For three decades, a rare Chinese vase dating back to the Qing dynasty had been gathering dust in the wardrobe of a collector who had dismissed it as an imitation.
After inheriting the exquisite blue-and-white vessel emblazoned with the image of the imperial dragon, from her parents, who had bought it from a German antique shop for a pittance, she had intermittently used it to display flowers before storing it away with old shoes in the bottom of her wardrobe.
So imagine her surprise yesterday, when the vase was hailed as one of the most important examples of Chinese porcelain to have come on to the British market in many years, and sold for nearly £3m at Sotheby's auction house.
The newly discovered and extraordinarily rare Chinese dragon vase sold for £2,820,500, establishing a new auction record for a piece of Qing dynasty blue-and-white porcelain. The Swiss collector, who does not want to be named, had stored it away after being told it was merely a clever copy of the real thing.
Its discovery came only after she visited the Royal Academy's Three Emperors exhibition three years ago, and was struck by a blue-and-white "moonflask" in the show, which looked uncannily like her own. She then spoke to Alastair Gibson, a Sotheby's specialist and the head of the London auction house's Chinese department, who agreed to take a look at it.
"When I saw it at the bottom of her wardrobe, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was a stonking piece of porcelain, but she had been told it was a copy in the Seventies. It's a classic, voluptuous moonflask which, at 50cm, is one of the biggest pieces from the imperial kiln of Qian Long, with the five-clawed imperial dragon symbols on either side," he said. As the only known example of this particular blue-and-white design, the vase was considered an extremely rare discovery. The previous auction record for a piece of Qing dynasty blue-and-white porcelain is £2,500,314, achieved for a "dragon and phoenix" moonflask in Hong Kong in October 2005.
Mr Gibson called it an "enchanting" piece which had dazzled him when he first saw it. "I remember seeing the brother of this piece... decorated with five-clawed dragons, in the Zwinger museum in Dresden many years ago. The memory of that piece has stayed with me always, and so to have come across this vase was for me the kind of dream that rarely comes true. It is an enchanting piece."
He said that the collector's parents had bought it in the 1940s, when Chinese art was not particularly fashionable, and that she had shown him family photographs in which the precious artefact, which dates from the reign of the Emperor Qian Long (1736-95), was used as a domestic vase and filled with chrysanthemums.
The Qing dynasty was the last imperial house to rule China. Founded by the Manchu clan in north-east, it had taken control of most of of the country by 1646, and continued to rule until it was overthrown by the 1911 revolution which established the Republic of China.Reuse content