Is the €16 Million 'Shoe Box' Vase Worth all the Hype?
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
If you have read my past blogs, this one is going to be a little different from what I have assembled in the past. In this case, I am trying to focus on a single ‘highlight’ object. Hopefully (with your comments and suggestions) I will try this again with other individual objects of interest from auction houses, museums, galleries or private collections.
This past spring, Sotheby’s auction house announced they had found an incredible imperial Chinese vase from the Qianlong Period (1736-1795) in France. According to the press release, this vase was brought to their Paris office in a green Josef Seibel shoebox.
Image 1: A Sotheby's specialist showcasing the vase in the green Josef Seibel show box. Photo images courtesy of NBC News via Sothebys.
The Sotheby’s specialists were extremely excited at this discovery because of their ability to instantly identify the significance and rarity of this object.
Titled by the auction house as A Fine and Magnificent Imperial ‘Yangcai Crane and Deer Ruyi Vase’, it was stated to have passed down to the current owners from a Parisian great-granduncle who died in 1947.
It was listed in that relative’s apartment inventory along with other Chinese and Japanese works of art, and has been kept (and forgotten) in the attic of a French countryside home until now.
Based on the provenance information for some of the other artworks associated with this great-granduncle, the vase may have arrived in France as early as the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition.
Much has already been written about this vase in the media and other art blogs - most of them nicknamed the object with some variation of ‘shoe box’ and ‘attic’ i.e. ‘the shoebox vase’, ‘the attic vase’, to even (with much creativity) ‘the shoebox attic vase’.
The vase itself is significant in that it was made specifically for the Qianlong Emperor’s enjoyment within the Forbidden City. It contains finely-painted auspicious symbols for immortality including the cranes, deer, pine trees and longevity lingzhi 靈芝 fungus. The tranquil outdoor scene would also have reminded the Emperor of his bucolic summer retreats, creating a sense of calmness within the palace walls.
The type of decoration on the vase is also extremely rare. Classified as yangcai 洋彩, which translates to ‘foreign’ or ‘overseas’ colours, these types of vases were a sophisticated evolution from the earlier falangcai 琺琅彩 enamel wares introduced by the Jesuit priests to the imperial workshop during the early 18th Century.
These yangcai wares were ordered directly by the Qianlong Emperor and meticulously designed by the imperial kiln superintendent Tang Yin (1682-1756) between 1740-1744. When compared to falangcai examples, they feature much more complex designs, especially with the higher range of colours, complex network of scrolling vines and archaic motifs, intricate shading, and use of a sgraffito (contrasting incisions) ground.
Only one similar example of this vase is known to exist, and it can be found in the Paris Guimet Museum of Asian Art. The Guimet vase was formerly from the collection of Ernest Grandidier (1833-1912), the French industrialist, world traveler and art collector.
Image 2: The Crane and Deer Ruyi Vase at the Guimet Museum in Paris, formerly from the collection of Ernest Grandidier. This photo was taken during my December 2016 trip to Paris.
Most industry insiders were shocked by the conservative €500,000 to €700,000 estimate the Sotheby’s placed on their yangcai vase. To the general public, this would seem like an obscene amount for a porcelain vase. However the prices of these imperial wares, especially falangcai and yangcai pieces have increased significantly over the past 15 years. They are considered to be the rarest and most desirable types of Chinese porcelain in the current market, and highly sought after by collectors.
The most expensive example of a yangcai vase sold at auction (and was actually paid for) was featured at the Sotheby's sale of Masterpieces of Qing Imperial Porcelain from J. T. Tai and Co. Here, they sold a yellow-ground famille-rose double-gourd vase, with seal mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795) for HK 252.66 million (approximately USD 32 million) on 7 October 2010.
It was no surprise then that the Sotheby's 'shoe box' 'yangcai crane and deer ruyi vase' ended up selling for a stunning €16,182,800! This result marks the highest price paid for a Chinese porcelain object in Paris. The buyer remains a mystery, but I will provide an update to this blog when his/her identity is finally revealed.
I was fortunate to have personally examined the Sotheby's yangcai vase during my late May trip to Hong Kong. When I went to visit the Sotheby's gallery at Pacific Place, the vase was on prominent display. This was part of the international tour the vase embarked on to meet prospective buyers before it went for sale in Paris.
Here are some additional photos showcasing my interaction with the vase:
Image 3: The Sotheby's 'yangcai crane and deer ruyi vase' on display in their Hong Kong galleries.
Image 4: A photo of myself CAREFULLY examining the vase's enamels, decorations, shape and weight.
Image 5: A view of the whole vase and all its intricate details including the deer in a lush pine forest, the delicate/colourful enamelling on the neck, the garlic head top, etc.
Image 6: A close-up of the detailed deer on the vase's surface. The male deer is holding onto a piece of lingzhi longevity fungus.
Image 7: An examination of the vase's six-character iron-red reign mark daqing Qianlong nianzhi 大清乾隆年製, made in the year of the Qianlong reign, which correlates to 1736-1795.
Anyways please feel free to send me an email with any feedback you may have about this particular blog. Or even if you have some recommendations for a future blog, I am fairly open to suggestions.
In the meantime, summer is almost over, which means I will soon be on the road again! In September I will be visiting New York for the Asian Art previews, followed by a one week trip to Vancouver for appraisals and client meetings. I will probably be in New York again late October for the annual appraisers conference with the Appraisers Association of America, then off to London in November for the Asian Art London festivities. You can follow my Asian Art adventure via my Instagram account @anthonywuart.
Finally, my next Chinese Art auction trends report for Orientations Magazine will be published in their September/October issue. In addition to the porcelain and works of art, this will mark my first foray into discussing Chinese paintings. I do mention the Sotheby's 'shoebox' yangcai vase as well, but not to the extent of this blog. The focus is also more on how Sotheby's expertly marketed the vase to the media. I'll put together another post about my forthcoming article in four weeks time.
1. A Magnificent Imperial ‘Yangcai and Crane and Deer Ruyi Vase’, Sotheby’s Paris, 12 June 2018.
2. Liao Pao Show. Stunning Decorative Porcelain from the Ch'ien-lung Reign. Taipei: National Palace Museum, 2008.
3. Anthony Wu, 'Representing Current Market Trends in the Modern Asian Art Institution,' Orientations Vol. 48 No. 1, January/Februrary 2017, pp 10-106.