In the early 1980s, a UK-based surgeon bought an eye-catching deep blue vase featuring metallic embellishments and animal decor typical of imperial Chinese handiwork. We know very little about this man other than the fact he frequented country salesrooms in the English Midlands from the 1970s onward. Once he passed away, the stunning vase fell into the possession of his son, who liked it enough to keep it in his kitchen. Neither the surgeon nor his son had any idea what they possessed.
Put simply, they had a million-dollar vase worthy of an emperor stowed away in the family kitchen. And its story and value wouldn’t come to light until the late 1990s. That’s when Mark Newstead, a specialist in Asian ceramics and artwork, first saw the museum-worthy item. Here’s the incredible story of kitchen keepsake turned international treasure.
Dreweatts are thrilled to present an exceptionally rare Chinese vase created in the 18th century for the court of the Qianlong Emperor, which will be offered on Wednesday 18 May in our auction of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art.
— Dreweatts 1759 (@Dreweatts_1759) April 24, 2022
A Million-Dollar Vase
The vase is striking, even to the untrained eye, and that’s likely what helped preserve it for decades removed from its original location. It stands approximately two feet tall and contains a collection of symbols related to the sixth emperor of the Qing dynasty, the nation’s last imperial dynasty. The Qianlong Emperor ruled China from 1735 to 1795, and the vase was meant for far more than home décor.
It features the color “sacrificial blue,” which alludes to its function in imperial animal sacrifice rituals. The hope was that these sacrifices would ensure a good harvest each year. The intense blue of the vase is visible to this day in Beijing, decorating parts of the Temple of Heaven.
As for the intricate designs on the vase, the artist used an admixture of silver and gold, painting a variety of animals, objects, and subjects from nature, including flutes, fans, bats, cranes, and clouds. These symbols related to Daoist beliefs of the time, signifying a long and well-lived life for the emperor.
A Rare and Stunning Find
Besides the vase’s storied heritage, it features decorations that Newstead notes are “technically very difficult to achieve and that’s what makes it so special and unusual” (via Live Science). The combination of silver and gold required an extraordinary mastery of porcelain painting, and the vase’s creation would have been overseen by Tang Ying (1682–1756). Tang Ying headed up the factory of imperial porcelain located in Jingdezhen, and he developed the technique necessary for the complicated silver and gold embellishments on the vase.
What’s more, the vase would’ve stayed close to the emperor. Newstead believes it likely resided in the iconic Forbidden Palace or another of the emperor’s palaces. Of course, this leads to a somewhat puzzling question about provenance. After all, how did a precious item from one of China’s imperial palaces end up in a humble kitchen in the United Kingdom? While the background story of the masterpiece remains sketchy, history suggests a couple possible answers.
The Qianlong Emperor ruled over a China torn by numerous rebellions. Although political and social upheaval marked the period, so did a flourishing art scene. The juxtaposition of these two disparate climates likely led to the vase’s relocation miles away in England. That’s a nice way to put it. Spelled out, it’s believed the vase ended up in the hands of foreign troops in the 19th or 20th century, plundered from the nation.
At least, that’s one theory. Some add a nicer spin to it, saying it might have been a gift from one of the emperor’s court officials to a British diplomat. Unfortunately, no records have been uncovered that back up this claim. The mystery of the vase’s origins may never be solved. As Justin Jacobs, a history professor at the American University in Washington, D.C., notes, “We just don’t know [how the vase left China] and likely we never will.”
Although we may never have the full story of how the sacrificial blue Qing dynasty vase ended up in a United Kingdom kitchen, the mystery of its value has been solved. The vase recently went on the auction block, bringing in a whopping £1.2 million (about $1.5 million USD). That’s got to make it one of the most expensive home décor items in recent memory!
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com