Last week’s Asian Art in London was particularly notable for witnessing the emergence of Bonhams auction house as the top player, historically regarded as No. 3 after Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Recent months have seen its more famous rivals grappling with problems financial and organisational and the evidence strongly suggests that Bonhams have cleverly snuck in to grab the laurels.
Bonhams Fine Chinese Art sale at New Bond Street London on November 9 made £11,971,313, the highest total for an Asian art auction in London last week.
Leading the Bonhams sale was a set of four Huanghuali Folding Chairs that achieved a well-nigh incredible £5,296,250, winning the accolade for the most valuable Asian work of art to be sold last week in London. As one wag put it, ‘Not bad for a set of deckchairs !’
The folding chairs appear to be the only known version of this form and type, and may now be considered a masterpiece of Ming Dynasty furniture. They had been estimated at £150,000 – 200,000 and came from an Italian aristocratic vendor. In a packed saleroom, the bidding war finally came down to a tense battle between a bidder in the room and one on the phone, with the chairs finally knocked down to the phone bidder.
The chairs came from the collection of the distinguished Italian diplomat, Marchese Taliani de Marchio, (1887 – 1968) and his wife, Maragaretha, the Archduchess d’Austria Toscana (1894 – 1986). From 1938 to 1946, Taliani served as Ambassador to the Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek Government. Despite spending only eight years in China, the Talianis were shrewd and gifted connoisseurs who assembled a collection of extremely important pieces that convey the rich history of Chinese decorative arts.
An important and exceedingly rare pair of Huanghuali Tapering Cabinets from the Ming Dynasty from the same collection, estimated at £200,000-300,000, sold for a remarkable price of £1,688,750.
Bonhams International Head of Chinese Art, Asaph Hyman said, “The exceptional prices realised for the rare set of folding chairs and the pair of cabinets are amongst the highest ever achieved for Chinese furniture, a result that reflects their importance. We feel very privileged to have been entrusted with this historic collection.”
Earlier in the week on 6 and 7 November, Bonhams Asian Art sale at Knightsbridge made £2,377,150. The top lot was a famille rose scholar and fisherman dish that sold for £93,750.
Thursday November 9 turned out to be an auspicious day for Bonhams. That evening it was awarded the prestigious Asian Art in London prize for the outstanding work of art offered by an auction house. It was presented to Suzannah Yip, Director of Bonhams Japanese Department, at AAL’s Gala Evening at the British Museum. It was a joint winner with Chiswick Auctions.
The prize-winning object was a beautiful roiro – black lacquer panel – by Shibata Zeshin (1807-91). The panel is decorated with bell crickets on grasses growing on a bank, set against a silver lacquer full moon, and embellished with silver dewdrops.
The award – sponsored by Apollo Magazine and the Antiques Trade Gazette – was judged by museum curators from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and Victoria and Albert Museum, London, together with representatives from the sponsors Apollo magazine and Antiques Trade Gazette.
It should also be noted that Bonhams took the opportunity of AAL to mount a series of receptions, lectures and special exhibitions. Most impressive was a display of Chinese tureens made for the Spanish Nobility, which was accompanied by a lecture from William R Sargent, formerly at the Peabody Essex Museum.
All in all, a great performance from Bonhams and a shot across the bows of Sotheby’s and Christie’s who, as one observer put it, ‘will need to buck their ideas up.’
One of the Fantastic Creatures on display at Bonham’s, London. Photo Paul Harris