Antique Chinese teapot fetches $3.5m at Sotheby’s NY auction

Purchase of 250-year-old Qianlong Dynasty porcelain item seen as reflecting upturn

As if to pour hot water on a fast recovering antiques market, a $3.5 million (€3.1 million) sale price for a Chinese teapot has been a refreshing turn of events for those in the trade.

The rare 250-year-old Qianlong Dynasty porcelain item well surpassed its guide price of up to half a million dollars and, while most likely a treasure hunted by one of China’s nascent billionaires, is seen as reflecting a broader post-recession upturn.

The teapot was one of a number of pieces of Chinese art behind a $14.7 million sale at Sotheby’s of New York this week.

“As we saw throughout our two days of sales, the Chinese art market remains robust, with major collectors deeply engaged in owning the finest examples of the country’s artistic heritage,” said Angela McAteer, head of Sotheby’s Chinese works of art department.


The teapot, which was coveted by over 10 bidders, is one of only two known and is an ode to Emperor Qianlong’s adoration of tea.

Its front features a figure, possibly the emperor himself, being served the beverage while the reverse features an imperial poem written by the emperor.

Ian Whyte of Whyte's auction house in Dublin said the purchaser is almost certain to be one of China's wealthy elite, engaging in an increasingly competitive race for the country's lost prizes.

"China is an extraordinary market and it's been going for about 15 years now," he said.

‘Considered bourgeois’

“It is a lot of wealthy Chinese trying to outdo each other. During the time China was communist, collecting things was not popular - it was considered bourgeois.”

As a result many of the pieces found their way abroad, but in today’s increasingly materialistic China, buyers are seeking to bring them back home.

The same pattern has emerged in Ireland. During the boom times from 1995 to 2007, a growing class of wealthy buyers repatriated much of the Irish art and collectables that had travelled abroad during decades of economic stagnation.

The trend inevitably foundered in the years since, but has begun to recover within the last two. The collectables sector has witnessed about a 10 per cent jump in the last year.

“Some of the art we have here has earned air miles by flying back and forth over the Atlantic,” said Mr Whyte, who began selling collectables, largely to foreign buyers, in the 1960s.

"[Investing in art in Ireland] is a little less than during the Celtic Tiger days when there was a kind of blood rush to heads. It's a bit more measured now."

Even in the art world, however, the housing crisis is taking its toll.

The one area in which sales have not experienced a shot to the arm is the low sub-€2,000 range, explained by auctioneers as a product of young couples unable to secure their own homes.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times