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The call of East: Why Chinese and Oriental treasures are big news at auction

Posted on 29/08/2019 in Press Coverage

The call of the Orient has always been powerful in the auction world but it never ceases to surprise me how strong the market is for objects awash with eastern promise, writes Charles Hanson.

China’s growing wealth has created high net worth individuals who are keen to repatriate objects to their homeland and reclaim their country’s past.

China is renowned the world over for its porcelain – a Chinese invention. Hence the fact that porcelain is often referred to as ‘china’.

Many fine objects, including items made for Chinese imperial palaces, have travelled far and wide. Some of the most important Chinese kiln workshops were owned by, or reserved for, the Emperor and large quantities of porcelain were exported as diplomatic gifts or for trade from an early date, initially to East Asia and the Islamic world, and then from around the 16th century to Europe.


But there is another sad reason why important objects sometimes randomly appear, and we were reminded of this due to a recent find. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, as an Anglo-French expedition force relentlessly approached Beijing, two British envoys, a Times journalist and a small escort were sent to negotiate a Qing surrender. However, they were captured and later killed – resulting in major reprisals.

Lord Elgin ordered British troops to destroy Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.It was looted. Many exquisite artworks were taken and are now scattered around the world.

A diary belonging to the Times journalist involved in that fateful event, Thomas William Bowlby (1818-1860), was recently found by Hansons. His notes end abruptly on September 16, 1860 - the day he was captured. Remarkably, it was discovered in a £5 lot bought at a country house sale in Lincolnshire in 2015. The diary entered our recent Library Auction with an estimate of £3,000-£5,000 - and sold for £10,000.


Unexpected historical finds like this continually inspire me but I must confess I have particular interest in porcelain discoveries, particularly Oriental finds. Every now and then, objects emerge that have been passed down through the generations. Sometimes their owners unwittingly own a valuable item for decades. For example, a large vase which had been used as a doorstep for 36 years sold at Hansons for £650,000. It was made in China during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735-99).

I’m currently assessing an important Chinese blue and white vase from the reign of the Emporer Longqing, personal name Zhu Zaiji, which is expected to sell for between £30,000 to £50,000. Zhu Zaiji, the 13th Emperor of the Ming dynasty, reigned from 1567 to 1572.


All types of Oriental objects smash expectations at auction. For example, in August an early 20th century Paktong Chinese incense burner, decorated with calligraphy, sold for £4,000 from an estimate of £700-£900. Then there was lot 20, a pair of Chinese, Kangxi-style ginger jars which made £1,600 from an estimate of £300-£500.

Jade and amber jewellery also spark demand as they’re entwined in China’s heritage. In our August jewellery sale a carved jade pendant sold for £2,700 while an unusual carved jade decoration in the form of a horse, set with emeralds, cabochon rubies and tourmaline, sold for £1,050.

In Chinese culture jade is said to embody the virtues of courage, wisdom, modesty, justice and compassion - the bedrock of Chinese philosopher Confucius. It’s believed jade heals the body and spirit of the wearer and protects it from malevolent forces.

Likewise, amber is valued for its healing qualities in folk medicine. A butterscotch amber bead necklace recently sold for £1,300.

Antique Treasures Discovery Day at Bishton Hall

Charles Hanson will join guest consultant and Chinese ceramics expert Lars Tharp at a special Antique Treasures Discovery Day. The free valuations event will be held at Bishton Hall, Wolseley Bridge, Staffordshire, ST17 0XN, on November 21, 10am-4pm.

Jewellery and silver expert Kate Bliss will also be in attendance, 10am-3pm.

Entries are invited for Hansons’ Autumn Fine Art Auction. To arrange a free valuation or home visit, email [email protected] or call 01283 733988. To arrange a free valuation of Chinese porcelain, please email [email protected]