ALAMEDA -- You never know what value bric-a-brac may hold. A Tang Ying soapstone carving picked up by a Bay Area family at a charity auction in the 1970s fetched a record $2.235 million at a recent sale organized by Michaan's Auctions.
"Look at what you have lying around the house. Could it be worth anything?" asked Allen Michaan, president of the Alameda Point-based business, which opened in 2002.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as after that, lots of art and special decorative items came to the United States and was purchased by collectors, Michaan said.
"Tons and tons were exported for so many years," he said. "Chinese vases and paintings were so popular back then. With Mao and the Cultural Revolution ... even more items left the country."
But with rising income levels in China and other parts of Asia today, "We now have a new breed of very wealthy collectors who want to reimport their cultural heritage," he said.
The piece that sold for the record price at the June 23 auction is a perfect example.
"It's an important major work that got exported or bought by visitor, and now it's going back," Michaan explained.
The burgeoning market for Asian art sales is "a real breakthrough for the auction house," he said. Michaan's Auctions does business both online and at its facilities on the former Naval Air Station.
"We're now at a point that we are well established, people trust us and we are getting better material all the time," Michaan said. "We have a growing worldwide reach as more buyers use the Internet for research."
The family members of a late East Bay resident, for instance, decided to sell their mid-18th Century soapstone at auction some six months after they had it appraised by Michaan's business.
"This is part of the service we do for estates, insurance firms and so on," he said. "This was in the household when the woman died. It was appraised for $100,000 to $115,000, and a few months later, family decided to consign the object to auction. We were delighted."
Experts at the auction house set this price range for the carving after looking at past auction results.
"The previous record for such a carving -- a smaller object by the same artist, Tang Ying -- sold at auction in Hong Kong about 10 or 12 years ago for $130,000," Michaan said. "That was our comparable price."
Since that time, the antique trader noted, the market for Chinese antiquities has boomed.
"It's just gone up, up and up," Michaan said. "But we didn't have a price guide since that last sale, so we had to go with that range ... Future auctions of these pieces will have to look at our results and adjust their prices accordingly."
For the family who owned the object, the record-setting price "brought them to tears," he said. "They were stunned. It was such a wonderful moment to be in the room with them."
In addition to the soapstone carving's high bid, a scroll painting by Li Yin sold for $112,100 last month, and a set of jade gourd-shaped pendants were purchased for $106,000. Also, a couple years ago, the auction house sold two carved Huanghuali and mixed-wood antique horseshoe chairs for $362,700.
While many people have enjoyed collecting Chinese art and antiquities over the years, "These objects have held little value for a long time, but not so today. You might be surprised at what some knickknacks might be worth."
Collectors now fly in from Asia for Michaan's auctions, and many also bid by phone or online from all over the world. Community members are invited to come by the Alameda Point business from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesdays for free appraisals.
"The results of the latest sale show potential sellers that we have the ability to achieve results that are up there with world's largest auction houses from right here in Alameda," Michaan said.