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The vase was one of a group of objects chosen for deaccession by the Strong Museum of Rochester, New York and consigned to Robert C. Eldred & Co of East Dennis, Massachusetts in the autumn of 2000. Once part of the collection of the late Margaret Woodbury Strong, it was appraised as a 23in (58cm) high famille jaune porcelain palace vase with a Qianlong (1736x-95) reign mark to the base but deemed a 19th century copy.

While the Chinese are known to have put earlier date marks on later work, speculative bidding on December 8, 2001 saw the vase climb over its $800-1200 estimate to $23,000.

As reported in the Antiques Trade Gazette at the time the purchaser in Cape Cod subsequently consigned the vase to Christie’s Hong Kong. As lot 555 in an April 29-30 sale of Imperial works of art, it was pictured, described at length, and identified as “a spectacular and very rare massive famille rose yellow-ground vase with a Qianlong six-character seal mark and of the period”. Representing the deal of a lifetime for the vendor it sold at HK$10.8m (£1,002,785) to Hong Kong-based dealer Elegant Wong of the Ming Gallery, bidding on behalf of a private Asian collector.

An item that could have netted the not-for-profit museum more than $1m left them with around $20,000.
According to the complaint filed in a Federal court by Harter, Secrest & Emery, attorneys for the Strong Museum: “Under its contract with the museum, Eldred was obligated (a) to furnish the Museum with an accurate appraisal of the fair market value of the vase and (b) to advertise and market the vase in such a manner that it would attract bids at its actual fair market value.

“In failing to identify the vase as a rare and valuable 18th-century Qianlong work, and in failing to recognise its true fair market value and to market it accordingly, Eldred breached its contract with the museum”.

The writ further states that Eldred’s – one of the largest provincial auctioneers in the United States who hold regular sales of Chinese and Japanese works of art – “held itself as a competent professional appraiser and auctioneer of antique Chinese porcelain [when] in fact, [they] lacked the professional expertise to appraise the vase properly, together with the ability and expertise to market it so that it would realise its actual fair market value at auction”.

Although it was reported at the time that the buyer had flown to Cape Cod from Taiwan, the plaintiff also accused Eldred’s of “failing to advertise the proposed sale of the vase at public auction to the international market for antique Chinese porcelain, or to international collectors who would be willing and able to bid for the vase at its fair market value”. Damages are sought for breach of contract and malpractice plus costs.