How to find your way through the global art maze . . .

Book Review

The Global Art Compass: New Directions in 21st Century Art by Alistair Hicks, Thames & Hudson £18.95

Global Art

Alistair Hicks should know his way around the art world. He is Curator to the Deutsche Bank where he buys contemporary art for the Bank’s extensive collection. Extensive is possibly an understatement: it has some 60,000 works of art from all continents. It is difficult not to suspect that to some degree the Bank is hedging its bets and its acquisitions represent investment potential as much as support for artists. Nevertheless, Hicks avers that ‘I am meant to locate art, but also to help others to relate to it.

The world is now global thanks to the digital and communications revolutions. However, rather than making the art world easier to understand, we are assailed by so much information, images from so many places and the requirement to assess so many artists. The object of this new book is to help the reader make his or her way through this confusing panorama. It is not trying to tell you “Why should I like this?” Rather, in Hicks’ words, it “seeks to encourage you to use artists to help you understand yourself and those around you.” He repeats Gombrich’s opening salvo in the ground-breaking The Story of Art (1950), ‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’

The author deals with his mission on a continent-by-continent basis. Approximately a quarter of the 224 pages is given over to Asia. Essentially, he deals with the impact of artists he has come into contact with on a professional basis and there are well known names like Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Quiang, Yan Pei Ming and Wang Qingsong. He is not intimidated by any startling new media. He relates much of new Asian art to the collision of cultures and relates the dramatic fireworks which opened the Beijing Olympics to the tradition of gunpowder drawings. Recent seismic changes in the political and economic structure of China has, he believes, led to dislocation and a growing remoteness from the legacy of the past: the role of the violent and disruptive Cultural Revolution, which features in many artists’ work today, is rightly highlighted. And so, history dominates much of contemporary Chinese art.

I have no real quarrel with the views and assumptions formed by the author. It is a highly useful tool in seeking perspective on the role of art today. However, as an active collector of modern Vietnamese art, I am, of course, disappointed to find that no Vietnamese artist features in the book. That is a failure derived from the ‘personal experience’ model adopted by Hicks. Hopefully, this book will be updated in the future. By that time, I hope Hicks will have found his way to Hanoi and will have discovered the vibrant and exciting work emanating from Vietnam. Strongly influenced by the troubled country’s colonial past, it fits his model.

Global Art 2 Alistair Hicks

Bonhams to sell intriguing jade puzzle

White jade 2

Usually, cataloguing an item for auction does not pose any particular problem. A vase is a vase, a brush pot is a brush pot, and ginger jar is a useful term which covers many options, and there are plenty more terms which might be applied to objects with very specific uses. However, Bonhams have come with a most curious and intriguing item which, well, defies accurate description . . .

Ostensibly, it is a white jade hinge-fitting. But, of course, it is not so pedestrian an item as to actually be a hinge. The precisely constructed elements of this white jade hinge-fitting, made for the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795), might have served to remind him of his duty to be scrupulous and precise in his own rule. This beautiful object, estimated at £200,000 to £300,000, is in Bonhams sale of Fine Chinese Art on May 15th in London.

Scholars still do not know the precise meaning of this culturally intriguing object. Bearing a Qianlong six-character fang gu mark, and of the period, the pure white stone is of exceptional clarity, unusually carved with two rectangular hollowed tubes, each of the wider sides carved in mirror image to suggest an archaistic mask.

The hinge-fitting embodies much of the artistic and historical pre-occupations of the Qianlong period. Carved from exceptionally fine and lustrous white stone, with even the minor flaws most cleverly incorporated into the scrollwork, the thinly hollowed supremely challenging, yet technically flawless, piece is representative of the highest skill of the 18th century craftsman. Furthermore it falls into a group of jade pieces carved with the Qianlong fanggu mark, specifically carved with archaistic designs inspired by archaic bronzes, to reflect the concerns of the Qianlong Emperor with drawing moral strength and righteousness from the examples of the ancients.
A few examples of jade pieces designed to the same specifications as the present lot are preserved in the most prestigious museum collections, including a white jade piece in the Palace Museum, Beijing.

White jade 3

The design has been and remains, to scholars, collectors and curators, a most intriguing puzzle. The form has ancient origins, and its ancient bronze prototype can be found in the Catalogue of Xiqing Antiquities, which was an illustrated catalogue of ancient bronzes in the Imperial Collection, completed in 1751. However even the cataloguers could not describe the bronze prototype other than as a ‘Han Dynasty ornament’ and to state that the two tubes are movable.
It is interesting to compare the present lot and those in museum collections with another white jade hinged piece which is further unusual in being inscribed with an Imperial poem. The poem appears to refer to the jade piece as a ‘ruler’ to be used to ‘compare lengths’ with ‘precisely fitting workmanship’. This pre-occupation with the idea of measuring is also connected to the idea of the benevolent ruler who is guided well.

This is a vastly intriguing little piece and it will be interesting to see how it fares on March 15. Perhaps somebody knows better than the rest of us what it is all about.

White jade

BADA busy but few Chinese . . . nodding figures unsold

The organisers of the British Antique Dealers Association Fair, which took place in London’s Chelsea district, and which has just closed, have pronounced themselves well pleased with the outcome of the event. Visitor numbers were up by 5.7% over 2013 at 18,500. Many dealers claimed record sales and the general feeling was that the market was coming back from its recent low point.

Traditional buyers of English antiques were out in force – the first day was particularly busy. There was also a good sprinkling of celebrities ranging from Charles Saatchi to Bob Geldof and Julie Christie.

There were, however, very few Asian visitors and that probably explains why what seemed to us to be an absolutely sensational exhibit was still unsold at the end of the Fair. We had the opportunity to closely examine the pair of Canton export ‘nodding figures’ on the Frank Partridge stand. Thought to date from 1760, they are unusual objects of quite stunning beauty (see our previous story), in excellent condition. What is particularly notable about them, in our view, is the extraordinary realism in the making of the faces which are exquisitely beautiful. They may sound expensive at £85,000 for the pair, but, in our view, they constitute a rare opportunity to acquire two pieces of outstanding craftsmanship.

We understand they were acquired in France by Partridges and that they needed ‘very little’ in the way of restoration.

nodding figures

The next BADA event will take place March – 24 2015.

Unusual Chinese art image 16 So Hing-Keung


Photo courtesy So Hing-Kueng

This striking image is of Hong Kong artist So Hing-Kueng (1995-6). He is currently participating in an exhibition in Hong Kong, alongside fellow artists Wucius Wong, Tsang Kin-Wah and Chow Chun-Fai, and, unlikely as it may sound, Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio. It is part of an ambitious project by Hong Kong’s Asia Society which has decided to place masterwork by the renowned 16-17th century artist alongside some of the best contemporary painters in Hong Kong. the ambitious exposition seeks to show how even Hong Kong artists working today echo the works of Caravaggio, and to show the oft unknown links between East and West, past and present. The exhibition aims to encourage more than 40,000 visitors.

Prices remain firm at Bonhams Edinburgh

Although there no sensationally high prices at Bonhams Edinburgh on March 26, many interesting lots achieved results way in excess of expectations. Lot 268, a large famille rose punch bowl, estimated pre-sale at £500-700, achieved £3,800 hammer despite two pronounced cracks. It was, indeed, very pretty and was almost certainly 18th century.  One of our favourites (Lot 142) was a banded agate bowl, thinly carved and containing natural whorls. There was no other information on it, estimated at £100-200, but it leapt away, on account of its prettiness, to £1,000.

A jade-mounted hand mirror catalogued as ’19th century but using earlier jade’ was also remarkably attractive and it easily made £4,000 as against its £500-800 estimate.

lot 148 jade mirror

Jade mounted hand mirror

Another, this time early 19th century, punchbowl, slightly unusual in having been produced for the Near Eastern market as opposed to the Western one, took £4,000. At 39.5cm. diameter it was quite large and in very good condition.

lot 274 punch bowl

Export punchbowl for the near Eastern market

One of the highest prices in the sale was for a majestic pair of Cantonese export floor vases, ca. 1850, which were, indeed, impressive, each standing to 104cm. including wooden stand. A hammer price of £8,200 for the pair seemed quite modest.

lot 297 pair vases

An impressive pair of floor vases

One lot illustrated just how prices can vary dramatically from sale to sale. A very pretty huanghuali table top display stand (most probably 20th century) which very recently ground to a halt at just under £2,000 at another auction house, achieved a very respectable £4,200. The vendor must have been rather pleased . . . we were, also, as we chose it as our Object of Desire, the first time it was exposed.

lot 336 huanghuali stand

A huanghuali table top display stand


Megadeal secures ‘Min’ Fanglei archaic bronze

It was scheduled to be sold in public yesterday by Christie’s in a single lot sale. It was, indeed, sold March 19, a day early, and the sale was by secret, private treaty. All we know is that this extraordinary piece, an archaic Western Zhou (possibly Shang) bronze known as the ‘Min’ Fanglei, or square piece, was sold for a figure in excess of US$20m. (yes, twenty million US dollars).

min fanglei

It was previously sold at Christie’s in New York in March 2001 for US$9m, then a record for a Chinese archaic bronze. The purchaser was rumoured to have been an Italian collector who has just died. His wife offered it for sale. That means a tremendous profit on the piece over a period of thirteen years: a profit which reflects the soaring prices for many categories of Chinese art, especially for fine Western Zhou pieces.

This particular piece is a massive bronze ritual wine vessel, reckoned to be one of the finest to ever come on the market. It was estimated pre-sale at US$15m. and an offer was made in the last few days of $20m. This was rejected by the owner and, accordingly, we understand, the successful bid was well in excess of $20m.

It has been bought, it is understood, by a group of wealthy collectors, many of whom come from, or have interests in, China’s Hunan Province. They have agreed, it is said, to donate the piece to the Hunan Museum which already possesses a lid, thought to be from this particular vessel, and which is rich in fine Western Zhou works.

The provenance is excellent. It has been owned or handled by many illustrious collectors: A W Bahr, C F Yau and C T Loo among them.

‘As long as it’s Chinese, I’ll collect it’

Reading a back number of The New York Times recently, I was intrigued to see an interesting quote from the Shanghai billionaire businessman, Liu Yiqian.  Asked what category of art he was engaged in acquiring, he replied bluntly: “I don’t have a specialisation. As long as it’s Chinese, I’ll collect it.”

liu yiqian Liu Yiqian

Courtesy BBC

As I don’t know Mr Yiqian, I was driven to wonder if he was some sort of an eccentric who lived in a suitably large house, or palace, indeed, stacked to the rafters with piles of blue and white plates, ginger jars by the thousand and walls crammed floor to ceiling with ink paintings, calligraphy and ancestral portraits . . .

I have to admit that this mental image couldn’t have been more wrong. Mr Yiqian and his wife, Wang Wei, might have been extremely active collectors for more than twenty years, but there is nothing disorganised or random about their buying. According to some reports, they have spent between 300 and 400 million dollars (equivalent) on the best: the best ranging from ancient porcelains and jades to the work of the best contemporary Chinese artists. They may buy rather a lot, but they only buy the best . . .

liu yiian and wife today

Liu Yiqian and his wife, Wang Wei

Indeed, they have bought so much over the years, that they have had to build their own museums to house their art. In 2012, they opened the Long Museum, which was then China’s largest privately-owned museum: an ultra-modern 10,000 square meter granite-square building near to the Shanghai New International Expo Centre. There are regular contemporary art shows on a grand scale; on the second floor are revolutionary artworks and ‘Red-classic’ paintings from the recent bygone era; and the third floor contains a permanent exhibition hall for Chinese artifacts . . .

liu long museum

Long Museum, Interior, conference room

The taste of Mr Yiqian and his wife is not random, just all-encompassing. They want the best, and have the funds to acquire rather a lot of it . . . in that, they are not too untypical of the expanding number of Chinese billionaires. That can only be good news for the Chinese art market.

Bronze censer turns up the heat at Dreweatts

An apparently unassuming bronze censer, catalogued as ‘Chinese style’, was sold at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury’s March 12 sale at Donnington Priory, for a figure well in excess of its modest estimate of £200-300. The squat, bulbous censer, resting on tripod form legs, was sold in the room, after a bidding battle took it to £8,060, inclusive of buyer’s premium.

Dreweatts bronze censer

The 29cm. diameter censer boasted a six character Xuande mark and obviously appeared to buyers to be of the period, although the auctioneers modestly claimed it for the late 19th or 20th century. The rim was well decorated with dragons pursuing flaming pearls amidst clouds. Xuande censers are often regarded as representing the very peak of the art of the censer.

The provenance was equally interesting as it came from Nunney Court, Wiltshire. The house was formerly the residence of Mr Rob Walker of Formula One’s eponymous Racing Team. Mr Walker was the heir of whisky mogul Johnnie Walker.

The censer was sold in the room to a UK bidder.

Rare pair of Cantonese ‘nodding figures’ for sale at BADA

nodding figures

An extremely rare pair of Cantonese export so-called ‘nodding figures’ will be available for purchase at the annual fair of The British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA) in London (, which runs from March 19-25 at Duke of York Square in Chelsea.

The two figures, dating from the Quianlong period, will be available from the Frank Partridge stand ( The polychrome decorated figures, of a mandarin and his female consort, have lead weighted nodding heads and Partridges point out that a number of Chinese figures of this type were displayed in the corridor of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Such figures enjoyed something of a vogue in Britain and Europe during the second half of the 18th century and were imported from Canton in relatively large numbers from the 1780s. The Prince of Wales (later George IV) is said to have sparked the ‘craze’ when he created his Chinese drawing room in Carlton House, and the Oriental interiors at the Brighton Pavilion.

The figures for sale are 56cm. in height and are mounted on the original moulded giltwood base.

The BADA Fair, an annual event, is the leading event of its type and all entries are strictly vetted.

Guru Battie defends ivory in letter to HRH

The high profile, renowned expert on Chinese and Japanese art, David Battie, possibly best known as TV guru on The Antiques Road Show, has written an open letter to HRH Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge, imploring him not to destroy historical ivory pieces in the Royal Collection. His important letter is reproduced below, courtesy The Antiques Trade Gazette which published it yesterday.

We have published several articles recently on the threat to future trade in important historical ivory pieces ( Battie’s call comes against drastic new restrictions on the trade in the US emanating direct from the White House and Prince William’s public campaign to halt any trade in ivory.

The feeling in the antique trade is generally that proposed moves will simply drive up the prices of surviving pieces which will then be forced into a black market. This, in turn, will simply serve to increase the demand for unprocessed ivory and actually harm the campaign to save the African elephant.

As Battie trenchantly put it this week, “Burning the art of our grandparents is not the solution.”

battie letter to HRH on ivory579

Courtesy Antiques Trade Gazette March 15 2014

doctor figure

Ultimately bound for the crusher? An interesting early 19th century Chinese doctor’s ivory figure used in consultations. To be sold next week by Thomson Roddick Scottish Auctions in Edinburgh

Unusual Chinese art images 15 Liu Ding

Liu Ding

Beijing installation artist Liu Ding is interested in exploring the way that values are created in the art world. This work comes from  his Sample series: it is said, he hired ordinary factory workers to create their own versions of the same picture as if working on an assembly line. As the viewer looks at the range of images produced, ideas of value are challenged. The display and its context are in themselves very challenging and more than a little cynical.

Missing Chinese artists remembered through their work

KL exhibition

At the exhibition held in Kuala Lumpur March 2-6  Photo courtesy NEWS.CN

Names of some of the artists have now been released. We remember them through examples of their work.

Dong Guowei

Dong Guowei

Liu Rusheng

Liu Rusheng  Courtesy Artron

Liu Zhongfu

Liu Zhongfu  Courtesy Artron

Lou Baotang

Lou Baotang

Mehmet Abula painting

Mehmet Abula

Wang Linshi

Wang Linshi

Yao Jianfeng

       Yao Jianfeng

Zhang Jinquan

Zhang Jinquan

Zhao Zhaofang

Zhao Zhaofang  Courtesy Artron