Big money in old China

Images from a rare Victorian album of Chinese scenes which sold at Sotheby's for €405,000

Images from a rare Victorian album of Chinese scenes which sold at Sotheby's for €405,000


Never throw out an old photo album. The descendants of a 19th century Cork man, who emigrated to China, recently discovered that theirs was worth a fortune. Oliver Latham left Ireland as an 18-year-old in 1859 and became a successful tea broker in Foochow (now Fuzhou).

When he retired to Ireland, Latham brought home a book of photographs of China. He died in 1884 and his widow remarried and moved to Australia. The album was found, under a piano, last year and sent to Sotheby’s in London where it sold before Christmas for £349,250 (€405,000).

Leyla Daybelge, a spokeswoman for the auctioneers, said the album was sold by “a member of the Latham family now living outside Ireland”. She said that the “very rare and complete album is one of the scarcest 19th century published collections of photographs” and contains images taken by John Thompson, the famous Scottish photographer, during his travels in China.

Only 46 copies of the album, titled Foochow and the River Min, were printed in 1873 and sold by subscription to the expatriate community, made up primarily of tea-planters, missionaries, merchants, and government officials. Records show that Latham actually won his copy as a prize in a pigeon-shooting match.

Seven copies have been located and four of those are in museums. Three remain in private hands and the previous one to appear at auction sold, six years ago at Sotheby’s in New York, for $180,000. So 39 copies remain unaccounted for. Check the attic if you had a family member in China during the Victorian era.

Meanwhile, there has been a happy ending, of sorts, to the debacle surrounding the world’s most expensive vase. An 18th century, 41cm-high porcelain vase, reputedly made for China’s Emperor Qianlong, “sold” for a sensational £51.6 million (€61 million) at auction in London two years ago. It had been discovered during a house clearance in the suburb of Pinner and auctioned at Bainbridge’s in Ruislip, west London. But the winning Chinese bidder never paid up and the vase remained locked in a vault while a protracted dispute ensued.

Now international auctioneers Bonhams has brokered a private-treaty sale with a new buyer in Asia for an undisclosed sum believed to be in the region of £20-£25 million, – about half the record-breaking figure offered in 2010. The moral of the tale? Nothing is sold until money changes hands. And the lesson learned? Auctioneers worldwide have been asking Chinese bidders registering for auctions to pay an up-front deposit before bidding starts.

Sheppard’s auctioneers in Durrow, Co Laois has confirmed that that an imperial jade seal, sold in November to an online bidder in China for an Irish auction record of €630,000, had “already left the country” after payment was processed.

Belfast Agreement sells

Last Saturday, Whyte’s History, Literature and Collectibles auction in Dublin attracted a large crowd and the top-selling lot was a Belfast Agreement memo signed by many of the participants at the talks which made €9,000 (€3,000-€5,000). The buyer was from Northern Ireland. Among other highlights: a Celtic revival silver replica of the Ardagh Chalice, €8,000 (€4,000-€5,000); a 1929 Ulster Bank £10 note, €4,400 (€2,500-€3,500); GAA medals, €3,800 (€4,000-€5,000); and, a Spanish silver crucifix, described as “possibly from an Armada ship, made €2,600 (€400-€600).

New season begins

The 2013 international auction season gets underway next week with a series of major art auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Among the highlights is a painting by Claude Monet titled Nymphéas Avec Reflets De Hautes Herbes, with a top estimate of £18 million at Sotheby’s, London next Tuesday, one of many images by the artist of water lilies and never previously been seen at auction.

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