Discovery: A pair of ‘very special’ Qianlong vases spotted on a mantelpiece

The rare and extremely important 18th-century vases that prompted one buyer to pay £14,725,000

‘It was one of those wonderful eureka moments,’ recounts Rosemary Scott, Chinese ceramics specialist and International Academic Director at Christie’s. ‘My colleague Jeremy Morgan was on a perfectly normal valuation visit when he walked into the drawing room and there, on the mantelpiece, he saw these vases. He couldn’t believe his eyes.’ As soon as he saw them Morgan knew they were something special, and he suggested to the owner of the house that she should sit down before he explained to her how rare and valuable they are. Just how valuable was confirmed on 9 May in London when the vases sold for £14,725,000.

Video: The vases sell in London for £14,725,000.

Made in the 18th century for the court of the Qianlong Emperor, probably the greatest of all the Chinese art collectors, the vases feature his reign mark on the bottom. They had been bought in the early 1930s and inherited by the current owner, who, Scott explains, ‘had no idea that she had such amazingly important pieces in her collection.’

The senior specialists at Christie’s were so excited by the find that they all got together to look at the vases when they arrived in the building. Each vase, they discovered, is elaborately decorated to the bulbous lower section with butterflies of various sizes and colours flying amid leafy floral sprays, including peony, chrysanthemum, morning glory, rose and aster, above a band of pink lotus petals. The shoulder is encircled by a ruyi  border and bands of floral sprays, below the upper section, which is enamelled with further butterflies and flower heads. The mouth rim is decorated with an iron-red key-fret border, and the pair of handles are adorned with stylised foliate designs.

‘If we want to appreciate the quality of the painting we should look not only at the flowers, but especially at the butterflies’

‘There are lots of different clues you have to look for to ensure that the piece is genuine,’ explains Scott. These include the clay it is made from, the glaze, the enamels, how it is painted and in what colours, because certain colours only appear at certain times. ‘You also look at the shape,’ continues the specialist, ‘and in this case it is an auspicious shape, being associated with fertility and the new year.’

The auspicious meaning attached to most of the flowers seen in the Chinese decorative arts is due to the fact they will form a rebus, either alone suggesting a particular wish, or in combination with another flower, or something else — such as a butterfly. The meanings of the various flowers on these jars are explained more fully in a separate feature by Rosemary Scott on Christies.com.

‘To appreciate the quality of the painting we should look not only at the flowers, but especially at the butterflies,’ Scott continues. ‘You get the impression of transparency in the wings, which flutter and catch the sunlight.’

One of the exciting things about having a pair of vases such as this is that they can be looked at together. ‘We see something that we know about Chinese pairs, namely that they’re never identical,’ says the specialist. ‘They are complementary. They will have the same flowers, but those flowers will be painted slightly differently, as will the butterflies.’