Ai Weiwei breaks auction record with bronze animal heads

Circle of Animals Zodiac Heads Ai Weiwei

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei  Photo courtesy Phillips Auctioneers

A group of 12 large bronze animal heads by China’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei this week led Phillips’s 18.2 million pound ($28.6 million) contemporary art evening auction in London.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, which depicts the signs of the ancient Chinese zodiac, fetched 3.4 million pounds on Monday June 29, within its presale estimate of 3 million pounds to 5 million pounds but setting an auction record for the artist. It was also the top-selling lot in the sale.

The auction took place as global equities slumped amid concerns over fallout from Greece’s financial crisis. However, the art market did not appear to be concerned about global economic problems. It was the first of three big contemporary evening auctions in London this week, from Sotheby’s and Christie’s as well as Phillips.

The 50-lot sale’s tally exceeded the low estimate of 17.2 million pounds and was an 84 percent increase from Phillips’s auction a year ago, when 23 lots totaled 9.9 million pounds.

Ai’s animal heads are displayed on individual stands, with the largest piece, a rooster, at 12.5-feet-tall. The 2010 work, which is the first in an edition of six, has been exhibited at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 2010, New York’s Pulitzer Fountain near Central Park in 2011 and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington in 2012.

Ai’s previous auction record of 2.9 million pounds was set in February, also at Phillips, for a smaller, gold-plated version of the 12 zodiac animals. Set in the context of Ai Weiwei’s more challenging works, the Zodiac head series are rather more conservative and, indeed, appealing to the traditional collector.


What’s going on in the Chinese art market?

opinion hl

Something is wrong in the Chinese art market. A few commentators predict complete meltdown. Others point to continued high prices. And most people are scratching their heads and wondering about the unpredictability manifest in the auction market.

Lack of information about the strength or otherwise of private and gallery sales means that most observers are driven to looking at auction records. These are, at best, unreliable when attempting to gauge what is actually going on. The number of lots unsold at some auctions recently was disappointing: more than 50% at Lyon & Turnbull’s recent June sale; 41% unsold at Bonhams, Kinghtsbridge; 40% without a home at Sotheby’s New Bond Street ‘Important Chinese Art’. At the same time, the actual totals in money terms of many of the recent sales exceed those achieved year on year. What is notable is that the very best lots are attracting more money than ever before.

There are a few factors which have sought to undermine the lower and middle market this year. The most significant one is to be found back in China itself. All the Chinese dealers we know in places like Beijing and Shanghai, where wealth is most evident, are complaining about the partial, if not total, disappearance of their important customers. This represents a tangible manifestation of the effect of the anti-corruption and tax evasion drive energetically launched by President XI Jinping. It used to be that Chinese officials in their millions gratefully received gifts in return for little favours: speeding up a planning application, dumping some parking tickets or, even, allowing indiscriminate commercial development in their own little area of local political influence.

All those Ming bowls and vases, glistening jades and elegant jewels are no longer being bought for gifts. This has effected large areas of the middle and lower market. Here in the UK, the auctioneers themselves are running scared. As the Antiques Trade Gazette put it this week in its current issue, ‘the Chinese market is awash with fakes’. We think that is overstating the case somewhat but there can be little doubt that there is a large quantity of very well produced fakes being offered to auction houses and, in turn, being offered to their customers. The problem very much is that the auctioneers can no longer tell between the originals and the fakes: the fakes are that good. There is, however, an upside to this. Some very fine pieces, under-catalogued or catalogued with caveats like ‘probably later’ or ‘a later copy’, are slipping through at auction at a fraction of their real price. Of course, they are bought without that vital ingredient: provenance.

Provenance implies that you can prove a piece came from a great house in the country, can be shown to have been looted from the Summer Palace or was sold to your Uncle Bill by a starving local as he came back from the Japanese War. You need a bloody good story these days to place a piece with most auction houses. In the absence of being able to dream up a wealthy (preferably titled) gin-sodden granny who spent her life in a hammock somewhere out East, you are stuffed.

Eventually, this provenance thing will go away. For a start, there are very, very few things left with real provenance. The great houses of England were emptied long ago by death duties and the lack of heirs after two World Wars. Most of the great collections built up in the early part of the 20th century have been dispersed. Provenance is being demanded because there is insecurity operating. At the moment there is something of a lacuna in expertise. Just as Britain and the US lacked analysts and linguists in the wake of 9/11, there aren’t that many experts on Chinese art left alive in the UK.

So we will have to go back to assessing an object using the old values: on the basis of its craftsmanship, aesthetic appeal and, the old failsafe, gut reaction. Meantime, the market might be in recession right at the moment but, remember, there are around one and a half billion Chinese out there and the middle class is growing at a simply formidable rate. Most of them are going to want a little chunk of their own past. If it looks the part, it will find a home.

Chinese exhibits, buyers and media all seen at Olympia summer Fair

The Ajassa Arte Antica Cines stand at the Olympia International Art & Antiques Fair

The Ajassa Arte Antica Cines stand at the Olympia International Art & Antiques Fair

At the June 18 private view of this summer’s Olympia International Art & Antiques Fair many Chinese orientated exhibits, Chinese buyers and, even, Chinese media were all in evidence.

Exhibitors with strong Chinese exhibits included Turin-based Ajassa Antica, who exhibited at Olympia twice last year; a combined exhibit of Chinese porcelain and works of art by a group of Oriental dealers from Kensington Church Street, a noted centre for the genre; and Paul M Peters Ltd of Harrogate, Yorkshire. Peters, established for almost 50 years in the Yorkshire spa town, showed Chinese and Japanese antiques, as well as some European ceramics and objets d’art.

 The Paul M Peters stand at Olympia

The Paul M Peters stand at Olympia

There were many Chinese buyers visible in the aisles and on the stands, clearly taking advantage of the private view day. Additionally, Chinese Television were in evidence interviewing the organisers and exhibitors with Chinese items on their stands.

Tang Dynasty statue, Ajassa Antica stand

Tang Dynasty statue, Ajassa Antica stand

At the upcoming November 2-8 Winter Art & Antiques Fair the Chinese presence promises to  be even more pronounced. Shanghai-based sculptor Chen Dapeng has booked a very large 197 sq. m. stand at which some 40 of his impressive sculptures will be exhibited. Notable Chinese public figures will be accompanying him to the Fair to launch his exhibit with a champagne opening within the Fair’s own opening on the evening of November 2. Organisers of his exhibit, Paul Harris Asia Arts (, promise “something very special” at the event as a new sculpture, a gift of the Chinese people to the UK, is unveiled.

The The Olympia International Art & Antiques (summer) Fair runs until June 28.

Art Antiques London features three Asian Art in London participants


A general view of the stand at Art Antiques London featuring three participants in this year’s Asian Art in London event. Foreground: two soldier Chinese vases available from Gibson Antiques at £300,000.                       Photo Paul Harris

The Art Antiques London exhibition, in tented accommodation in Kensington Gardens, and which has run from June 12 and ends June 18, features a number of exhibitors selling Asian art, including three participants in this year’s Asian Art in London. Last year, Asian Art in London had a pavilion within the fair featuring a wider spread of participants but, this year, just three showed a range of Asian art: Gibson Antiques, Berwald Oriental Art (both showing mainly Chinese ceramics) and Jacqueline Simcox (textiles).


Alastair Gibson of Gibson Antiques pictured at Art Antiques London  Photo Paul Harris

Other exhibitors with Asian antiques included Luis Alegria LDA (Porto, Portugal), Marchant (Kensington Church Street, London), Laura Bordignon (Japanese), and D & M Freedman (Japanese and Chinese ceramics and paintings).

Art Antiques London describes itself as ‘the jewel in the Crown’ of the London summer season. It most certainly enjoys an unrivalled location and ambience in Kensington Gardens, a stone’s throw from The Royal Albert Hall. As all the major exhibition organisers get increasingly sophisticated, the organisers, Anna and Brian Haughton, pay great attention to those details which enhance an exhibition: from the learned lecture programme which accompanies the event to the exquisite toilet accommodation which must surely be the best of any event!


Lion dog finial gracing one of the two soldier vases available from Gibson Antiques.                  Photo Paul Harris

Mixed fortunes for L&T at Crosshall Manor

866 Top seller at £80,000

The second day of Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull’s 2-day Asian Sale today saw mixed fortunes at what is developing as their southern outpost at Crosshall Manor, St. Neots, Cambridgeshire. Although the sale saw many unsold lots in the mid and lower levels, most of the ‘quality’ items up for sale found new homes at respectable prices.

Unlike last December’s sale, when a modest little Kangxi vase soared unexpectedly to around the £300,000 mark, there were no such breath taking occurrences. Lee Young, Head of the Asian Department, professed himself pleased with the overall result of the sale which, it would appear, was well in excess of £1m. However, he admitted it was often ‘difficult’ when it came to returning unsold lots.

It seems that the market itself has changed dramatically from last year when comparatively modest pieces of blue and white flew away. Buyers are now more cautious and whilst there is always a home for an outstanding piece, less immediately desirable lots are struggling. There may be a number of factors at play: there is a pronounced downturn in the market in China itself and the multiplicity of Asian sales is emptying the pockets of Chinese buyers. Over the last month, there have been Asian Art events in London, New York and Hong Kong. Indeed, L& T themselves are just returned from Hong Kong where they exhibited at the Hong Kong Art & Antiques Fair at the end of May. “We met several new buyers as a result and a good proportion of the high value lots sold today went to new clients we met there.”

Today, telephone and internet bidders, in that order, dominated the room. When the sale started, there were just nine members of the buying public in the room. Buyers were heavily outnumbered by L&T staff manning the phones and the computers. Last December, virtually every chair was taken.

There were solid prices for the best. A Yongzheng ruby-ground famille rose peony bowl achieved the top price of £80,000 hammer (estimate £80-120,000), and a rhinoceros horn libation cup got £74,000. As we wrote before, there were three exceptional oils by Chen Yanning (born 1945). Two failed to sell but a fine painting of two girls entitled ‘Serenity’ sold for £60,000, against an estimate of £80,000-120,000.


Chen Yanning’s ‘Serenity’: sold for £60,000

Although a large number of lots sold around the bottom estimate, there were some that roared away against expectations. Lot 730, an iron red dragon bottle vase with Daoguang mark and of the period, estimated at £6,000-8,000, was finally knocked down at £70,000 after a long, extended bidding process. Eventually a bidder from China on the telephone appeared to tire of the slow bidding in increments of £2,000. At £42,000 he placed a kill-all closing bid of £70,000!


Daoguang mark  and period dragon vase: £70,000

L & T fine modern Chinese paintings on offer at Crosshall Manor

Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull have a group of interesting Chinese paintings by an accomplished contemporary artist coming up for sale on Tuesday at Crosshall Manor, St. Neots, some 50 miles north of London. They are to offer for sale a collection of three paintings by artist Chen Yanning (born 1945) in the upcoming Fine Asian Works of Art auction on 16 June 2015.  The works are in a strong realist tradition which will appeal to buyers who are not attracted to so-called ‘cutting edge’ modern works but who rather cherish traditional, painterly skills.

The paintings have come from Susan and Michael Gassaway, owners of the Syllavethy Gallery, Aberdeenshire, who have something of a fascinating background with Chen Yanning. They first met Chen Yanning on a trip to China in 1984, when he was Head of the Guangdong Institute of Fine Art. To reciprocate his hospitality, Susan and Michael invited Yanning to visit the UK to view some of the Old Masters of Western Art that he had only seen in books back in China.

Two years later, Yanning arrived in Aberdeen and together with Susan and Michael, he visited the museums in Scotland and London. (Yanning, it is recorded, made the museum attendants nervous as he wanted to get up close to study the thickness of paint on his favourite masterpieces!) He, Susan and Michael communicated by using sign language and drawing sketches and quickly established a great friendship.

CHEN YANNING (B. 1945)  STILT-HOUSE  oil on canvas


Yanning was invited to visit the US in the Eighties. When he decided to remain there, Susan and Michael offered to support him by finding portrait commissions for him in the UK. With hard work they amassed a fine collection of portrait commissions from a very wide variety of people, from those who scraped together the money because they so admired Yanning’s talent, to dignitaries including the Lord Mayor of London, Richard Branson, all the Body Shop family and the Royal Family including the Queen, Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne. Yanning’s portrait of the Queen was subsequently used by Royal Mail for the Jubilee Year stamp.

Susan made all the arrangements for portrait sittings, from booking flights, to hotels and sittings, often several in different parts of the UK during one trip. She accompanied Yanning as the driver and Jill-of-all fixer. During the sessions, Susan would chat to the sitters placing herself in their direct line of their vision so that they moved as little as possible and Yanning could concentrate on his work. This is a very exceptional friendship going far beyond a mere business association.

During his career, Yanning’s paintings have been acquired by major museums including the Chinese National Gallery, the Museum of Chinese History and the West Australian National Gallery and elsewhere around the world. His paintings have also been selected for the Chinese National Art Exhibition, the Paris Salon, and others around the world including Australia, Japan, Canada and Brazil.

Yanning’s exposure to Eastern and Western influence has come to define his unique style and accomplishment, which continues to achieve a broad appeal; this collection of paintings (as pictured) is anticipated to spark interest amongst Chinese contemporary art collectors and galleries around the globe.

CHEN YANNING (B. 1945)  SERENITY  oil on canvas


Will these be the most expensive milk bottles in the world?

A pair of extremely rare porcelain milk bottles, dating back to the Chinese Communist era of Mao Tse Tung, are being offered by Chiswick Auctions in their upcoming Asian Art sale on September 1 2015.

Milk bottles lr

Thickly potted, with a swelling body, a thick neck and slightly flaring mouth, and covered overall with a thick creamy white glaze, with stencilled lettering in underglaze cobalt blue reading “Beijing City Milk Company, Chao Niu Yoghurt”. The bottles, which measure 11cm high, date to the 1960s when China was under the rule of Chairman Mao Tse Tung.

“So-called ‘Communist era’ material is experiencing a revival with contemporary designers plastering Communist slogans over everything from T-shirts to kitchen towels,” Chiswick’s Asian Art specialist, Lazarus Halstead explains, “But what makes this pair special is that, despite its utilitarian form, it is an exclusive and elite object from the heart of Communist China which tells a unique story.”

The pieces come from the collection of a diplomatic family. The present owner acquired the milk bottles as a child living with diplomatic parents in Beijing in the 1960s. At the time milk was strictly rationed available only to a select few foreign diplomats and government officials from the highest ranks of the Communist party. The bottles, property of the State, would never normally have been kept and their survival is the result purely of a young child’s whim.

The pieces will be offered with a very cautious estimate of £100 – £200. If you manage to get them for that, you might well be the cat that gets the cream . . .

Who am I? Lyon & Turnbull Asian Sale teaser

SONY DSC L&T at Crosshall Manor last December

Following upon last December’s sensationally successful event, Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull ( return to Crosshall Manor, St Neots, Cambridgeshire for another sale June 15-16. This time around, it is a mammoth two day sale: almost 700 lots of Chinese and Japanese ceramics, pictures and other collectables on Day 2; and 249 lots from a private, single owner collection on Day One.

Items in the single owner collection are quite modestly estimated and it could provide an opportunity to acquire some attractive and previously carefully selected objects. The first day’s sale is lyrically entitled ‘The Considered Eye’, in tribute to the anonymous collector of the objects on sale: the family have requested anonymity, so L&T have written a rather teasing introduction to the catalogue with much information about the erstwhile owner but no actual name.

It’s a little bit like a Victorian parlour game: Who am I? Well, there are quite a number of interesting  clues. Presumably, the owner in question is deceased. He probably died during his ’70s or ’80s having been collecting for forty years ca. 1970-2010. We learn he travelled, presumably to China, during the 1970s. He collected Oriental art but also had been or was interested in European porcelain and early bronzes, English silver and coins and modern and contemporary art.

He patronised Douglas J K Wright Ltd Oriental Art from 1974 onwards, bought jade and visited the painted enamel exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in 1978. Later, in 1986, he visited Chinese Works of Art from the Scholar’s Study at Spink & Son in New York; also Spink’s exhibitions in London 1983-89.

He was born in the month of the crab and travelled extensively acquiring Oriental objects. In the UK, there were frequent visits to the BM, the V&A and the Ashmolean. Later, there would be a trip to Japan which had the effect of broadening the scope of the collection. He collected the works of the Japan-based French printmaker Paul Jacoulet.

Well, not too difficult is it? Answers by email, with your address, before June 13 to The first email with the likely correct answer will win a bottle of Moet Chandon!

Wucai dragon & phoenix baluster vases

Lot 55 A pair of wucai ‘Dragon and Phoenix’ baluster vases, Wanli mark but 18th or 19th century.  Est £5,000-8,000.

Taipei’s National Palace Museum suffers acute congestion

Taipei’s National Palace Museum, which we visited three weeks ago, is suffering from a serious problem: acute congestion. Local school parties fight it out for a place in the galleries with hordes of visiting mainland Chinese. Other locals and foreigners feel it to be a distinct squeeze as they battle it out with the escorted parties.

National Palace Museum (6)

A mainland Chinese party fights for space on the stairs at The National Palace Museum

Photo Paul Harris

The National Palace Museum houses possibly the best collection of Chinese ceramics to be found anywhere. Most of the collection derives from the Forbidden City in Peking. The best of the Palace Collection there was shipped off to Nanjing in the mid-1930s in the face of the Japanese invasion: some 2,000 crates of treasures were loaded onto carts drawn by bullocks and motorised lorries. When the Japanese approached Nanjing, the collection was further dispersed to many locations in central China. In 1945, most of the pieces were returned to Nanjing, where they were painstakingly catalogued. Eventually, in 1947, as the Nationalist resistance to Mao’s Communist forces ebbed away, General Chang Kai Shek ordered some 697,000 items from the Imperial collection to be shipped to Keelung in what was then known as Formosa (present day Taiwan).

In 1965, the present National Palace Museum was opened in a purpose-built building on the outskirts of Taipei. At any one time, there are only some 3,000 items actually on display but a series of revolving exhibitions mean that items are constantly being put on show from stocks held in places of safety. Currently, there are exhibitions of blue and white ceramics, jardinières and planters, and representations of birds and animals in painting and embroidery.

It is said that up to 60,000 visitors a day make their way to The National Palace Museum, which must represent full capacity. Our tip: on Friday and Saturday nights, the Museum is open until 9pm. On those evenings the crowd melts away as people either lurk at home or go out for family dinners. It’s the only sensible time to visit!