On surprises and uncertainty in the Chinese art market

opinion

In our first editorial of the year we predicted turbulence in the Chinese art market with unexpected prices and lots of surprises (http://chineseart.co.uk/news/unpredictability-will-set-the-tone-for-2016-as-mis-catalogued-vase-exceeds-the-quarter-million-pound-mark/ ). Following a series of ‘mysterious’ and inexplicably high prices at the beginning of the year, the results of last month’s Asian sales again graphically illustrated that point of view.

christies Qianlong vases Qianlong vases: £13m.

The headline price was, of course, a staggering £13m. (yes, thirteen million pounds!) for a pair of 23cm high Qianlong vases decorated with butterflies in falangcai enamels and exposed for sale by Christie’s in London St James’s. They were estimated at £2-3m. To us, bearing in mind the prices achieved by two broadly similar pairs in 2003 and 2008, a price of £5-6m. would not have seemed altogether unreasonable. We think £13m. is, frankly, ludicrously speculative for a couple of pretty 18th century vases, notwithstanding their noble provenance.

Down at Christie’s South Kensington, sadly due to be closed in a matter of weeks, there was a final unexpected price for a pair of 9cm high landscape-painted seals, decorated and signed by He Xuren (1882-1940), which were estimated at £30,000-50,000, and which soared to £180,000. There was no particular provenance and they had been acquired relatively recently, according to the auctioneers.

a-fine-and-rare-pair-of-famille-rose-landscape-sealsrepublic-period-1912-1949-dated Pair of seals £180,000

Up the road at Sotheby’s a large (45cm.) cinnabar lacquer charger achieved £1.3m. against its pre-sale estimate of £400,000-600,000. Probably Yuan, or at least early Ming, it did at least come with good provenance having been in at least three significant collections, including that of Sir Percival David (1892-1964) one of the greatest collectors of the 20th century.

For Bonhams, their highlight was the sale of 49 thangkas from The Jongen-Schleiper Collection and of which we previously wrote (http://chineseart.co.uk/news/probably-the-thangka-sale-of-the-century-coming-up-at-bonhams/) . The triptych depicting the lineage of the Panchen Lamas of Tasilhunpo climbed to £455,000 which was truly spectacular for a 19th century thangka.

In the view of the trade magazine Antiques Trade Gazette, some of these spectacular prices reflect ‘supply issues after decade boom’.  Wrote Roland Arkell, ‘Certainly, many [sale] catalogues were self-consciously trimmed to reflect growing selectivity and the increasing need to err on the side of caution wherever debatable items are brought for valuation.’ ATG highlights a ‘circular’ movement of goods, emanating from China, sold in the UK and quite probably returning, on the back of the provenance afforded by a London sale, to China! It warns of an undermining in the market which could ultimately result from this if it becomes an established trend.

We are not altogether convinced by this. At our sister business Chinese Art in Scotland (www.chineseartinscotland.co.uk), we have increasingly turned to objects which can be valued entirely on their intrinsic beauty rather than marks or reputed provenance. That means, of course, that we have increasingly turned our backs on porcelain, unless it is of such indisputable beauty and craftsmanship that it does not matter if it is mid, or even late, 20th century.

Instead, there are exquisite objects around which are rather more difficult to fake and which have yet to be ‘discovered’ by the market: small furniture, wood carvings, 18th century bronzes, soapstone figures, and curiosities which fit no particular category. Lyon & Turnbull last month sold a collection of Chinese inksticks, estimated at £2-3,000 for £191,000 which goes to substantiate this point.

We recently bought for a modest hammer price, from a well known auctioneer, a massive solid bronze figure (100kgs or thereabout and which requires three people to lift!) catalogued as a Japanese warrior. In fact, it is a bronze of the legendary and hugely popular Chinese unfrocked Buddhist monk, Ji Gong. You can’t doubt that something of that weight and substance, superbly crafted, is a superb investment.

It is our considered view that there are still many beautiful objects out there. And there are bargains. Let the players in the £13m.market get on with it. In our view, they are bidding at the top of the market for names (in this case, Qianlong) and provenance, unable to countenance the beauty and investment value of objects at what they might think of as ‘downmarket’. Rather better, and much more fun, to buy things in the low thousands with virtually unlimited potential.

You can well be sitting on the next ‘inexplicably high’ price!

Leading Chinese porcelain producer to locate its European base and museum in Scottish Borders

 Greenlaw imposing facadeThe facade of A Listed Greenlaw Town Hall     Picture courtesy Scottish Heritage Buildings Trust 

One of the most important porcelain manufacturers in China, the Shanghai-based Hanguan Company, is to locate the base for its European operations in the Scottish Border region in the town of Greenlaw, in an iconic Grade A Listed Building.

Amongst its many activities the company, which is run my Master Ceramicist and Professor of Ceramics at Shanghai’s Fudan University, Li Youyu, produces some of the finest ceramics in the whole of China, which is borne out by the fact that it is used by the government of China to create the official gifts given out to foreign dignitaries. Many world leaders, including those of the UK and USA, have received wares crafted by Hanguan.

Greenlaw pub1 lr In the entrance hall of the building the bust of Sir Archibald Campbell, the original patron, looks down this week on the new investors. Left to right: Ms Huang Ping, Professor Master Li Youyu and Sulee Harris, Photo Paul Harris

At 11 am on Wednesday May 31, Scottish Borders company Coldingham Investments Ltd (controlled by Coldingham man Paul Harris and his Chinese wife, Sulee) bought the massive Grade A listed building Greenlaw Town Hall from The Scottish Heritage Buildings Trust. SHBT finished a £1.95m. restoration of the building in 2011, at which time it was re-opened by HRH Prince Charles.

The Coldingham-based company will continue to own the building and, although equity is being bought by the Chinese, the present ownership will retain a ‘significant’ shareholding in the new operation. The Coldingham duo Paul and Sulee recently launched Coldingham Borders Auctions, operate half a dozen websites selling Far Eastern art internationally, and have The Coldingham Gallery in the High Street and which was founded more than six years ago.

Greenlaw pub 3 lr Professor Master Li Youyu in the the Great Hall of the building this week. Photo Paul Harris

Paul Harris told the news website chineseart.co.uk , part of the Coldingham group of businesses, last night that he and his wife used to live and work in Shanghai. ‘We have a large network of contacts in China and we are delighted to be able to bring an important Chinese company to the Scottish Borders. We shared images of Greenlaw Town Hall when it came available for sale with Mr Li Youyu, principal figure in the Hanguang Company. He is primarily an artist with vision – not just a businessman – and, even from faraway in China, he was immediately struck by the amazing beauty of the building that is Greenlaw Town Hall.

‘The building won’t just be a collection of offices but the vast public hall will house an exhibition and museum area telling the story of Chinese porcelain – a product which was entirely the invention of the Chinese. The building will be open to the public and Mr Youyu aims to promote direct personal relations between Chinese and Scottish ceramicists through practical sessions, conferences and social events. There will be practical displays showing the creation of porcelain.’

Greenlaw Town Hall, built in 1831 as The County Hall of Berwickshire by local architect John Cunningham, is one of Scotland’s outstanding Greek Revival neo-classical buildings and its vast dome and pillared portico dominate the junction of two main roads through the Scottish Borders at Greenlaw. The building consists of a vast hall and two pavilions (wings) containing offices. In recent years The Scottish Heritage Buildings Trust has spent just under £2m. renovating what was then the derelict building in a high profile restoration.  Until now, though, a sympathetic new owner has not been found.

Greenlaw main hall The Great Hall in Greenlaw. Photo courtesy Scottish Heritage Buildings Trust

‘We are hopeful that the proposed use of Greenlaw Town Hall will help to build the local economy and bring tourists to the area, including many Chinese. The development may also encourage other Chinese businesses we are in touch with to come to the Scottish Borders,’ said Sulee Harris last night. Sulee, using her Chinese name Sun Yumei, is today listed at Companies House as a director of Coldingham Investments Ltd along with Ms Huang Ping who, it is understood, represents the interests of the Hanguang Company.

It is understood that Coldingham Investments Ltd is in active discussions with architectural advisers. A spokesman for the company said there will be an impact on local employment ‘but it is a little early to be specific’.

Greenlaw portico by night The iconic portico of Gfreenlaw Town Hall. Photo courtesy Scottish Heritage Buildings Trust