The Art of the Heist: Valuing Art Through It’s Theft
In November 2010, a Chinese porcelain vase that had been languishing for decades in a suburban London “bungalow” sold for an astonishing 69 million dollars. It catapulted into the ranks of established brand names like Picasso, Van Gogh, and Renoir as one of the all-time highest bids at auction. It was a first for a Chinese artwork, and not even a painting at that. The sale made headlines all over the world, and no wonder: who wouldn’t, in economically grim times, warm to a color piece of unsuspecting suburbanites rummaging through Granny’s old clutter and stumbling upon a musty old thing that turned out to be worth millions?
The vase was found by the relatives of one Patricia Newman as they were sorting through her modest property in Pinner, England, after her death. A regional auction house in neighboring West Ruislip had sent out a flyer asking for inventory from just such house clearances, and so in September 2010 some of Mrs. Newman’s old belongings, including a colorful sixteen-inch vase with lively goldfish decorations, ended up at Bainbridge’s. While the most recent haul was being sorted, a consulting appraiser walked by the vase shelved unceremoniously in storage and remarked that if real, the extraordinary piece could easily fetch “1.5 million pounds.” After further archival investigation, the appraiser, Luan Grocholski, concluded that the vase was the genuine article: an imperial porcelain fired in the famous Jingdezhen kilns, created for the pleasure of Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735-1796), fourth Qing Dynasty ruler to control China, and likely situated in the fine rooms of either the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace in the capital city Beijing.