Pair of Qing Dynasty vases set for auction

Sale of ornaments, given to British church minister for saving a drowning boy, expected to generate interest in Hong Kong and mainland

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 5:01am

The Bible says no good deed goes unpunished.

But the proverb has proved far from true for Victorian British church minister, the Reverend Samuel Edward Valpy Filleul and his descendants.

Rev Filleul was given two Chinese vases as a reward for saving the life of a drowning boy more than 120 years ago.

The keen fly fisherman was casting for trout on the River Lune in Lancashire, northwest England, during the late 1800s when he heard cries for help from the boy thrashing about midstream. Rev Filleul dived in and risked his own life to pluck the boy to safety.

A bond was instantly formed between them and the well-off Rev Filleul paid for the boy's education, an investment that paid off handsomely then - and now.

The boy grew up to become a successful trader, who headed to Asia in the early 20th century and made his fortune in China. Never forgetting the man who saved and made him, he shipped home the impressive porcelain vases to show his gratitude.

The 1.5-metre-high pieces, intricately decorated with Chinese myths, are thought to come from the reign of Daoguang, the Qing dynasty emperor who ruled China from 1820 to 1850. They took pride of place in Rev Filleul's house at Poole Harbour when he moved south to become the rector of Dorset, where he and his ornaments remained until his death in 1931, aged 76.

His waterside house was bequeathed to his relatives and was requisitioned by the British Army during the second world war - and narrowly escaped wayward German bombs aimed at a nearby cordite factory.

The vases survived and continued to be passed down, but relations were unaware of the heirlooms' value until an expert stumbled across the antiques recently at a different house of a family member near Dorchester.

They are now tipped to fetch upwards of £100,000 (HK$1.79 million) at auction in November, a sale that is expected to attract huge interest from their place of origin, China.

"We were quite surprised to come across the vases. They are very impressive in size and in great condition," Guy Schwinge, from Duke's Auctioneers, told the Sunday Morning Post.

He added: "The family knew they were old Chinese vases but were unaware of their worth. It is a miracle the vases survived after the reverend's house was requisitioned by the army.

"Not only did they survive a house full of squaddies, they also came through local bombings by the Luftwaffe unscathed."

Colourful enamels with panels of warriors in mountainous landscapes, elegant interiors, butterflies, birds and flowers decorate the pieces.

The shoulders are moulded with playful kylins and serpents highlighted in gilt and green enamel, signature designs that belie their heritage and era.

Emperor Daoguang's reign was marked by external disaster and internal rebellion - the first opium war and the start of the Tai Ping rebellion - which nearly brought down the dynasty.

Historian Jonathan Spence said the emperor was a "well-meaning but ineffective man" who promoted officials who "presented a purist view even if they had nothing to say about domestic and foreign problems surrounding the dynasty".

"Chinese vases on this scale rarely appear on the market and we anticipate global interest at our next specialist auction," said Schwinge, whose auction house shot to fame in 2010 after it sold a collection of Chinese jade ornaments for £4 million.

Little is known about the drowning boy after he made it big in China. The vases will be auctioned on November 7.

"We expect huge interest from buyers in Hong Kong and China," Schwinge said.