Chiswick Auctions have announced a sale on May 15 dedicated to Chinese paintings. Following recent successes in the field of Chinese paintings, including the Buckman Collection (total sales £55,000), the Aldrick Collection (total sales £31,000) and Pearson Collection (total sales £24,156) all with 100% sell through rates, they have just announced their inaugural specialist paintings sale with one by Qi Baishi heading up the event.
Qi Baishi: prolific and controversial
Qi Baishi (1864-1957) is a controversial artist and assessment, and valuation, of his work isalmost always tricky, to put it mildly. Works ascribed to him can vary in price from just a few hundred pounds to a record US$65.4m. This extremely high figure was the hammer price in Beijing in May 2011 for ‘Eagle on a Pine Tree’. The vendor was the renowned taxi driver and handbag seller turned collector and gallerist from Shanghai, Mr Liu Yixian. Celebrations for the high price achieved were aborted after the purchaser read a critique by a well known authority of his new acquisition in the Beijing press alleging it to be a forgery. It was never paid for and, so far as we know, it still lurks in Yixian’s extensive collection.
Eagle in a Pine Tree
Attribution of works to Qi Baishi is rendered difficult both by the very large numbers of copies – actually forgeries – which abound and also the techniques employed in his own studio. As a result of the high demand which existed for his work towards the end of his life, virtually his entire (and very large) family worked in his studio adding features to his work. Exactly how much of a later picture is the work of the master is much confused by these well known studio practices.
Bees and Chrysanthemums
It is difficult to pass an opinion on ‘Bees and Chrysanthemums’ which will be sold May 15 from the collection of David Chipp (1927-2008). It is an attractive enough picture and Chiswick have put a very modest estimate of just £20,000-30,000 on it. Effectively, they are allowing the market to decide and potential purchasers will doubtless be seeking out Qi Baishi experts. The painting was certainly done at the very end of the artist’s life: Chipp was recommended to buy it by his translator when he was working in China for Reuters news agency during the period 1956-60.
Clearly, the old adage applies, caveat emptor.
Top end Chinese art dealer Jorge Welsh, who is based in London’s Kensington Church Street and in Lisbon, will be showing two very large and magnificent so-called ‘soldier vases’ at the upcoming edition of TEFAF in Maastricht. These large vases (140cm. in height) are what auctioneers usually term ‘massive’. However, they are not just massive. They are also wonderfully decorated and are thought to be from the period 1750-55 during the Qianlong dynasty. They are meticulously decorated in overglaze polychrome enamels and gold.
Not only were such vases difficult to successfully decorate and fire, but they also took up a lot of room on board the ships whch exported them to Europe. Accordingly, they were always very expensive. This particular pair bears the coat of arms of the Spanish nobleman Francisco Jose de Ovando y Solis and would have been made to order.
The descriptive term ‘soldier vases’ came into use in the early 18th century. In 1717, Frederick Augustus Strong (1670-1733), the Elector of Saxony and a passionate collector of Chinese export porcelain, traded an entire regiment of 600 soldiers for 18 such vases from Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia.
They are still made today in Jingdezhen, China. These days, however, you can pick one up for US$300 or so. Not quite the same thing, of course.
Modern ‘soldier vases’ lined up for shipping from Jingdezhen. 2015 photograph by Paul Harris.
Long-established auctioneers in the Scottish Borders Swan and Turner, in Jedburgh, held their last sale on Saturday February 11. The saleroom was packed with buyers sometimes paying extraordinary prices before the gavel fell for the last time on Lot 793, an Edwardian Lady’s Writing Desk.
There are still many grand houses in the Scottish borderland with unplundered collections. One house had given up a fair number of Chinese lots for which there was stiff competition between public, dealers and telephone bidders. A fairly ordinary Kangxi ginger jat soared to £650 but the high prices were reserved for ivory pieces.
A quite exceptionally well carved set of two small ivory panels, which fitted together to form an Imperial purse, well exceeded their estimate in the low hundreds to get £2,600 on the hammer.
Even the imminent threat of a comprehensive ban on ivory does not, apparently, deter buyers when it comes to high quality, exquisitely carved pieces like this.
The closure of a successful and profitable firm like Swan & Turner operating on the High Street of busy Jedburgh seems regrettable. The firm clearly had access to good, saleable lots and an extensive clientele amidst the well-heeled Borders inhabitants. End of lease was being quoted as the reason for closure but it seems likely other factors were involved.
The organisers of Asian Art in London (AAL) have announced a prime location for the 2017 Gala Party: at the newly opened Hutong Gallery at the British Museum. It will take place on Thursday November 9 and, as usual, will be a strictly ticket-only event characterised by the free flow of champagne. This will be the 20th anniversary year for AAL and the BM will most likely be a rather more popular locus than last year’s Soho event which took place in somewhat Spartan surroundings.
AAL runs from November 2-11 2017. In a break from previous practice, the Gala Party will take place towards the end of the ten day event, rather than at the beginning. Those who would normally head to London for the beginning of AAL may now, rather, hang back so as to combine the meet and greet opportunities of the Gala Party with their daytime visits. It is possible that the organisers have made a decision to try and avoid the ‘tailing off’ of the event after the first seven days by holding back on the popular gathering.
There are no further details of exhibitors or events at this early stage.
Flashback to last year’s Gala Party addressed by Roger Keverne Photo Paul Harris
It didn’t take long before 2017 saw the first mega-price for a piece of Chines art. On January 19, a rare altar vase catalogued as Republic (20th century) soared 150 times over estimate to reach £252,000 (plus buyer’s premium, VAT and the rest) at Lawrence’s in Crewkerne, Somerset.
The rather peculiar looking vase which soared beyond a quarter of a million pounds at Lawrences of Crewkerne. Picture courtesy Lawrences
Although it bore the mark of Emperor Jaiqing (1796-1820), the auctioneers cautiously ascribed it to the Republic period: increasingly, large numbers of ‘doubtful’ lots at auction are being ascribed to this ‘catch all’ period, replete with copies but also harboring its own gems. In this instance, the market decided that the vase, in excellent condition and bearing a convincing mark to the base, must be Jiaqing of the period.
Even so, a hammer price of just over a quarter of a million was an exceptional price for a Jiaqing piece. The vase had sat on a mantlepiece in Wiltshire for some thirty years before the owner sent it to Lawrence’s. The vendor was the descendant of a solicitor who had worked in Shanghai during the early part of the 20th century.
Such rare altar vases are known as ‘benbaping’, and are generally regarded as ritual vessels commissioned by the Qing court for ceremonial use in temples and palaces. Doubtless, it was this possible Imperial connection which signalled lift off for this particular rather peculiar-looking piece. It was bought by a Hong Kong dealership.
Expect more surprises during 2017. The Chinese art market will be as unpredictable as ever. Rare Imperial ware of the conventional type is becoming ever more difficult to find and even relatively recent pieces like this rather unattractive one (in our view) will find eager buyers.