In fall 2010, records were set for Qianlong porcelains:
A vase sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong for US$32.4 million in October.
A vase found in an attic in the UK sold at a small London auction house, Bainbridge's, sold for £43 million or US$69.3 million (£53.1 million or US$85.9 million including the buyers' premium), in November (estimate was US$1.3~$2 million). HOWEVER, THE CHINESE BUYER REFUSED TO PAY FOR THIS! (this is not the first time this happened) So this is really a false and misleading public sales record.
UPDATE NOTE Oct. 10, 2011: some reports indicate that finally, the vase has been paid for. Such a delay is customary for Chinese culture, says the Wall Street Journal in an article Oct. 7, 2011. But a story on NPR Morning Edition on Oct. 10, 2011 indicated that the auctioneer and the seller had to go to China to collect the money, and that in May, one British newspaper reported the buyer had made a deposit on the vase of 2 million pounds, but how much of the selling price has actually been received by the auction house is unclear--no one is talking.
UPDATE NOTE ON JANUARY 14, 2013:Today Bloomberg reported that this vase has been sold for less than half the price the original purchaser failed to pay, an undisclosed price between 20 million pounds and 25 million pounds. The private transaction was brokered by the London-based auction house Bonhams. The vase has now been exported. The new owner has been identified by dealers as an Asian collector. See the article here.
Then at the NY auctions in March, many lots exceeded estimates by huge amounts. These surprises included:
An apparent Republican period (early 20th century) vase that buyers obviously believe was of 18th century date, sold for $18 million (the estimate was $800-$1,200).
Another surprise was a 19th century jardiniere that sold at Doyle's for $80,000 (estimate was $5,000-$7,000)
Lastly, a fine 15th-16th century large (20") bronze statue of the Daoist deity Zhenwu, sold at Christie's for $2,210,250 (estimate was $250,000~$300,000)
How to make sense of all this? You must understand that the buyers are wealthy Chinese with deep pockets, for whom buying at auction affirms their status among their peers. Their preference for big, impressive objects associated with eminent imperial reigns affirms their ties to the pinnacle epochs of Chinese history. The fact that Chinese buyers reneg on commitments and fail to pay when winning an exorbitantly high bid for a piece at auction serves as a warning to auction houses worldwide to more carefully ascertain the intent and secure advance credit from would-be buyers.
Note though that there is one category of Chinese art these Chinese buyers will not buy -- funerary art (such as grave goods like tomb figurines) -- because they are superstitious and so shy away from art associated with death. Nevertheless, there are many forgeries of these materials on the market. Furthermore, excavated materials are not allowed to be publicly sold within China.