Tiny Massachusetts auction house Altair made a splashy debut this March with a $1.7m vase that the Boston Globe noticed didn’t seem right. Now the paper has pretty convincing evidence that the work of art was bought a year earlier in Iowa for under $5,000 and is simply a 20th Century reproduction of the 18th Century piece it purported to be. That has left Benjamin Wang, the owner of Altair, scrambling to save face:
Wang and his lawyer, [Orestes] Brown, say that the vase seller, Hua, gave them the false provenance, the documented history of ownership that buyers rely on in part to determine the value of art and antiques.
According to Brown, Hua also attached a sticker to the bottom of the vase showing it had last been auctioned on Feb. 23, 1989, at a Christie’s sale in South Kensington, England. Wang said Hua had a receipt from the sale.
But Wang, who is supposed to authenticate a piece’s value, never checked with Christie’s or asked to see Hua’s sales slip in evaluating the vase, according to his lawyer. Instead, he concluded that the piece was an authentic 18th-century vase, not a modern copy, based on his own art expertise and the word of a consultant provided by Hua, Wang said.
In Iowa, the torn Christie’s sticker on the vase’s bottom had an illegible number.
If Wang had investigated the sticker on the bottom of the vase — marked “297” under a Christie’s label — he would have figured out the deception immediately. Lot 297 in the February 23, 1989, Christie’s auction in South Kensington was not even a vase: according to a Christie’s spokewoman, it was a 10¼-inch blanc de chine statuette of Guanyin, Buddhism’s goddess of compassion. It had an estimated value of about $100.