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Vase from house clearance sold to China for £51m

A rare 18th-century Chinese vase found during a house clearance was sold for an astonishing £43m at an auction in west London last night, the total rising to £51.3m once VAT and commission were included.

In scenes reminiscent of an Only Fools And Horses Christmas special, a brother and sister unearthed the vase while clearing out their parents' suburban house in Pinner, Middlesex. The siblings, whose identity is not known, had recently inherited the vase, and the property in which it was found, and had little idea of the fortune it would bring them.

The 41cm-tall porcelain vessel had been expected to fetch between "only" £800,000 and £1.2m by Bainbridges, the Ruislip auction house based just a few miles from where it was discovered.

The price is the highest sum paid for any Chinese artwork at auction. The ornately decorated vase, with carved dragons and fish and an inner vase visible through perforations in the outer body, had caught the eye of staff even before the sale.

On Bainbridges official website, one worker wrote in a breathless preview: "I can't easily explain the excitement that is building up here in Ruislip" – a line that some might consider to be as rare as the vase itself.

The modesty of the estimate was quickly revealed as battle ensued between nine bidders. Eventually, a Beijing-based agent won.

The Qianlong-dynasty piece is the most expensive Chinese artwork ever sold, beating a 15m-long Song Dynasty scroll which sold for £41m in Beijing in June. Perhaps as striking as the sale price itself is that the item was sold not at Sotheby's or Christie's, but at an auctioneers attached to a warehouse in Ruislip.

Ivan Macquisten, editor of Antiques Trade Gazette, said: "He [the auctioneer] will certainly be able to retire on the proceeds he has made on his fees from this – this is lottery money."