Pocket money for old pots: Great age does not necessarily confer any great value in the market for antiquities, writes John Windsor

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The Independent Online
A GLAZED jar from the 10th century, 10 1/2 in high, was bought for pounds 33 by a dealer at Christie's South Kensington this month. This was no cataloguing error: the brown, cream and yellow jar, painted with stylised birds and with calligraphy round its neck, was correctly dated and catalogued as being from Nishapur, between Persia and India.

Yes, the specimen was heavily restored; but you can expect a 1,000-year-old artefact to have been knocked about a bit. Yes, it was bought at an off-season sale; but the sale was fairly well attended and one lot sold for 10 times its estimate.

The reason for the pocket-money price was simply that there is a lot of Nishapur ware about and it is out of fashion. The auctioneers did not even bother to publish a pre-sale estimate for the jar, indicating that they expected it to fetch less than pounds 100.

Its going for a song was another refutation of the notion that age automatically confers value. In the antiquities market it does not. Everything is old and the market, like most others, has an expensive top and a cheap bottom.

Nishapur bowls, stem cups and jars were probably the first imitations in the history of ceramics. They aped the ochre, green and yellow glazes of T'ang dynasty (AD 618-906) pottery, famous for its proud horses and camels but now flooding the market. Nishapur had no high-prestige animals and has been caught in the wake of the rapid decline in T'ang prices, now at half their late-Eighties peak.

Both T'ang and Nishapur wares are likely to have spent most of their life underground in graves, which explains their survival. Treasure-hunters smuggle such 'grave goods', particularly from China, to the West through Hong Kong and Macao, in spite of a clamp-down on smuggling by the Chinese government. But the government itself will probably add to the market glut on 10-14 October when the first China international auction in Peking is expected to offer grave goods confiscated from smugglers.

The quiet season in the British auction calendar is the time for private buyers to pick over the abundant, often heavily restored Chinese dynastic grave pottery. Although disdained by most dealers and the more fastidious collectors, it can still give style to a drawing-room - even if not every householder wants to convert a Sung dynasty (AD 960-1279) funerary urn containing ashes into a lampshade.

Nishapur wares can be picked up for as little as pounds 20- pounds 30 each, and for only pounds 300- pounds 400, with luck, you should be able to buy a genuine 1,100-year-old unglazed T'ang horse to impress your friends - assuming they are unaware that T'ang horses are becoming as unchic as dragon urns. (The big London stores no longer stock reproductions. China craft shops knock out 12in repros for about pounds 25. You might as well go for the real thing.)

The most expensive T'ang horse, a magnificent 26 3/4 in-high glazed specimen, raised pounds 3.74m for the British Rail Pension Fund at Sotheby's in 1989 - still the record price for a Chinese work of art. In the Christie's South Kensington sale on 10 September, an 11 1/2 in unglazed buff pottery T'ang horse, well modelled in classic pose, is estimated at pounds 600- pounds 800 - considered optimistic by the trade. It appears to have once had all four legs broken, but the breaks are skilfully filled with clay.

Dealers, who make up about 60 per cent of bidders at oriental ceramics auctions, are not much of a challenge to privateers. They have been having a hard time in the recession, are overstocked and are reluctant to lay out on anything but the unusual and undamaged (though one dealer obviously found the restored Nishapur jar irresistible).

Christie's South Kensington sells mid- and bottom-market oriental ceramics and artworks every two weeks. The firm's main King Street office deals with the expensive stuff and consigns the rest to South Ken where Chinese, Islamic, Indian and Japanese lots jostle together. The 10 September sale is extra big, with 452 lots.

It is virtually impossible for auctioneers to tell whether a piece of grave pottery was dug up 200 or 100 years ago, or even last month. Barbara Crowell, of South Ken's oriental ceramics and artworks department, said: 'We just don't know whether a piece has been smuggled; but we tend to think they have been.' The Chinese grave attendant shown with Ms Crowell in our picture (his hands, modelled separately, are missing), dates from the time of Christ (Han dynasty - 200 BC-AD 200) and was probably taken from the grave of a minor official or military commander. It is estimated at pounds 500- pounds 800. In today's climate, even that may be what the trade, tongue-in-cheek, calls a 'progressive' estimate.

The most powerful emperors were buried with whole armies of life-size terracotta figures - such as the 7,500 warriors buried with the Emperor Qin Shihuang at Xian in south-east China in the 2nd century BC, some of which were shown in London in 1987. A similar find, 25 miles north of the Xian site, is being excavated.

Kitchenalia were also buried. An estimate of pounds 200- pounds 300 has been put on a lot comprising a pot and models of an oven and a well (all from the Han dynasty) in the same sale. The surface of the oven has miniature cooking utensils modelled into it.

Age is no guarantee of beauty any more than it is of value. The ancient potters of the Orient had their bad days, too. Ms Crowell said of a lumpy, badly fired Sung vase: 'This shape, known as Meiping - fat shoulders and short neck - can look sensational. But this one doesn't'

The mis-firing had ruined its ying-quing, the name of a delicate blue glaze. Although all in one piece and made in the period of William the Conqueror, it would be lucky to fetch more than pounds 100 in the 24 September sale, she said.

She compared it with two small bowls, also of the Sung dynasty but with ying-quing intact, to be offered on 10 September. One, 7in in diameter, is estimated at pounds 250- pounds 350. The other, 4 1/4 in in diameter, is estimated at pounds 80- pounds 120.

Masterworks of the fabled Ming dynasty, made between AD 1368 and 1644 and the first oriental vessels to reach Europe in any quantity, can approach pounds 300,000 at auction. But provincial Ming vases, turned out by the thousand, still fetch only pounds 150- pounds 200 at auction for lots of two or three of about 6in in diameter.

At the 10 September sale a Ming green and ochre glazed pottery model of a saddled horse, about 12in high, is estimated at pounds 400- pounds 600. An intact 10th-century 9in Chinese ochre glazed pilgrim flask is estimated pounds 300- pounds 500.

Be prepared for surprises in the saleroom. That Christie's South Ken lot that fetched 10 times its estimate this month was a 17in- high Chinese blue and white double gourd-shaped vase of the Jiajing (AD 1522-1566) period which was 'off-potted' (it had sagged to one side) and whose entire neck had been knocked off and lost. But its emperor's mark was correct for its period and its pictures of deer and cranes amid pine, bamboo and peach sprays were 'beautifully painted in a wonderful blue', according to Ms Crowell. 'It had a lot going for it and a lot against it. You just don't know how much people are going to mind about damage.'

Two or three bidders fought over it until it was carried off for pounds 3,300 - by a dealer. It had been estimated at pounds 200- pounds 300.

Sales: Christie's South Kensington 10 and 24 September (both 10.30am). Sotheby's arcade sale of oriental ceramics, 13-14 October (10am daily) has 350 lots of Chinese ceramics in the pounds 250- pounds 250,000 range. Phillips: oriental ceramics from pounds 100, 16 September (11am). Bonham's: Chinese ceramics and artworks, 9 December (11am).

(Photographs omitted)

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