Yexue Li poses with a vase that once belonged to the Qianlong Emperor in China.
Yexue Li ’10 holds a Qianlong vase that has gotten much attention in the U.K. Purchased by a thrift store shopper for $1.21, it sold at auction for more than $600,000 at the auction house where Li works.

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence alumni. Today we catch up with Yexue Li ’10, whose love of art and history has taken her to a top auction house in England. A tiny vase had her in the news.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Yexue Li ’10 found herself at the center of international media attention earlier this fall.

Well, it wasn’t so much Li who was garnering all the attention. It was the tiny vase she was holding in her hands.

As the head of Asian art at the auction house Sworders in the United Kingdom, the Lawrence University alumna was the point person for the auction of a vase that had been purchased by an unidentified shopper for 1 pound ($1.21) at a thrift store in Hertfordshire. The buyer, having generated a bit of a frenzy after sampling the vase on eBay, eventually brought it to Li at Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers to get it professionally valued.

It was quite the surprise when it was discovered that the vase once belonged to the Qianlong Emperor, a ruler in China’s Qing dynasty during the 1700s. A pre-auction estimate was set at £80,000 ($103,000), which wouldn’t have been a bad take on a £1 purchase.

Then came the Nov. 8 auction. A bidding war ensued, with the final price checking in at £484,000 (nearly $625,000). The thrift shop buyer was, to say the least, pleased.

“The gentleman vendor was in the charity shop and picked out the vase because he liked the look of it,” Li told MetroUK.

The vase is marked with a symbol that means it was destined for one of the emperor’s palaces.

“The vase is special because it comes with the inscription by the Qianlong Emperor, and he must have commissioned this vase,” Li said. “It’s a high-quality vase because it was court commissioned, so it would have been of a high value when it was made.”

Li, of China, was a studio art major at Lawrence. She initially joined Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers in Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, for an internship while she was pursuing her master’s degree. She was offered a full-time position when the internship finished.

We chatted with her via email about her work at Sworders and how her Lawrence journey prepared her for it.

On a favorite item she’s come across

We were invited to a house to look at their ceramic collection, and we saw a wood carving, which they used as a door stop. It turned out to be a zitan brush pot carved extensively with a “hundred boys” pattern, and it was later sold for £150,000.

On what she finds fulfilling about her work

I guess it’s the satisfaction after a long search of any relative documentation. It might be one sentence or a comment from the Archives of the Empirical Workshops, or a similar item in the corner of a painting. Any information that can help us understand the item better excites me. 

On how her studio art major helps guide her work

Art skills are very important in the decision-making during preparation for the sale. I am responsible for the layout of the catalogues, design of posters and other advertisements, etc. We do a lot of valuation days and house visits in the auction business. I need to be able to pick up one item and tell the owner how old it is and how much it is worth. A good communication skill is also required. In addition, there is a massive amount of research involved in my work. We need to find the previous sale records and any related documents or similar items for comparison. 

On one take-away from Lawrence that has paid dividends

It was the speaking and writing-intensive classes. Just the other day I was asked to bring the Qianlong vase to Asian Art in London headquarters to show it to the Board of Committee as a shortlist award for the most outstanding work of art of the year. I didn’t know until I walked in the room that I needed to do a presentation. My most precious experience at Lawrence was not learnt from a textbook but to always be ready and prepared for a situation like this. 

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu. Jaclyn Charais contributed to this story.