The £51m sale of a Chinese vase discovered in Pinner sparked headlines around the world. But nearly 2 years on the seller has yet to receive a penny.
It seemed like the ultimate cash in the attic discovery.
When the hammer came down on the auction of the old vase Gene Johnson found in her late sister’s house it was for the astonishing price of £51.6 million.
She and her son Anthony watched from the sidelines of the auction in amazement as they realised they were going to share a vast fortune.
But near on 2 years later it can be revealed that they are not a penny richer – and the 18th century Qing dynasty vase is not on display in China, where its buyer was from, but is in secure location awaiting its fate.
The sale should have left Mr and Mrs Johnson an estimated £37 million richer, after they paid a “sellers’ premium” – a fee to the auctioneers of about £6 million.
The buyer – reputed to be one of the ten richest men in China – was to pay £43 million, plus a buyer’s premium of £8.6 million, which was also to go to the auctioneer.
However, the buyer, named in antiques circles as property billionaire Wang Jianlin has not paid up because, it is understood, he is reluctant to pay the flat rate 20 per cent fee of £8.6 million levied on the sale by Bainbridges auctioneers, in West Ruislip, Middlesex, where the vase was sold.
He is said to be upset that the auction house did not operate a sliding scale fee. If it had the buyer would have stood to pay a smaller percentage of the hammer price.
Ivan Macquisten, the editor of the authoritative Antiques Trade Gazette, said: “It is my understanding that the vase has not yet been paid for. I understand that the sticking point on the completion of the sale has been the buyer’s premium.
“The buyer appears to be quibbling over this, from what I am told. He seems to be upset that it’s a flat fee rather than a sliding scale, as is common practice with the big auctioneers, but there doesn’t seem to be any leeway for negotiation on this point as its part of the conditions of sale imposed by Bainbridges.”
Increasingly anxious to complete the sale Mr Johnson, who is a retired solicitor, last year travelled to China with his auctioneer for discussions with the buyer’s agents but returned to Britain empty-handed.
Mr Johnson, 55, now faces a dilemma: he is prevented by Bainbridges’ conditions of sale from selling the vase through another auctioneer and must decide whether to hold out for the full price, or re-auction it through Bainbridges for what would be a smaller profit.
Mr Macquisten, who has a source in a position to know what has been going on since the sale of the vase, added: “The buyer could be considered to have defaulted on the sale, considering how much time has passed since the auction, but the seller seems to want the price that was originally bid for the vase.
“Unfortunately they would never get it if they put it back on the market, now that the element of surprise has gone.”
The stand-off was disclosed as fresh details of how the Johnsons came to own the vase were uncovered by The Sunday Telegrapgh.
Mr Johnson and his mother, who is 86, found the vase when they were clearing out the Pinner home of her sister, Patricia Newman, after her death aged 73 in January 2010.
The 16in tall vase had, according to family legend, been brought back from the Far East by Mrs Newman’s husband William.
Public records disclose that Mr Newman’s will said that in the event of his wife dying before he did it was his wish that the proceeds of his estate be passed to the Royal British Legion.
It would have meant leaving the charity with what would have been a multi-million pound bequest.
However, Mr Newman died first, on 15 June 2006, and his estate, including the vase, passed to his wife. At this point, since the vase had never been valued, the estate was judged to be worth £135,732.
By the time Mrs Newman died the valuation of her estate had grown to £658,344, in all likelihood due to an increase in the value of her home, the semi-detatched home in Pinner which she had shared with her husband.
However, when Mrs Newman died no trace of a will expressing her own wishes was found, leaving her intestate.
Mrs Newman’s only surviving relative, her sister Gene Johnson, therefore had to apply to the High Court for probate in order to inherit the estate.
As at the time he was a practising solicitor Mrs Johnson’s son was qualified to handle the case and applied to High Court in Winchester for probate on his mother’s behalf.
Just over three months after Mrs Newman’s death the court awarded her possessions, including the vase, to Mr Johnson’s mother.
Mr Johnson had no idea how much his aunt’s possessions were worth, but there was a leaflet for Bainbridges auctioneers among Mrs Newman’s papers and Mr Johnson called them in.
It was only when its owner, Peter Bainbridge, consulted his friend Luan Grocholski, a valuer, that its provenance became clear, and with it the potential for a big sale.
Mr Grocholski established to his satisfaction that the vase had been fired, glazed and enamelled at Jingdezhen, the site of some of China’s most famous kilns, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-95), a period known for the beauty of its ceramic craft.
Mr Grocholski placed a valuation on the vase of between £800,000 and £1.2m, prompting Mr Bainbridge to take out a full-page advertisement in the Antiques Trade Gazette, highlighting it as the centrepiece of a forthcoming auction.
On November 11, 2010, bids for lot 800 – an auspicious number for Chinese buyers – rose and rose, finally hitting £43m.
Mr Bainbridge, who with his wife Jane has run the firm for more than 30 years, brought down his auctioneer’s hammer with such force that a piece of it shattered – and the story went round the world.
The repercussions of the stalled sale have also had an impact on Mr Jianlin. The billionaire, 57, was named as the buyer after one of his agents was reportedly barred from registering for the sale of a Qianlong-dynasty scroll sold in Toulouse, following the alleged non-payment.
Mr Jianlin, estimated by American magazine Forbes to have a property fortune of around £2.9 bilion, publicly denies any involvement in the Bainbridge vase, although he has amassed one of the largest private art collections in China.
The issue of Chinese non-payment is not new: in 2009 a buyer refused to pay the £25.4m he had bid for objects at Christie’s while Sotheby’s has taken legal action against several individuals in recent years.
Some experts say buyers from new markets such as China are not familiar with international bidding rules. However there has also been speculation that the Chinese government sabotages sales by having officials buying then refusing to pay, because they believe the antiques were looted form their country and should not be for sale.
John Berwald, a London art dealer who specialises in Chinese ceramics, said: “This is one of the most high profile non-payment cases there has been.
“Mr Johnson needs to cut his losses and put it back on the market. He’ll still get a big price because its such a lovely vase.”
Mr Johnson, who lives in the semi-detached house in Pinner previously owned by his aunt and uncle, refused to comment on the progress of the sale and whether he had received any money. Mrs Johnson, 86, also declined to comment.
Mr Bainbridge said that he had signed a confidentiality agreement with both the vendor and the buyer and therefore could not discuss the sale.