Guided at £6000-10,000, it soared away to bring £230,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).
It came from the collection of the late Major Edward Copleston Radcliffe (1898-1967), having been acquired (on commission by London dealership Bluetts) at Sotheby’s in 1946 for £19. It is one of only five known examples that Dr Yingwen Tao, specialist in Chinese and Asian Art at Dreweatts, believes were made by the same craftsman for the emperor.
“There is every indication that all five were made in the same imperial workshop as crucially all are doubly marked with an incised Xuande six-character reign mark on the underside of the box and the interior of the cover.
“They also all have similar designs and are uniform in size [5in/12cm in diameter].”
Dreweatts found the piece among other Chinese works of art still displayed in a cabinet in the attic of a family home, as they had been when Radcliffe died in 1967.
Prior to the sale Dreweatts conceded the estimate – set when the box was assumed to be a later Ming copy – was “now looking extremely modest, even given the slightly damaged condition”.
Bidding on the lot was confined to those in the room and on nine phones, with the box selling to a private collector in Hong Kong.
Mark Newstead, director of Asian ceramics and works of art at Dreweatts, said: “The Xuande mark is one of the most copied marks of all time. Literally 99.9% of pieces are later copies.
“I assumed the box was made in the 16th or early 17th century and it was only when we were able to compare it with the [‘grapes’ pattern box at the National Trust property] Fenton House that we started to believe it could be a ‘lost’ example of this rare group.”
The making of cloisonné enamel in the early Ming period was strictly regulated by palace eunuchs, who operated under the auspices of the Yuyongjian, a sub-division of the Neifu (Inner Treasury) responsible for supplies to the imperial household.