SamHenry and the Chinese 18th Century Bamboo Brush Pot Caper

Posted on June 5, 2011

Lot 450A Skinner Asian Auction June 3, 2011

Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved to sit and listen to her Grandfather’s stories about her grandmother who had died the year before she was born.  She and her “Gampa” used to stand in front of  a glass case filled with Indian, Chinese and Japanese carvings of various description and use that Grandmother had bought on a trip around 1910 when she was a young girl.  Her parents had died and she was traveling with an elderly couple who lived near her.

Intriguing was a pair of peach pit carvings that were the boats that people lived on in the rivers and harbors of China called junks.  The Chinese were adept at nut carving. But her favorite piece was what she later learned was a Chinese brush pot used by scholars to store their brushes for calligraphy and perhaps painting – two sister arts in that country.  She would look at the finely articulated figures, the exquisite, gnarled pine trees in the rocky landscape and the Mongolian ponies.  She loved the feel of the smooth bamboo and the patina it had acquired over the years.  Sam went on to college where art history was an undergraduate major and she took an Asian art class so she could better appreciate the collection.

When her grandfather died, Sam’s father had to sell much of what was left to him to help pay for his medical care.  But SamHenry pleaded with him to keep the Asian art.  He did.  When Sam’s father died and she was old enough to get her own place, her mother, knowing how much the collection meant to her, let her take it with her.  Sam was just in her early twenties but she bought a fine case to store the objects all of  which she cared for over the next 48 years.

By this time Sam had become old and having led life as a spend thrift taking trips she should not  have and treating family and friends she loved to so many experiences she wanted to share, she was down on her luck and about to lose her home – a place where she had finally found happiness.  It is a small cottage in a small town but just right for Sam.  She lives in a nest of caring neighbors and friends but was always depressed and sad she would have to leave and her health suffered from the worry and sadness of it.

One day, she talked with a good friend about her Asian collection.  It was the only thing of value she had to sell.  Her friend of many years had been an antique dealer and he advised that Skinner’s in Boston was the best place to send Asian things because they had a famous annual Asian Art Auction.  Sadly, this friend died last fall just before Sam contacted Skinners.  She sent the head of the Asian Department there (he appears on Antique Road Show on PBS) pictures of some items from the collection.  To her surprise, he phoned her directly and said to send anything she had.  Sam was thrilled but also very sad.

She had a friend at a local UPS store pack it up according to Skinner’s instructions and, after a last, loving look at it all as it was being boxed, sent it off.  After the Skinner appraisal had been completed, Sam was unhappy to see such low valuations.  Her favorite piece, the bamboo brush pot, was appraised at just $800-$1,200.  When she talked with the curator again, he said “I expect it to go for much more but I don’t want to say anything because it would be bad luck.”

In May Sam received the catalog of the auction and was overwhelmed to see that the brush pot was on the cover.  She was thrilled – and not just for her but for her Grandmother whose fine eye had selected it. But then came the three days of the auction.  On the third day Sam tried to search for auction results and after much pouring over the Skinner website, found the list of items and their sale prices.

Sam searched for the brush pot first.  When her eye locked on its item number, 450A,  next to it was a figure Sam thought must be a typo: $539,500.  It was like having a winning lottery ticket.  She was convinced it was a terrible mistake, that it could not be true.  She had never had luck at things like that. But after checking and cross-checking,  everything fell into place.  It was true.  It had sold for over 1/2 million dollars.

The beautiful, treasured brush pot changed Sam’s life that day.  She went to bed that night and slept better than she had in decades.  She was safe at last.  After paying the auction house and Uncle Sam, she could pay off her loans and her house and know that as long as he lived, she would have a home – her home – her’s and Imp’s.  She would still have to take in student boarders and she would still have to work until she dropped but the odds were pretty good that she could stay in her house.

How can you thank 2 generations of your family and a good friend now gone for saving you?  And although she misses that special artifact “friend,” Sam is free of worry about things of value in her home and free of worry about having to move.  It is salve to the wound of having to part with item 450A, that beautiful 18th century Chinese bamboo brush pot she was fortunate enough to have enjoyed for over almost 50 years.

It is unfortunate that so many things from China are headed out of the US and back to China.   But the beauty of  their pre-revolutionary art is stunning and it is gratifying to see that the current generation appreciates it.  Sam was happy to be one of many who helped keep Chinese art safe for future generations to enjoy.  In the end, Sam hopes that 450A will end up where many people will get to meet and enjoy the art of a former age.  Safe journey little brush pot, safe journey home.

The truly happy ending for Sam is that her brother will be on his way with his family to China this fall to pick up the latest member of our tribe: “Grace,” a little girl.  Grace bears the name of that grandmother who bought the Asian collection that had to be sold.  Now we have two Chinese items of real value in our family:  Anna and soon Grace.  Safe travel here, little Grace.  Safe travel to your new home in the United States and to an excited Aunt, SamHenry. 













And to an excited sister, Anna:

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