More than 400 years on, we still burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on our November 5 bonfires as we remember the Catholic plot to blow up King James I and parliament.
The plot nearly succeeded after a tip-off, which led to the discovery of Fawkes himself in parliament’s cellars, did not result in the conspirator’s arrest as he convinced the authorities that he was simply laying in firewood for the winter. It was only on the second search that he was caught making his final preparations.
Had the 36 barrels of gunpowder exploded in such a confined space, there is little doubt that they would have flattened not just parliament, but a significant area around it, with huge loss of life.
Around three years ago the earliest known written account of what happened came up for auction in London with an estimate of £40,000-60,000. Written by Secretary of State Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, just four days after the plot was uncovered, the letter to Sir Ralph Winwood, the English ambassador at The Hague, includes a full account of the events. From this we can see how shocking and daring it all seemed at the time, and how that ensured a notoriety that would last throughout ensuing history.
Our recent sale of a Louis Vuitton leather box for £14,500 reminded me of how a simple idea can change the world. With Vuitton that simple idea was to change the shape of trunk lids from rounded to flat in the 1850s. While rounded lids allowed rainwater to run off, the trunks could not be stacked, so making the most of storage space on carriages, trains and ships was a problem.
Of course, Louis Vuitton’s success can be attributed to far more than this initial idea, but it is what got his brand going and it sparked many imitators.
In fact, such was the drive to pass other, lesser imitations off as Vuitton originals, even from the earliest days, that the company had to keep devising new branding to protect itself. First came the beige and brown stripes, then the Damier Canvas pattern with logo reading marque L. Vuitton déposée, and then the quatrefoils and flowers pattern, along with LV monogram, which largely did the trick.
Needless to say, the counterfeiters have struck back in recent years, but it says a great deal about the quality and standing of the originals that crooks put so much effort into creating imitations.
At first glance it seemed fairly ordinary: a plain blue-green porcelain bowl or shallow dish less than six inches across, the sort of thing that might go unnoticed on any shelf. So when it appeared at Sotheby’s on October 3, why did it take 20 minutes of furious bidding to sell, and why, when the hammer finally came down, did it do so at a record-setting $38m?
In many ways the answer is simply: rarity; in others it is quite complicated: the desire to own something aesthetically exquisite dating back centuries that embodies the finest Chinese craftsmanship and brings with it great prestige and honour.
The bowl in question is a Ru Guanyao brush washer dating to the North Song Dynasty (960-1127AD). It displays the highly desirable ‘ice crackle’ to its glaze that so many collectors seek and, perhaps most importantly, is a near-perfect example of porcelain from the almost mythical kilns of Ruzhou around 900 years ago, wares that were only manufactured for a period of about 20 years. So, pretty heady stuff.
The fact that something so intrinsically modest and simple can achieve such status, and the price to go with it, speaks volumes about the importance of art in history and the importance of the that history to a nation’s heritage. Long may that continue.
Next month sees the annual round of auctions, gallery shows and museum exhibitions that make up Asian Art in London. It’s a festival of culture focusing on the art – ancient and modern – from India, Cambodia, Korea, China, Japan and one or two other Far Eastern countries. With a rich and recorded heritage that predates the Romans in some parts, this field creates a fascinating historical focus of how humanity has developed through the ages.
Porcelain, terracotta, bronze, jade and ivory are just some of the materials used to fashion the most memorable objects from the Tang, Ming and Qing dynasties in China, while Japanese tradition gave rise to elaborately carved netsuke and ojime, as well as the luxuriously lacquered inro.
The London celebrations are large enough to attract collectors from all over the world, so it will come as no surprise that leading auction rooms outside of the capital – including ours at Fernhurst – time first-rate Asian art sales to coincide with them.
But it was Geneva that provided the first appetizer for the Asian art fest last week when a Chinese vase estimated at just 500 to 800 Swiss Francs took a hammer price of five million – that’s around £3.8m.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for our November offering.