Monday 16 September 2019

Treasures: Making a song and dance about a Chinese tea caddy

Ireland's Fine Arts, antiques and collectables column

All the tea in China: the Marchioness's caddy
All the tea in China: the Marchioness's caddy
Watch of Imperial Court

Eleanor Flegg

Miss Rosie Boote was a Gaiety Girl with a life straight out of romantic fiction. She was born in Tipperary in 1878 and made her way to London to join the chorus at the old Gaiety Theatre. From here, she sang and danced her way to stardom. Geoffrey, Fourth Marquess of Headfort, fell in love with Miss Rosie Boote and proposed marriage. There was a glorious scandal - even King Edward VI of England tried to discourage the match - but the Marquess resigned his army commission, converted to Catholicism, and married her. They lived at Headfort House, near Kells in Co Meath, and had three children together, and Rosie, Fourth Marchioness of Headfort, was so charming that she won the hearts of the grumpy aristocracy.

Now, her tea caddy is coming up for auction. "I was doing a valuation and this guy brings in a little wooden box," says Philip Sheppard, auctioneer. He turned it over in his hands. It was a Chinese tea caddy, made in the first quarter of the 19th century, and came with a hefty lock. Tea was a precious substance.

The box was carved, on the top and on the sides, with traditional Chinese symbols. Then he opened the lid and could hardly believe his eyes. The inside of the lid was carved with the crest and motto of the Marquess of Headfort. The motto is in Latin: Consequitur quodcunque petit (He obtains whatever he seeks). Sheppard was gobsmacked.

"I've never seen anything like it. Someone living in Co Meath commissioned that box, and sent away for it, and had it shipped back to Headfort House from China. In those days it was like having something sent from the moon!" The tea caddy (est. €300 to €500) will be sold as part of Sheppard's Masterworks auction.

In terms of a meeting of Irish and Chinese culture, the tea caddy is a one-off but there is another - far more valuable - example of hybrid heritage in the auction. It's a 18k gold and enamel pocket watch (est. €20,000 to €30,000) by the London watchmaker, William Ilbery around 1815. The back shows the enamelled portrait of a courtier at the Imperial Court. "He would have commissioned the watch and sent a portrait of himself, painted on glass, so that the enamellist could copy it," Sheppard says, explaining that the watch was actually made and enamelled in Switzerland. "It's a Swiss watch but it was packaged as being English because the East India Company had access to the market in Canton."

The trade relationship between Britain and China ended with the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century. The East India Company and other British merchants smuggled Indian opium into China, sold it, and used the money to buy tea. By 1840, 10 million Chinese opium addicts were sustained by illegal British imports. The Chinese, understandably, wanted to end the trade and Britain went to war on behalf of the drug dealers. The sale also includes a Qing period ivory opium pipe (€200 to €300).

The most spectacular - and potentially the most valuable - piece of Chinese culture in the sale is a Qing Dynasty Imperial seal, square in form, and surmounted by a double-headed jade dragon (est. €30,000 to €50,000). It's a large piece, 10cm high by 13cm square, with a very strong presence. "It would have been used as an official stamp in the Imperial Court," Sheppard says. "My instinct tells me that it may have been a very important Imperial Chinese seal, but we just don't know." Chinese pieces can be difficult to interpret. "If I'd seen this 20 years ago I wouldn't have given it a second glance," Sheppard admits.

He recalls a blue and white Chinese vase that went into a Sheppard's auction around 12 years ago with an estimate of €80 to €120. "It made €120,000," he says. "Nobody expected it. The under bidder had flown in from Beijing, but it went to a dealer in London. He put it in his bag, went back on his Ryanair flight that evening, and a year later it sold for half a million in Hong Kong. That was the start of it."

Ever since, Chinese pieces have been famously unpredictable at auction.

So much material culture was lost in the Cultural Revolution that historic pieces, dispersed around the world through colonialism, have become very precious. Sheppard turns to a blue and white Chinese brush pot (est. €800 to €12,000), dating from around 1660. "That could do anything," he says. Then he points to a white ceramic "blanc de chene" sculpture of a woman (est. €500 to €1,200). "So could that." Sheppard's Masterworks auction takes place in Durrow, Co Laois, on Thursday (November 8) at 10.30am. Viewing is from tomorrow to Wednesday from 10am to 5pm on each day.


In the Salerooms


How would you feel about being buried in an owl? A Chinese stoneware storage jar in form of an owl (€10,000 to €15,000) is going under the hammer at Adam’s inaugural sale of Asian Works of Art tomorrow.

The owl is 2,500 years old and was made as a burial jar, which explains its exceptional condition. Other highlights of the sale include a Camellia-leaf Green Chrysanthemum dish (€40,000 to €60,000) which was made in the Imperial workshops between 1723 and 1735. It’s a piece made with expertise and finesse at a time when Western ceramists were still struggling to make any sort of porcelain at all. The sale also includes a very early example of blue and white porcelain — a blue and white peony jar (€30,000 to €50,000) dating from around 1350. Also in the Chinese section, a cloisonné enamel fish basin (€20,000 to €30,000) bears the four-character Imperial mark of the emperor on the underside and dates from the Qianlong reign (1736-1795). Pieces are on view today from 10am to 5pm and the auction begins at noon tomorrow. See 

John Weldon Auctioneers

Amid the usual array of diamond rings and watches, the next auction at John Weldon Auctioneers includes a large collection of Chinese carved mother-of-pearl gaming tokens in various shapes and sizes. Each one is carved with scenes, front and back, and the collection of 118 tokens is estimated to sell for between €1,800 and €2,400. Other highlights include a diamond single stone ring set in platinum with diamond shoulders, estimated weight of centre diamond 2.50cts (est. €13,000 to €16,000); an 18ct gold diamond three-stone ring, estimated weight of centre diamond 1.15cts, side diamond estimated as 0.85cts each, total weight estimated as 2.85cts (est. €4,000 to €6,000). “This is a fabulous looking ring, it oozes quality!” John Weldon says. The auction takes place on Tuesday at 2pm. Viewing is tomorrow and Sunday (12 noon to 5pm); Monday (11am to 5pm); and the day of sale. See

Victor Mee

A collection of advertising whiskey and tobacco mirrors will be included in Victor Mee’s next auction which takes place over two days with Antique Furniture and Decorative Interiors on Wednesday and Rare Collectibles and Pub Memorabilia on Thursday. The mirrors include a Persse’s Galway Whiskey mirror (est. €1,500 to €3,000) as well as mirrors from Cowan’s Old Irish Whiskey; Kirker Greer whiskey; Power’s Whiskey; and Mitchell’s Old Irish Whiskey (est. €2,000 to €4,000 each). See

Antiques & Vintage Fairs

An AVA Antique & Collectors Fair will take place on Sunday in City North Hotel, Drogheda (Exit 7 M1), with eclectic mix of dealers selling furniture, jewellery, paintings and prints, coins and banknotes, silver, porcelain, books and ephemera, lamps, clocks, militaria, advertising,oriental items and curios. The fair runs from 11am to 5pm, admission is €2, and children go free.

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