The record-breaking price bid Thursday at a London auction house shocked the sellers, an unnamed brother and sister, who had to step out of the room for some fresh air when the hammer came down, reported The Daily Telegraph.
Incredibly, that precious porcelain piece sat unnoticed for years in a modest suburban home in the west London commuter town of Pinner, which was owned by the pair's uncle. Following his recent death, the siblings started to clear out the bungalow, but thought so little of the vase that they causally put it aside -- precariously placing it on top of a bookcase -- and continued with their tidying up.
When the pair finally took the item to an auctioneer in the nearby town of Ruislip, they were surprised to hear that the 16-inch-high, yellow and sky-blue vase dated from the 1740s, and was almost certainly made for the powerful Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799).
"[The owners] had no idea what they had," said Helen Porter of the Bainbridges auction house, according to The Guardian.
Auctioneers estimated that noble heritage would result in a sale price of between $1.3 million and $1.9 million. However, as an ever-growing number of wealthy Chinese are eager to own a piece of their nation's imperial heritage, the vase far exceeded the initial valuation. (Earlier that same day, a white jade dragon seal belonging to the Qianlong Emperor sold for $4.3 million in London, almost double its expected sale price). Nine bidders battled against each other for half an hour -- bids rose in $1.6 million chunks during the final minutes -- with a Beijing-based antiques agent eventually claiming the prize.
The anonymous siblings aren't the only ones celebrating this surprise windfall. Because the buyer has to pay a 20 percent premium levied by the auction house, Bainbridges is set to receive a whopping $13.8 million payout. That's a life-changing amount for the owners of the small auction house, who normally sell relatively inexpensive antiques and equipment such as lawnmowers.
The Guardian reported that Bainbridges' previous highest sale came two years ago, when a buyer paid $160,000 for a Ming enamel piece.
"[The auctioneer] will certainly be able to retire on the proceeds he's made on his fees from this," said Antiques Trade Gazette Editor Ivan Macquisten. "This is lottery money in fees."