A PAIR of miniature vases made a big impression at an auction in Dorchester to fetch a combined total of more than £45,000.

The two 18th century Chinese vases were sold by Duke’s auctioneers after being discovered in a house in Somerset.

One of the vases, a five inch tall cloisonné enamel vase dating back to the reign of Emperor Qianlong from 1735 to 1796, went under the hammer for more than five times its estimate to reach more than £26,000 including the buyer’s premium.

It was found in a house in Somerset that was inspected by Duke’s Asian art specialist Andrew Marlborough.

He said that the vendors did not realise just how valuable the vase was.

Mr Marlborough said: “In addition to the reign mark, I spotted another single character mark.

“I had seen this mark on other similar vases before but no one had ever managed to identify what it was. “I just had a strong sense that these single marks must mean something, and I suspected that this had something to do with their placement within the Imperial Palace.”

Further research revealed the vase to be part of a group of three vessels, known as ‘Lu Ping San Shi’ sets.

These were three-object miniature cloisonné enamel sets made during the Qianlong period which consisted of a censer, a bottle vase and an incense container.

Each of these items in these sets was marked with a single character from the famous Thousand Character Classic, a poem used to teach children the characters in their own alphabet.

It is believed that the character chosen for each set, in this case the character ‘Qiang’, was also a secret code indicating a location within the Forbidden City where the set should be put on display.

However, the exact location coding remains a mystery.

This is the first time that these single character marks have been positively identified by an auction house and the lot attracted international interest when it went on sale in Dorchester.

Mr Marlborough said: “The jewel-like quality of the brightly coloured enamels and the design on the body of a smiling face, enhanced the appeal, making this an exceptional piece.”

With an initial estimate of between £5,000 and £10,000 at least five international telephone bidders fought it out before the vase was eventually secured by a Chinese bidder.

The auction also included another example of a miniature cloisonné vase with the character mark of ‘Gong’, found in the same Somerset home.

This vase decorated in turquoise, blue, green and red floral enamels sold for £19,520.