Found in an Attic, This Rare Chinese Vase Could Now Fetch Almost $1 Million at Auction

The unsuspecting owner brought the 18th-century vase to Sotheby's in a shoebox.

An Imperial Yangcai crane and deer Ruyi vase. (18th century). Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

An extraordinarily rare Chinese vase that was found in an attic in France is going under the hammer next month at Sotheby’s Paris, where it is expected to fetch between $600,000–850,000.

The unsuspecting owner brought the 18th-century Imperial “Yangcai” Famille rose to be examined at Sotheby’s Paris in a shoebox, where specialists immediately recognized its high quality and refined workmanship. The vase has been in the present owner’s family for three generations and is thought to have originally belonged to the owner’s great uncle.

According to Sotheby’s, the vase is the only known example of its kind. It was produced in China by the Jingdezhen kilns for the court of the Qianlong Emperor (1735–1796). Famille-rose or “Yangcai” porcelains hardly ever come up for sale, and most known pieces are in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, or other public collections. (The only comparable vase, albeit with different imagery, belongs to the Guimet museum in Paris.)

A Magnificent Imperial ‘Yangcai Crane and Deer Ruyi Vase’ (detail) (18th century). Photo: courtesy of Sotheby’s.

“The finest porcelain pieces, with a direct connection to the Emperor Qianlong himself, are the most desirable pieces of Chinese art,” Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s chairman of Asian Art for Europe and the Americas told artnet News in an email. “When that piece is discovered out of the blue and is still in perfect condition, the trifecta is scored.”

The period under Emperor Qianlong represents the “most glorious” time in recent Chinese history, Howard-Sneyd said. The wealth of the Chinese empire then “was the envy of the world. To Chinese people today, art from his collection represents that period, and owning a piece gives a sense of ownership of a part of that glory.”

The Imperial workshop only produced “Yangcai” porcelain in extremely limited quantities, in most cases as one-of-a-kind commissioned objects (and in some circumstances pairs). The kiln was known for its extremely high attention to detail, its use of a uniquely vibrant color palette, and for combining traditional Chinese manufacturing practices with Western imagery.

The piece that is due to hit the auction block depicts a landscape with deer, cranes, and pine trees, symbols that represent health and longevity. The 18th-century Imperial inventories list two pairs of vases with this design, one pair was commissioned in 1765, and the other was ordered as a birthday gift in 1769.

Due to its rarity, Howard-Sneyd expects intense bidding competition for the vase, with particularly strong interest from Asian collectors. “Pieces that can be directly linked to the imperial household by way of the records of the Qing court, as this piece potentially can, are incredibly rarely found on the market and so the pent-up demand for such a piece results in strong competition,” he said. A porcelain Famille-rose bowl that recently sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April changed hands for a staggering $30.4 million.

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