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Big money for the mystic

How a wooden Chinese statue went from being worth £1,000 to £300,000

Anthony Gardner | November 3rd 2015

Lot 255 in Christie’s forthcoming sale of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art last appeared at auction three years ago. On that occasion it fetched just over £1,000. This time it carries an estimate of £200,000 to £300,000, and the owner hopes it will go for many times more – the Chinese market being, as he says, “so mercurial that anything can happen”.

The lot is a wooden statue of a seated luohan (a disciple of Buddha). Just under four feet high, it has a serene face, disconcertingly long earlobes and a large bump on its forehead. But what is most striking is its intricately decorated polychrome robe, spreading across the mystic’s knees in such wonderfully fluid folds that it almost seems to ripple before your eyes.

The owner cannot, for the moment, be named: although he is a respected collector, his expertise is in a very different field, and he has decided to sell anonymously for fear of muddying the waters. So, with a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Christie’s catalogue identifies him only as “a Noble English Gentleman”.

He found the statue in a south London auction house. “It was completely black, covered in this dark shellac varnish, looking quite sorry for itself, surrounded by pots and pans and discarded curtains. It was catalogued as a seated Buddha, 19th-century or later – but it had this aura of power, and I thought, ‘Hm…it has to be older than that.’”

Having bought it, he consulted a friend who deals in Chinese art. She agreed that the catalogue description must be wrong – “So I wrote to an expert at the Met in New York, and he said it could be late-13th- or 14th-century. I then had it carbon-dated, and the results put it at between 1296 and 1401.” Christie’s experts have gone for the later date, claiming it for the Ming period.

The next stage was to have the statue restored. “I found a restorer in Brighton who specialises in antiquities and took it down to him. Then one evening at 11 o’clock he rang me and said, ‘Get in your car – I want to show you something.’”

Cleaning away the first layer of the dark varnish, the restorer had found a postage-stamp-sized area of polychrome. It was enough to convince the Noble Gentleman that he was the owner of something extraordinary: “There are only a handful of statues like this in the world, and they’re all in institutions like the V&A and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.”

The work ahead, though, was daunting. “In the course of the Ming dynasty, fashions changed and statues were repainted: you’re dealing with layers of paper covered with paint covered with varnish. The restorer said, ‘I can cancel all my other clients and do this for you, but it will take a year. I need a banker’s order from you to pay me £2,000 a week, indefinitely.’”

As it turned out, the restoration took even longer, with the bill eventually reaching £150,000. “I could sort of afford £100,000, but after that I began to have sleepless nights. Then, thank goodness, a painting came into my hands which I bought for £30,000 and sold for £160,000. I don’t believe in karma, but it did look like Providence paying off my overdraft so I could continue with the restoration.”

All being well, Providence will go one better on November 10th and allow the Noble Gentleman to make his fortune; but he acknowledges that the statue might equally fail to reach its reserve. “I’m caught up in a drama that I could never have foreseen,” he says. “In my career I’ve been involved with two pieces which fetched many hundreds of thousands of pounds, and on both occasions it was a nightmare. This time I’m trying to keep a blank mind.”

Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Christie’s, London, November 10th

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