Riesco heritage sale proves a damp squib

As enormous legal costs forced the abandonment of a legal challenge, the sale of 24 of the best items from the Raymond F A Riesco collection of Chinese art went ahead on November 27. The sale, at Christies in Hong Kong, did not, however, meet the high expectations.

Croydon Council, despite widespread opposition from ratepayers, the Museums Association and the British Museum, sought to sell the best of the collection, inherited by them in 1964, in order to benefit the local ‘cultural infrastructure’, to wit, a restoration of the notorious Fairfield Halls (the last time the present writer attended this centre of culture was for a concert by one Screaming Lord Sutch in 1968).

Accordingly, 24 items from the connection were offered for sale. They were expected by the Council to realise £13m. Christies estimated that the sales would total between £9m. and £14.2m. In the event, seven of the 24 items remained unsold after the sale and the total was just £8.24m. This total is likely to be reduced by around 20% after the auctioneer’s costs of selling so Croydon stands to be sitting on a net gain somewhere around half of its expectation.

As a result of this unique piece of civic vandalism, Croydon Council have been expelled from the Museums Association and the British Museum is understood to be recalling all items it has out on loan to Croydon. It is expected it will be similarly treated by museums and galleries worldwide.

Croydon will also fail to qualify any longer for any grants or assistance from either the Arts Council or the Heritage Lottery Fund. Some staff have left the Museum of Croydon in protest.

One of the most important items to be sold was a Xuande blue and white moonflask estimated at £1.8-2.5m. It got the highest price of the sale at £2.2m.

Riesco Xuande moonflask Xuande moon flask

Chinese lots sell well at Railtons auction

Auctioneers Railtons of Wooler, Northumberland, offered around 50 Chinese lots in their November 23 sale of the contents of two local country houses. All Chinese lots were sold, most selling for substantially more than their estimates.

The most expensive lot was a large, well painted 19th century Chinese jardinière, decorated with panels of birds and blossoms, and which fetched over £3,000, including 20% buyer’s premium. It was bought by Chinese Art in Scotland against competition from telephone and internet.

281 large 19th c jardiniere

There were a number of interesting items which were Chinese related ‘sleepers’. Lot 464 was catalogued as a ‘brass Buddha figure’ and, again, was bought by Chinese Art in Scotland. They believe it to be a 19th century Sino-Tibetan gilt-bronze figure of the deity Maitreya. It sold for just under £500.

464 brass figure

There were 888 lots in all for sale.

Chinese lots stolen from Chippenham Auction Rooms

A number of Chinese lots were stolen from Chippenham Auction Rooms the night before a recent sale. Although the main targets of the thieves, who broke in through the roof the night before the sale, were European gold and silver items (all were stolen), the thieves had evidently absorbed the fact that Chinese objets were desirable. They took several items. Evidently, they were not experts. They took relatively low value lots and they left a lot of rather more expensive ones.

They took the two lots illustrated below, amongst others: an 18th century blue and white meat plate and a Chinese Song dynasty Longquan carved lotus petal bowl.

stolen chinese meat plate496 stolen chinesebowl497

If you have seen either of these items please telephone 101 ext 728295. The incident number is 10977.

Dreweatts post £810,000 sales for Asian Art in London

Auction house Dreweatts and Bloomsbury posted total, premium inclusive, sales of £810,000 for their Asian sale timed to coincide with Asian Art in London.

The runaway success of the sale was indubitably a very large Sino-Tibetan thangka which sold, premium inclusive, for £522,000. It was their highest price ever achieved in the Asian art market and, to a large extent, reflected the research into the item which accompanied the catalogue entry and which was compiled by their in-house expert, Dr Benedetta Mottino, who was engaged by the company last year.


The thangka measured 1.27×0.86m. and was thought to be 18th century. It depicts the 12th century yogi Milarepa, flanked by students in a mountainous landscape setting of waterfalls and clouds. It came from a private European collection.

The style is one in which Chinese stylistic convention were carefully woven into Tibetan art and, in some ways, this work of art reflects the divisions which have typified the relationship of Tibet (today known as Xijang in China) and its neighbour China.

Dreweatts next Asian Sale is on December 2 at Donnington Priory, Newbury.

£200,000 seal sold at Woolley & Wallis

The highest price achieved at Woolley & Wallis’s two day Asian Art sale this week was £200,000 for a Chinese Imperial celadon jade seal. Estimated pre-sale at £30,000-40,000 it galloped well ahead of expectations. Thought to be 19th century, possibly earlier, the seal is 14.5cm. high and 13.5cm. wide and features a finely sculpted crouching dragon.

096 lot woolley wallis

The sale featured just under 900 lots and the total realised was £2.4m. A pair of blue and white Ming-style altar candlesticks, on which pre-sale hopes focused, were sold at £170,000 against an estimate of £80,000=120,000. Comparison with similar objects in public collections internationally would suggest they are Quianlong, probably from the 1740s.

Christies bag top spot with Yongzheng vase


With all of the auctions coinciding with Asian Art in London now concluded, Christies in King Street, St. James’s, London, have sold the most expensive item. Sold on November 5 was a 41cm. high Yongzheng yellow and green enamel vase decorated with bats, flowers and clouds. The price achieved on the hammer was £2.65m. against an estimate of just £200,000-300,000.

By way of provenance, it came with an invoice from New York art dealers C T Loo and dated 1961. There is a similarity to a vase on display in Beijing and it is highly likely it was a piece made for Imperial use. There is a Yongzheng mark to the base (1723-35).

Chinese embroidery embellishes Edinburgh Asian sale

Bonham’s Edinburgh Asian sale (November 13) was marked by some good prices for items of Chinese embroidery and clothing which far exceeded estimates. Lot 139, a large embroidered panel catalogued as South East Asian 19th century fetched £3,500 on the hammer against an estimate of £5-700. Some in the room opined that it was, in fact, Chinese.

Three pairs of mandarin squares together with two single examples were estimated at £3-400 and achieved £2,500, whilst two embroidered silk robes were knocked down at £2,600 (estimate £5-700). A sundry lot of textiles, including an embroidered robe collar, estimated at £2-300, made £1,900.

Prices in other areas were much as expected towards the high end of estimates and, only occasionally exceeding them dramatically.

lot 139 Lot 139 Embroidered panel   £3,500

Meantime, as this sale was going on, Bonhams in Harrogate sold a 1967 Aston Martin for £131,240. It went to a buyer in China, demonstrating just how demand in so many different areas is now being driven, literally and metaphorically by the Chinese market.

Reflections on Asian Art in London

I have just completed three days in London for the eponymous Asian Art in London. Phew!!! as characters in comics tend to observe. My mind is full of images: painted images, grand porcelain, beautiful decorative objects and exquisite miniature items of jade, cinnabar lacquer and pottery. It is difficult to believe that there can be so many beautiful objects in the world.

I guess I went into thirty or forty galleries holding either stock exhibitions or special exhibitions. In some cases, the owners had either partially or wholly vacated their premises to provide a temporary home for foreign exhibitors. But, in most places, it was the time to trundle out your best wares, put your best foot forward and show off. The whole thing seemed terribly worth while. But it was clear that the place to be was Mayfair or, just across Piccadilly, St James’s. There, during the first few days, the pavements seemed to be thronged with foreign buyers, usually in small groups and overwhelmingly Chinese.

The second best place to be was Kensington Church Street with half a dozen specialist galleries showing particularly interesting stock. And, of course, it is not too far away from the un-missable ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 at the V&A.

For those on the peripheries, it was clearly slimmer pickings but in St. James’s and Mayfair you could monitor (from a discrete distance, of course) the pattern, and sometimes pantomime, of complex cross-cultural negotiations. At Sotheby’s in New Bond Street, at the front reception desk, two Chinese buyers make to leave with the catalogue for the following day’s sale. They are arrested in their progress by the posh English voice of one of the receptionists, ‘That will be £25 please.’ ‘We have to pay?’ is the incredulous response. The catalogue is returned to the desk and they leave. I recognise one as a serious buyer . . .

At a gallery, an object in the low five figure range appears to have been successfully negotiated and an American Express card is proffered. ‘Oh, I’m awfully sorry but we don’t take credit cards – either cash or bank transfer.’ Puzzled looks and furrowed brows. ‘What this bank transfer?’ Bank transfers are not terribly well known in China. The frustrated purchasers leave with the vendor’s bank details but I very much doubt whether they will ever be used. The purchase is dead once the customer leaves the gallery empty handed.

I knew nothing about the Chinese way of business when I arrived there in 2001. But I did when I left three years later. Of course by that time I had acquired a Chinese wife and a lot of porcelain. The two were not unconnected. I would like to think I understand rather well the very special and specific needs and attitudes of the Chinese buyer . . .  If you don’t, it is virtually impossible to sell to the Chinese.

The exhibitions which stand out for me are the niche ones. I was delighted by Kaikodo’s Fans of Chinese Painting in a small upstairs room in Old Bond Street. Around thirty exquisite fans from the 14th century to the present day featured, ranging in price from around £8,000 for modern examples to more than 100,000 for rather older examples – I particularly like a Fang Congyi (ca. 1300-1379). Kaikodo was founded in 1983 in Japan (the American owners lived there for 25 years) and moved to 64th Street in New York City in 1996. The operation expanded out of the purely Japanese into Chinese. Every year a rather magnificent Journal is published detailing objects discovered and for sale.

fan26 Fan from Kokaido

One of my favourites has to be Ben Janssen’s Chinese Boxes which was a delightful exposition of the art of the box in sundry media from huanghuali to cinnabar lacquer. I have a soft spot, so to speak, for the increasingly popular cinnabar lacquer small pieces. There were some delightful boxes which brought me to regretting the cinnabar lacquer things I have sold . . .

ChineseBox-Be Janssen Porcelain box at Ben Janssens

Completely new for me were the charming little exhibits in Ko-sometsuke: Chinese Porcelain for the Japanese Market at Jorge Welsh’s Gallery in Kensington Church Street. This represented a painstakingly long odyssey on Jorge’s part in sourcing and building a collection of this very special ware from the early 17th century. Made to Japanese taste, these exquisite porcelain pieces, many created in the shapes of animals and fish, were used in the Japanese tea ceremony.

Catalogue_cover-333x420 Jorge Welsh

Very different from these delicate little objects were the contemporary paintings on view from Michael Goedhuis above Malletts in Dover Street. Delicacy could hardly be the word for The Avant-Garde in China: Ink, Painting and Sculpture. But there were several very dramatic works on show, some also large in scale. I was captivated by the magnificent graphite work by Qiu Jie titled Lijiang (2011). Qiu Jie was born in 1961 and grew up during the bitter years of the Cultural Revolution. As it happens, so did my wife and she was deeply moulded by experiences of that time when homes, art and people were destroyed by the Red Guards. This deeply satirical work, executed with superb draughtsmanship and piercing vision, says much about China and its development over the last thirty or forty years. It deserves to end up in a Museum. A big one.

Michael Goedhuis exhibit482 Qiu Jie at Michael Goedhuis

And back to those niche objects. A wonderful selection of Chinese stands (you can see them at www.chinesestands.com) were to be seen at Fleur de Lys Antiquites in Kensington Church Street. Here Ms Laurence Paul presides over elegant jades and porcelain pieces, not to mention a collection of more than 500 stands ranging in price from £100 to £20,000. Once you’ve lavished thousands, or more, on that very special vase, we all know what you need to show it off to the best advantage . . .

Of course, the theme of Asian Art in London is wider than the field of Chinese art, although it tends to dominate because of the concentration of money in today’s China. The occasion did give me chance, however, to go and see Raquelle Azran’s fine exhibition World’s of Paper and Wood at the Store Street Gallery. She has been twenty years collecting, curating and selling Vietnamese contemporary art (by comparison I have been at for a mere ten years!).  It is still an under-collected area. Perhaps that is all to the good so those of us in the know can continue to indulge ourselves at reasonable price levels.