Ancient Chinese art: an infatuation

   |  23 March 2012  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

New York, 22 March 2012, Art Media Agency (AMA).

Asia Week New York saw a healthy start to its marathon auction at the beginning of this week in New York. The event brought together 17 museums and institutions, five New York auction houses (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, Doyle New York and iGavel), as well as some thirty dealers in Asian art. From 16 to 24 March 2012, art lovers and collectors have had the opportunity to wander the avenues of New York, visiting exhibitions presented by the various galleries, or attend one of the many sales hosted at any one of the five auction houses participating in Asia Week. This event provides an opportunity to gauge the significance of the market for ancient Chinese art, particularly the strong demand for Chinese antiques amongst Chinese collectors. Over recent years, this group of collectors have been noticeably inclined towards purchasing exceptional antique pieces which have left their country, in an apparent effort to repatriate the heritage of the country, and with price rarely presenting an obstacle. The sales at Asia Week have included a large range of works, from Shang dynasty bronze sculptures, to ceramic pieces created during the reign of Emperor Qialong, to works on silk and parchement created by the greatest masters of calligraphy and classical Chinese painting. By looking solely at the sales of Chinese art made during Asia Week, it should be possible to explain the passion that private collectors from the country have for ancient art, as well as the reasons why such pieces often do so well at auction.

The first auction house to put works under the hammer as part of Asia Week was Doyle New York with its “Asian Works of Art” sale, which took place on 19 March 2012. If the sale could be summed up in one word, it would be “surprise”. The star lots of the sale – a white and blue porcelain plate carrying the hallmark of Emperor Qianlong’s craftsmen and a miniature canon in bronze from the Kangxi period (Qing dynasty, 1695) – did not achieve their estimated values at auction, with the plate going un-sold and the canon selling for less than its lower estimate. With an estimate of between $400,000 and $600,000, the ceramic piece sold for just $362,500. The surprise comes, therefore, from works which experts had not necessarily taken into account, with some taking one hundred times their base estimate:

  • lot 512: ship in white jade, China, 19th century, estimated at between $700 and $900, sold at $122,500;
  • lot 500: boxes covered in red enamel, China, Qianlong period (Qing dynasty — 18th century), estimated between $100,000 and $150,000, sold at $110,500;
  • lot 691: pair of decorative jade screens, China, estimated between $1,000 and $1,500, sold at $92,500;
  • lot 26: jade flask, China, Qianlong period (Qing dynasty — 18th  century), estimated between $15,000 and $20,000, sold at $80,50;
  • lot 532: bronze clock, China, 19th century, estimated between $20,000 and $30,000, sold at $68,500;
  • lot 397: celadon pot, China, 20th century, estimated between $1,500 and $2,500, sold at $37,500.

These results demonstrate the strong demand among collectors for antique jade and enamel pieces. Objects in jade, a semi-precious stone, as well as enamelled pieces, were made with materials of the finest quality. The most stunning pieces are, generally, those made on imperial commission, and often fetch impressive prices at auction.  If a piece bears the emperor’s seal, its value can multiply by three.

Christie’s has been hosting, over the 22 and 23 of March, sales dedicated to Chinese art: one of Chinese antiquities entitled “Fine Chinese ceramics and works of art”, and belongings of scholars and of the emperor as part of the sale of the Blumenfield collection. Estimates range from $2,500 to $50,000 for the seals, fans, furniture, and other works of art featured in the collection. As these valuable objects are from a large collection, it is possible that their results at auction will come as a surprise to the art market.

The key lots of this auction are:

  • lot 1779: gold leafed bronze stature of Vairocana, China, Ming dynasty (16th century), estimated between $2 and $3 million;
  • lot 1525: bronze ceremonial clock, China, end of the Shang dynasty, estimated between $800,000 and $1.2 million.

Sotheby’s “Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art” sale, which took place on 20 March, featured bronzes, furniture, practical and decorative objects as well ceramics. Ceramic pieces fetched the best prices at the auction: two porcelain pots carrying the seal of Emperor Qianlong. With an estimated value of between $80,000 and $120,000, the two lots held the rapt attention of the auction room, before reaching more than five times their base estimates: $1,986,500 (lot 93) and $1,583,599 (lot 94). Some other lots which caused a stir were:

  • lot 208: jade imperial pot, China, estimated between $200,000 and $300,000, sold at $1,426,500;
  • lot 13: an ancient bronze, China, Shang dynasty (circa 1650 BC), estimated between $500,000 and $700,000, sold at $1,258,500;
  • lot 70: gilded bronze temple bell, China, 1715, estimated between $500,000 and $700,000, sold at $818,500.

With an overall lower estimate of $16.8 million, the 20 March sale took a total of $20.7 million. As is often the case with sales of Asian art, there was a large gap between the estimated value of the sale and the actual results. These significant differences are largely due to the underestimation of the Chinese market and to the value of these works by the occidental world. At auctions often astronomical differences between estimates and results can be observed, especially for ceramic pieces. For example, on 11 November 2010, auctioneers Bainbridges put a Qianlong period vase up for sale (Qing dynasty, 18th century) with what would turn out to be an extremely prudent estimate of £800,000 and £1 million. It garnered the interest of collectors from all over the world, especially from China, and after half an hour it eventually sold for a huge £43 million (€50 million). This price smashed the world record for the price paid for a porcelain piece, becoming at the same time the first work of art not to be a sculpture or painting to enter in the list of the top ten most expensive in the world. In November  2010, auction house Piasa sold a vase carrying the seal of Emperor Yongzheng (Qing dynasty – 18th century) sold for €5,547,000, greatly exceeding its base estimate.

As part of its “Fine classical Chinese paintings” sale, Sotheby’s is presenting a scroll by Chinese painter Qi Baishi with an estimated value of between $1.2 and $1.5 million. It is likely that this lot will do extremely well at auction, with the best result for a work by the artist at auction being $40,404,000, a fee paid at an auction at China Guardian Auctions in Beijing.

The Chinese art market has knocked the American market off the top spot, taking a 30% of the global art market in 2011, against the United States’ 29%, according to a report from TEFAF Maastricht. China is the number one place in the world for contemporary, modern, and ancient art sales, with overall sales of $2.16 billion for the first quarter of 2011. Chinese collectors, although keen to buy contemporary pieces, demand almost exclusively works by the compatriots. This explains the significant sums that they are ready to invest in their county’s ancient art, a direct link to their heritage.

France, the fourth most important country in terms of its share of the art market, has also been affected by this Asian phenomenon. The second best result of 2011 at Drouot went to Parisian auction house Gros & Delettrez on 5 April, when €2,875,000 was paid for a Chinese porcelain piece dating from the Yuan dynasty (14th century).

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