair in the County Arms Hotel, Birr, with stands from more than 30 antiques shops, art galleries and antique and vintage dealers (contact Robin O'Donnell on 087 6933602).

Also on Sunday, an antique and vintage fair will take place in the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire, from 11am-6pm (admission €3.50) with 30 traders, including some specialists. Expect antique and mid-century furniture along with rare books, coins, jewellery, silver and strange curiosities.

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