A matchbox-sized piece of carved jade sold for €260,000 at Sheppard's auction in Dublin on Tuesday morning – the highest price achieved in any Irish fine art and antiques saleroom in 2015. The sale of Chinese Ceramics, Works of Art & Paintings was the first Dublin auction of the Durrow, Co Laois-based family-run firm at its new premises in 120 Pembroke Road, Ballsbridge.
Sheppard's said the celadon jade seal, of a pale, olive-green colour and double-gourd shape , with carving depicting three "chilong" (hornless dragons from Chinese mythology) was possibly used to stamp documents in San Xi Tang (the Hall of the Three Rarities) in Peking's Forbidden City during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century.
But proving the imperial provenance is another matter. As a consequence, the seal – consigned to auction by a French vendor who “has a connection to Ireland” and has been a client of Sheppard’s for some years - was accorded a pre-auction estimate of just €4,000-€6,000.
Sheppard's and other auctioneers in Ireland and overseas have discovered over the past five years that estimating the value of Chinese antiques is notoriously difficult. When the seal, Lot 88, was announced by auctioneer Michael Sheppard, the opening bid was €3,600. However, a bidding battle, which lasted almost 10 minutes ensued. Bids crept up, at first by increments of €1,000 and, in the final stages, €20,000 before the hammer came down at €260,000.
The sale was greeted with applause by auction-goers who included Chinese nationals living in Ireland. The winning bid was made by telephone from London – understood to be a dealer in Chinese antiques – who trumped the online under-bidder in Beijing. The auction was broadcast online – in Mandarin – in China.
Prof Alan Fletcher of UCD, an expert on Chinese art who attended the auction, told The Irish Times afterwards that if the imperial provenance of the seal could be established through further research then the buyer had "walked away with it" and the seal "could be worth €4.5 million".
In May 2012, a similar jade seal, of a spinach green colour, sold at Bonhams in London for £3.4 million (€4.8 million). In November 2012, Sheppard's achieved what remains the record price for a Chinese antique – or any item of decorative art – sold at auction in Ireland when another Chinese jade seal, consigned by the same French client, sold for €630,000 at auction in Durrow.
Among other top lots in Tuesday's auction was a Chinese painting – a watercolour on silk – depicting a Manchurian Tiger Hunt, that was discovered in a house in Dublin, which sold for €28,000 – over three times the top estimate (€6,000-€8,000). A late 19th century "famille rose" vase, "enamelled with lotus, bats and shou emblems" sold for €13,000 (€500-€800). In all, 91 per cent of the 106 lots were sold.