Imperial Famille Rose Melon Teapots and Gift Vase Auctioned at Bonhams

Two items in Bonhams Fine Chinese Art sale in London on12 May, sourced in Scotland, achieved astonishing prices.

Lot 368, a rare pair of famille rose ‘melon’ teapots with iron-red Imperial Qianlong seal marks, moulded with five lobes in a naturalistic form, were estimated to sell for £20,000-30,000 but went on to achieve an astonishing £1,340,000.

These small delicate teapots had come from a Scottish private collection where for 50 years they had remained unsuspected as being of much value. Gordon Mcfarlan, Bonhams Director in Glasgow, found them by chance: “I was asked by a client to collect a number of items from her home that she wished to sell. While I was there I spotted the teapots and told her I believed they might be important so she decided to consign them as well. She had lived with the teapots for more than 50 years after her father collected them.”

Because expert opinion was divided over the provenance of the teapots Bonhams felt it could not guarantee the Imperial Qianlong history and so opted for a lower estimate allowing the market to decide their true value which it did decisively. The buyer from China will be taking them home.

The second item in the sale from Scotland was lot 397, a blue and white yellow-ground globular two-handled vase, dated late 19th century. It was estimated to sell for £6,000-10,000, but made £36,000.

According to the Scottish family who consigned it, this vase was presented to an ancestor of the present owner by the Empress Dowager Cixi after a visit to the Shishan Ling Tombs (the Ming tombs) in April 1903.

Although this vase is of relatively late Qing date, it is very unusual as a gift given in uncontroversial circumstances by the acting Empress of China to a British engineer in gratitude for a particular service. The family has a detailed record of the remarkable circumstances of this gift.

In 1900 the Emperor and Empress decided to undertake a unique Imperial visit to the Imperial tombs north of Beijing, using for the first (and last) time the newly-installed railway network. This was an extraordinary, unprecedented adventure with the newest steam-engine technology in China. This trip was schedule to last 14 days, and required 47 trains, each containing 20 carriages divided between passenger cars and open freight trucks. Each train weighed 500 tons.

The Imperial party travelled in the 47th train, comprising 17 passenger cars with two saloon cars in the middle. Engineers and railway personnel from the Peking-Mukden Railway accompanied it for half the trip, at which point the engines had to be changed and a new engineering team supervised the rest of the journey to the tombs.

The vase owner records a remarkable and auspicious moment at this change-over point. A small whirlwind arose near the train, travelled a mile to the west of it, then abruptly changed direction and came directly back due east and passed straight over the Imperial saloon coaches in the 47th train. The Empress was ‘highly pleased with the supernatural display; she said it was the spirit of ‘Kung’ (her consort) which came to meet her on the way and with all respect to the customary laws’.

After spending ten days at the Imperial tombs, the Empress decided to visit the Vice Regal Palace at Pao Ting Fu. When the Royal train reached KPT, she commanded that the foreign staff of the Peking-Mukden Railway who were supervising the train service be presented to her.

This led to an extraordinary scene at the platform, when the Viceroy Yuan Shih Kai (sic) who was in charge of the royal arrangements, placed all the high officials and mandarins .. on the platform in a crescent-shaped guard .. leaving a space in front in which the Dowager stood with the young Emperor and Empress immediately behind her. The 20-minute presentation, drawn out by tortuous interpretations, was made dangerously funny by the young Emperor and Empress ‘peeping and giggling’ at the railway officials to try and make them laugh from behind the speaking Dowager. The foreign contingent comprised ‘Engineer in Chief, Manager, one locomotive engineer, and the trafficmen’.

The family record concludes this event: “For my services I was decorated with the Gold Medal, 1st Class, and also a valuable vase from the Palace at Jehol, where Royal porcelain was kept in store!”

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