Is Chinese furniture taking off in the regions?

opinion hl

There have been some interesting results for Chinese furniture sold in the regions over the last few weeks. Generally recognised as being something of a slow market, furniture is maybe about to take off in a big way.

We wrote last week about an undistinguished and damaged 19th century marble-topped console table which, inclusive of premium, got almost £25,000 at Lindsay Burns in Perth.

Also last week, we ourselves decided to bid on a rather nice padouk ‘throne chair’ (i.e. it was big, big enough for two Chinamen, as the auctioneers, Hartleys of Ilkley in Yorkshire pointed out). It wasn’t actually a throne but it had some agreeable features and we thought we would go into the low thousands for it. It was estimated at £400-600.

We entered the bidding online at £700; the next bid came up and, as I had anticipated, it looked like £800. Only after I had pressed the BID button did I realise, somewhat belatedly, that I had bid £8,000! Somehow the bidding had increased with one bid from £700 to £8,000! I heard the auctioneer, who was clearly as surprised as I was, saying ‘What’s going on?’.

Fortuitously, because I did not really want it enough to pay that sort of money, a bid rapidly came in at £8,500; then another and it was quickly knocked down at £9,500 . . . A lot of money, old boy, for something that was nice but far from unique. A pity, I really fliked that red cushion so redolent of the former owner’s many hours of seated pleasure! A case of On Ilkla Moor Ba’tat . . .

And a lesson to be rather more careful with that internet bidding.

Hartleys chair with cushion

Knocked down at Hartleys, Ilkley, for £9,500 hammer including the red cushion

 

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!

Rumours abound in the trade: what is going on in the Chinese auction business?

opinion The View from Here

We reported a couple of weeks ago on the staggering price of £810,000 achieved for a 20th century vase at auctioneers Fellows in Birmingham. It had enjoyed a rather more conservative low five figure estimate pre-sale (http://chineseart.co.uk/news/tales-of-the-unexpected-roll-on-with-another-staggering-price-for-a-chinese-vase/). This, in turn, had followed another remarkably high price for a 20th century altar vase sold by Lawrence’s of Crewkerne for 150 times estimate, £252,000. The latter lot did come apparently with some provenance but one was surprised to learn the frank admission from Fellows that their lot was submitted by a Chinese vendor or vendors.

The trade in London, and, indeed, in the provinces, is awash with rumours and talk of ‘money laundering’. There is no suggestion whatsoever that any auction house is involved in any conspiracy. After all, an auction house cannot put a cap on spirited bidding! Nor would they want to.

Set against this scenario is the move to the top of the market of the London auctioneers, exemplified in the closure of Christies South Kensington. The last time we took in an object for sale at South Ken we were rebuffed on the grounds that it would not reach a minimum lot price of £5,000, and was probably worth £2,000-3,000. That is clearly regarded as too low by the bean counters who have ordered the closure of South Ken! Probably realisable values of at least £10,000-20,000 will be sought by the ‘Big Three’ auction houses in London. And, of course, as ever, they will require firm evidence of impeccable provenance.

The inevitable result is that competent provincial auctioneers like Woolley & Wallis, Dukes of Dorchester, Sworders, Bonhams in Edinburgh, Mallams and Lyon & Turnbull will be offered a greater quantity of lots in the £100- 10,000 range for their sales. That could be very good news for auctioneers in the provinces. It will also likely be good news for buyers who will see a level of quality at achievable prices reach the salerooms. However, some smaller auction houses might lack resources in cataloguing and areas of provenance. That is particularly so when schemes originating in the Far East are often exceedingly cunning and sophisticated.

In many such schemes buyer and seller are often in bed together, to utilise a graphic metaphor for a strong relationship. The seller will, effectively, be the same party as the buyer. Let us postulate that you had £1m. of ‘black’ money to remove from a country where the laws have become harsh and uncompromising in terms of corrupt and/or criminal wealth. You might take a vase which looks good enough to actually be an original, and which might have cost up to £10,000 to make in somewhere like Jingdezhen over a period of as much as one to two years. It is offered for sale with a convincing story in a provincial auctioneer’s sale and the seller (who might not, of course, be the seller at all but his agent) agrees to a very modest estimate.

Railtons Feb 17 (14) Section  of a vase catalogued in a recent sale as ‘Republic’ period. Pretty but certainly not . . .

Such a piece will probably generate a considerable degree of interest and the ‘safe’ prevailing feeling will probably be that it is 20th century, Republic period. This era is becoming something of a catch-all description being safely in the 20th century but also producing some increasingly desirable pieces. There will be a plethora of low bids in the £5,000-10,000 range but, exposed at public auction, it will take off as internet bidders push the price to, let us say, £1m.

The piece will be paid for (unlike some other scams), out of, say, Hong Kong and the auctioneer will net buyer’s premium (£200,000, say) and seller’s commission (say, £150,000). Net funds of around £600,000 will have effectively been removed from the maw of the government of the country in which buyer/seller lives and or works. The loss of £400,000 being a perfectly acceptable price to pay , , , And funds of £600,000 have been laundered and are available for whatever legitimate use might be required. The vase can go to the tip or to the back of a cupboard. It does now, of course, have a stunning sales record and, perhaps, it could be returned to the market at some later date with a successful track record . . .

All this is, of course, entirely hypothetical and we are not suggesting for a moment this might apply to any or all of some recent sales. There are endless variations on this theme. Maybe a fruitful area of research for novelist Lord Archer!

Chinese art as the road to instant riches

opinion It’s happened again. A lucky lady from  got up with the lark some time last year and went to her local car boot sale in Hindhead in Surrey.. Having splashed out all of £2 she returned home clutching a colourful, tiny  (4in. wide) metal object which had rather taken her fancy. Said object is illustrated below.

Well, it’s the same old story. Fired no doubt by The Antiques Road Show, Flog It and Treasures in the Attic, she trolled down the road to John Nicholson’s auctioner.  Nicholson’s were doubtless enthused when they came to the view that the Qianlong mark to the base was of period and that the small cloisonne censer was probaby worth £5,000-8,000. It was a great day for both parties last December 16 when the £2 censer transformed itself magically into a £22,000 treasure trove.

slide-465

It was, of course, great for vendor, auctioneer and the press. Newspapers and TV love overnight rags to riches stories; tales of effortlessly achieving a small fortune. The £50m. vase discovered under the sink, the porcelain panels under the bed in a seaside bungalow: these make great copy in a rich blend with the mysteries of the Orient.

The immediate after effect, we can reliably report, is to spark hope in the breasts of owners of bijouterie nationwide. Such reports spark energetic scourings of attics, guest bedroom mantlepieces and garages and garden sheds. Within days, a marked increase in emails arrive in our inbox and little old ladies totter into our gallery with chipped, sometimes completely broken, Cantonese vases. Alas, we have always had to disappoint the owners and out of many hundreds of objects not a single one has proved to be worth more than fifty quid.

On The Antiques Road Show only last Sunday, a man who was told that a treasured family heirloom was worth only £500 visibly crumpled in front of the camera. It was apparent that dreams of riches had been brutally snatched away from him. The British public have been led to believe that if it’s Chinese, it’s worth a bomb. Unfortunately, the general level of knowledge of things Chinese is superficial, to put it rather mildly. There are an awful lot of damp squibs out there . . .

Reflections on November’s Chinese auctions from an online bidder’s point of view

online auctions3  We wrote a few weeks ago about the plethora of Chinese art auctions during November, the difficulties of getting around them all and our decision to, instead, bid online (http://chineseart.co.uk/blog/welcome-to-november-and-a-uk-asian-auction-virtually-every-day/). Well, it has certainly been a highly instructive experience to attempt to do all our buying online and we thought it might be interesting to record our very mixed experiences.

In all, we bid on just nine auctions, two of which we viewed and the balance viewed either online or from a catalogue supplied by the auctioneers. Bidding was generally successful in digital terms although there some notable failures. We registered on Dreweatts own site for their Asian Sale at Castle Donnington. Unfortunately, it was a disaster. We were interested in the section in which the Peter Arlidge Collection of Song ceramics was to sold and had identified three lots we were determined to buy. Horror of horrors, when we depressed the BID button, absolutely nothing happened and it was clear our bids were not registering at all. We rebooted and re-registered but the bids we made took so long to register that the lots were sold before we could get into the running. In one instance, by the time our bid of £110 was registered on the screen, bidding had already reach £700! We got nothing and were very disappointed . . .

We successfully bid in the Lyon & Turnbull London sale (having previously viewed it) although there was anasty shock using the Invaluable site: after just three lots (none of which we bid on) an electronic notice flashed up on the screen saying se had exhausted our £10,000 credit limit! I had a sudden fear that our feline friend had wandered across the keyboard and bid on our behalf! Fortuitously, I had L&T’s number in London and called them and they reinstated our ability to bid with a new £50,000 limit.

Later in the week, we viewed a sale at Borders Auctions in Hawick which had a couple of dozen serious Chinese interest items. The night before the sale we filed a dozen Autobids with The-Saleroom.com. This turned out to be a lucky move as the connection with the auction came and went with multiple freezes which lasted for five or ten minutes a time. In the event, we got everything we wanted using our recorded auto-bids. If we had relied on bidding live we might have just got half of them.

The other sales we participated in went much more smoothly. Having bid successfully, of course, we then had the challenge of getting our lots back to our location in the Scottish Borders. We found the prices quoted by The-Saleroom’s affiliate Mailboxes Etc far too expensive: on one three-figure lot bought from Dukes, the cost of packing and carriage exceeded the cost of the lot itself. We got a much more competitive price from the specialist fine art carriers Aardvark which was a third of that quoted by Mailboxes Etc. From a couple of the houses, we drove and collected ourselves which was cheaper and less stressful.

Our verdict on the success or otherwise of our experimental new strategy has to be that physical attendance at a sale where there are items of even modest interest has to be a must. We shall probably bid in fewer auctions, but we shall try to get there ourselves and simply put the miles on the clock rather than hours behind the screen!

Welcome to November and a UK Asian auction virtually every day!

opinion hl

Well, it’s November again and the great annual Asian art fest which launches itself against the background of Asian Art in London. Lectures, openings, book launches and world class exhibitions gather under the direct aegis of AAL. There is, however, an array of events which are rather more loosely associated but which are of massive interest to some collectors, and an awful lot of dealers.

There will be more Asian art auctions this month than in any other month of the year. We have listed no less than 29 on our Asian Auctions Nationwide page on this site. We have maybe missed a couple (just a few auctioneers inexplicably treat the details of their auctions as some sort of dark secret!), but it is clear that over the next 30 days there is virtually an auction of Asian Art in some part of the UK every day. Some days are rather busier than others.

On November 9 the London heavyweights Christie’s and Sotheby’s compete for bidders whilst Gorringes in Lewes and Halls in Shrewsbury have sales further ‘out of town’. The following days Bonhams in London fight it out with Ewbanks and Thomson Roddick, north of the Border. A really difficult day for the avowed enthusiast is November 15 with a Bonhams sale in London; Dreweatts & Bloomsbury at Castle Donnington and day one of Wolley & Wallis’s usual epic 2-day sale in Salisbury (really interesting things in all three sales).

How does a serious enthusuiast keep on top of such a plethora of offerings? Last May, we did a week of sales: Chiswick Auctions on the Monday; Dreweatts & Bloomsbury on the Tuesday; Woolley & Wallis on the Wednesday; and Dukes of Dorchester on the Friday. It was fun, but it was exhausting . . .  and expensive. Six days on the road with a thirsty 4WD diesel knocked up well over 1200 miles and six nights in hotels plus meals brought a total cost, without too much extravagance (well, just a little), of something under £2,000. We did completely fill a Chelsea tractor to the roof with all the seats down but it took a couple of days to recover.

This November we are doing it differently. We have increasingly, this year, bid online. I used to say I would never buy anything I had not handled but, in those days, we were buying porcelain in a market replete with dubious items. However, these days we are buying differently: furniture and decorative items feature higher on our priorities and condition reports from auctioneers are usually very reliable; similarly, they are usually happy to send excellent pictures.

So, this November, as an experiment, we shall stay in our gallery, and newly acquired 4,500 sq ft warehouse, and bid online. We shall be able to cover two or three auctions a day and home in on what we really want. Online buying tends to focus your mind with set budgets, rarely exceeded in the absence of the excitement of the rooms! I also have a sneaking suspicion that often we get things more cheaply when we are not in the rooms . . .

Of course, there is the cost of getting these highly anticipated objects back. But as we have saved a couple of thousand on tripping around the country there is a budget there. Those auctioneers who offer their own packing service are favoured by us (honourable mentions to two highly efficient and reliable firms in the form of Hannams and Eastbourne Auctions) as the ubiquitous Mailboxes, Etc can be pricey, dependent on the branch.

Of course, there are sometimes disappointments when these new treasures arrive not quite as they were fondly imagined. What do we do with them? Pack them up again and send them off to auction, of course. And, we do have a new warehouse to fill . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Closure and dispersal looms for unique Butler Collection of Chinese porcelain

lr Butler Collection (27)The elegant and airy private museum in Mapperton, Dorset which houses The Butler Collection   Photo Paul Harris

The Butler Collection of Chinese porcelain is presently held in a large and well appointed private gallery in Dorset, in rural England. Just in case you are not aware of the fact, it is the world’s most important collection of 17th Century Chinese Porcelain, covering what is often referred to as ‘the Transitional period: that is to say, that particularly vibrant and interesting period between the Ming and the Qing dynasties. It was built up over 50 years by Sir Michael Butler, a senior diplomat, who left it to his 4 children when he died suddenly on Christmas Eve three years ago.

Today, however, that collection today appears to be doomed to a court-ordered extinction. On 20th July, 2016 the High Court in London ruled that his two eldest children, Caroline and James Butler, the petitioners in an acrimonious legal battle, have the right to remove 250 pieces from the purpose built museum thus destroying the 500-piece collection. The collection is internationally famous and draws scholars, students and art lovers from around the world. If the two elder siblings could be persuaded to let the Art Fund or another entity to buy them out, the two younger siblings, Katharine and Charles, have pledged to put their shares into a charitable foundation or other structure which preserves and endows the collection. The situation has been much complicated and compounded by the fact that the only communication between the two warring parties over the last few years has been via their respective solicitors.

lr Butler Collection (77) The £15 purchase by Sir Michael Butler which started it all . . . Photo Paul Harris

Sir Michael Butler began collecting Chinese 17th century ceramics in the 1960s, finding his first piece, a green wine pot (illustrated above), for just £15 with three other pieces thrown in.

‘He became fascinated by the 17th Century pieces, because he realised that was a period which had been overlooked,’ says daughter Katharine who has tirelessly looked after the collection in its own purpose-built museum for many years. ‘Traditional collectors were obsessed by the Imperial pieces, but Papa realised that at that time there was an explosion of creativity.’ This creativity derived from the chaos following the collapse of the Ming dynasty and its replacement by the northern Manchus who founded the Qing dynasty. It was a time of industry and energy.

lr Butler Collection (22) Section of the Museum devoted to High Transitional pieces. Photo Paul Harris

The High Court has ruled that the Collection must be divided between the four children and this is what will happen towards the end of September 2016. In a scenario straight from some Victorian penny-dreadful tragedy, the four siblings will gather at a Grade II-listed family country house seat in Mapperton, Dorset, close to the private museum, and begin the process of dividing up their father’s legacy, in direct contravention of Sir Michael’s dying wishes, which were that the collection should remain complete. Alas, however, the provisions he made were insufficiently clear in the documentation he left behind  . . .

And so, the High Court has decided that the collection must be physically dispersed to the four children of the family. ‘We’re supposed to take it in turns to decide on a piece and to keep on taking until there are none left,’ Katharine Butler says, ‘The act of doing that will be the most devastating experience of my life.’

lr Butler Collection (11)   Fighting for survival . . .  Katharine Butler with a piece from the Collection. Photo    Paul Harris

The View from Here

opinion hl

It seems unconscionable that this wonderful collection should be broken up and dispersed to the four winds, so to speak. Indubitably, this is the finest collection of 17th century transitional porcelain to be found anywhere in the world. As such, it represents a unique  resource, not just for existing scholars and collectors but for enthusiasts of the future.

It is often said that when families fall out the ensuing disputes count amongst the bitterest. For that reason, it is incumbent upon the owners of resources such as The Butler Collection to make very precise future provisions for their assets. Unfortunately, in this instance, Sir Michael Butler’s provisions were open to misinterpretation in the context of his own professed wishes. In some respects the provisions made were contradictory in essence and the judgement in Court was, some legal sources say, only to be expected. Unfortunately, the results of the judgement are, to put it mildly, very regrettable. It is to be hoped that some last minute accommodation or arrangement might be made which will keep this uniquecollection together and Katharine Butler is rightly pressing The Art Fund to get involved.

The value of the four individual parts of the collection is being put at up to £2m. each by commentators in the press. It is ironic that, as a complete collection, the value to a serious collector or institution would, we expect, be around twice this sum: we know Chinese investors who would pile in at such a price with a commitment to keep it whole, albeit in Beijing or Shanghai. Not only would the value of the collection be diminished in scholarly and heritage terms by its division, but also by application of available financial criteria. Not to mention the devastating effects on those involved.

An online petition is still available for signature if you sympathise with those of us who would like the Collection to remain in existence as a historical and cultural asset with the support of The Art Fund

https://www.change.org/p/the-art-fund-save-the-butler-family-collection

lr Butler Collection (42)

 

Is this a Chinese art book? We really don’t think so, Mr Amazon

opinion hl

You won’t be surprised to learn that we buy a lot of Chinese art books here at chineseart.co.uk. We maintain a large library of books to help checking all our entries and for help with delving into some of the arcane byways of Chinese art.

We buy books internationally and one of our largest suppliers is (or was) amazon.co.uk. As you may know, not all books supplied by Amazon actually come directly from the Behemoth that is this vast operation, which operates internationally with virtually no policing. Some books are supplied by what is known as Amazon Marketplace – independent traders using the Amazon mantle.

Rather recently, we spotted a book on Amazon we wished to acquire: Chinese Ceramics: Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, sold by an outlet called ‘the book house’, said to be part of Amazon Marketplace. We duly paid for same.

Imagine our surprise when the book illustrated below pitched up in the post!

Amazon fraud1064  Amazon fraud1065

It doesn’t look to us much like a book dealing with the porcelain of the Qing dynasty, does it? Maybe the book picker at the warehouse wasn’t very bright and made a little mistake? Oh, but what is this? If you look at the bottom of the back cover you will see that this unassuming cheap little paperback does, indeed, officially profess, with an official bar code, to be Chinese Ceramics . . . Even more disturbing, the book came in the same parcel as a guidebook bought DIRECTLY from Amazon books UK. So it did not come froma marketplace seller at all. That, Amazon, is what is called FRAUD.

Now, there’s been rather a lot in the press lately about people getting bricks in the post professing to be expensive phones or laptops. Perhaps this has now spread to the Amazon world of art books?

We emailed Amazon. The nice American-sounding man who came on the phone, Mr Christian, did not dispute the matter. I got the impression it wasn’t that unusual. So far we have got no credit for our postage (£2.80). I suppose if you take a few pounds or dollars off millions of people, you will become rather rich, especially if you don’t pay very much in tax.

If Amazon was based in the UK, I would fire off a legal missive. But, as we all know, they are based in remote Luxembourg, safe from all threats: from both governments and customers. The most you could do is hop on a plane and go and deface their nameplate.

Curiously, the very same morning an email came in, apparently from the organiser of a lecture on Chinese art (indeed, on fakes and forgeries!), I was to give a few days later. I was surprised to see that it advised me he was away at a conference in Krakow, Poland (what about my lecture???). His cases had been stolen and would I please send him some money pronto?

It’s sort of comforting to know that it’s not just the Chinese art scene which is replete with fakes and cons. They are, indeed, all around us. Let’s be aware . . .

In the worst possible taste, Ai Weiwei reaches a personal low

opinion hl

We have, from time to time, reported on the activities of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. He is, of course, an iconoclast; the archetypal artist without walls who operates entirely on his own personal agenda and who does not seek the approval of anybody, least alone the Chinese government who he has actively combated for many years.

However, it now seems that his personal judgement can no longer be trusted. The photograph which has recently appeared of him posing as a shipwrecked hapless refugee dead on the beach on the Greek island of Lesbos represents a new low for the artist. It is in the worst possible taste and displays an inability to discern between acceptable art and degrading trash. In our view, an apology is called for.

ai weiwei lesbos

Photograph copyright Rohit Chawla reproduced for the purposes of review and criticism

The black and white image, taken by Indian photographer Rohit Chawla, shows the artist lying on pebbles on the beach, with his palms upturned in the same manner as Kurdi.

Ai and his team “actively helped in staging this photograph for us,” Mr Chawla said. “I am sure it wasn’t very comfortable to lie down on the pebbles like that. But the soft evening light fell on his face when he lay down,” he said.

Come off it!

 

Of a Chinese sculptor, a slow press day and a sudden media penchant for art . . .

Featured

opinion hl

The more perceptive of you, faithful readers of our blog on chineseart.co.uk, will have noted a certain connection between this blog and the Chinese sculptor Chen Dapeng, who last week exhibited more than 40 examples of his work at the Olympia Winter Art & Antiques Fair on his 200 sq m stand, the largest stand at the Fair.

We have, in fact, known Chen Dapeng for some 14 years and have long been admirers of his work which distils traditional elements of Chinese art with a modern twist. Essentially realist in approach, his work reflects a well practised craftsmanship and fascinated visitors to the Fair with its exploration of the Eastern mysteries of Kung-fu and the spirit of China.

Little is known about Chinese sculpture in the West. It is not exactly a sexy subject and spreading the news of Chen Dapeng to the British public presented enormous challenges. Having decided to mount his first exhibition in the UK, the problem was very much how to bring him to the attention of the British public. Generally speaking, the UK media is uninterested in the specifics of art although it will carry news and features based around figures renowned for their activities outside the art arena: a case in point being dissident protester Ai Weiwei, who took on the government of China using his art as a blunt instrument.

Pursuing this train of thought, we suggested to Chen Dapeng that he might think about executing a very British piece of sculpture. And what could be more British than the rightly revered figure of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II? The Chinese sculptor enthusiastically took up the challenge, spending almost five months moulding Her Majesty in clay and then firing her in white porcelain, an enormously difficult medium to fire successfully. On the 13th attempt at firing, a successful version was achieved. We were all hopeful that this might be cause for some useful publicity in the UK . . .

SONY DSC

The unveiling by Chen Dapeng at Olympia on November 2     Photo by Paul Harris

On November 2, when the Olympia Fair opened, Chen Dapeng was totally unknown to the British public. He had half a dozen entries if you had looked him up on Google. Not a single newspaper or magazine in the UK had featured him after sending out hundreds of press releases in advance of his arrival at Heathrow . . . dragging a red draped trolley with what was to become, for the week ahead, the most famous sculpture in the world.

At 10am on Monday November 2, the sculpture was unveiled at an Olympia photocall and press releases were distributed to photographers and journalists. There wasn’t much news around that morning . . . It was what is known in the business as ‘a slow news day’.

By midday, The Daily Telegraph Online had posted a story in which their art critic Mark Hudson likened the appearance of the bust to Tom Hanks. This was the catch line that would propel the story all around the world. Within minutes, the telephone ran red hot: What was our reaction to Mark Hudson’s judgement  – on a sculpture he had never seen ? First on the line was The Daily Mail Online, followed by The Independent. By lunchtime, the story hit New York, as the city woke up, and Vanity Fair and The New York Times came on the line.

Whether or not you agreed with Hudson, this became the hottest story online and in the media worldwide: a quarter of a million Tweets, more than 200 articles and features online (that we have tracked) in more than 25 countries from Greece, Poland, Sweden and Spain to The Philippines, Indonesia and, of course, Dapeng’s native China.

On Tuesday morning, the bust was ceremoniously ferried to ITV’s This Morning for Philip and Holly to open the programme seated beside it. Philip adjudged it ‘impressive’. He was, of course, unlike Mr Hudson, seated right beside it. This Morning would be followed with interviews on Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, pieces on NBC and Fox News,  and, last Friday, with a segment on Have I Got News for You?

People flocked to our stand at Olympia to see the bust. Twelve pages of our Visitors’ Book were filled with comments: 80% positive from those who had actually seen it. Meantime, on social media and on showbiz sites in the US people were posting from offices, attics and basements their own particular view of who it looked like to them: Mrs Doubtfire, Liberace, Martin Sheen, David Walliams and, even, The Duke of Edinburgh, Her Majesty’s husband. Despite all these suggestions, the Tom Hanks label stuck.

Also, many patently untrue suggestions made it once into online print and were relentlessly repeated worldwide without any further research: a particularly unappealing facet of the online world. The Daily Express (to quote the aforementioned Duke of Edinburgh speaking many years ago, ‘A bloody awful newspaper’) told its readers (both of them) that Buckingham Palace had declared it had no knowledge of the sculpture being offered to HM. Well, chaps, I could offer to share with you my five months of correspondence with The Keeper of The Royal Collection. On second thoughts, I won’t!

By the end of the week, Chen Dapeng was the most famous sculptor in the world. More famous, even, than Ai Weiwei. But he was getting a bit doubtful about all the publicity. ‘What about my other sculptures?’ he asked. Of course, the bust of HM was the least important on the stand in strictly artistic terms. His vastly impressive and challenging other works had merited scarcely a mention. But he had become famous worldwide.

It is probably a parable of our times: of a world dominated by the power of an all pervasive digital media. Of a world where real appreciation of anything other than the immediate, the sensational and the easily digested must be regarded as a prized rarity. However, it could be said Chen Dapeng is now a name to be reckoned with. After all, he now dominates almost twenty pages of entries on Google. Is that success, or is it not?

Paul Harris

 

Is the age of the gallery over?

opinion hl

There are good reasons to suppose that art buying habits are changing. Private jets lined up on the runways and parking areas at Basel airport a few weeks ago were a very tangible manifestation. The high prices for the best of Chinese art at auction easily eclipse those in galleries: indeed, galleries are all too conscious that the buyers from China who pack the auction rooms do not, for the most part, ever find their way into commercial galleries.

The number of art shows internationally has snowballed in recent years. The European Fine Art Foundation’s report for 2015 says that there are now in excess of 180 international art fairs. There were just 55 in  the year 2000. The global market for works of art is now estimated to be worth US$68 billion, a rise of 7% year on year. Why then are galleries closing in, for example, London’s up-market Mayfair if the market is so buoyant?

There are some local factors at work in places like Cork Street, Mayfair. The traditional bases for London’s galleries are being bought up as part of the property explosion by developers who see no financial mileage in seeing their expensively revamped properties let out to modest gallery businesses who earn their money on a relatively long term basis. So, instead of galleries, expensive handbag, jewellery, fashion and accessory shops proliferate. Gucci, Armani, Burberry and the like enjoy dramatic mark-ups and vast markets for their overpriced fripperies.

And a painting hanging on the wall, no matter how attractive, does not have the instant ‘buy me’ ingredient unlike something being disposed of in the flash of a second by the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer.

We recently sold half a dozen items which had been languishing on our own gallery wall, or in the showcases, at auction. Most more than doubled the prices we had been asking in the gallery and one got six times the £200 price we had been asking for a small bronze censer. You can’t beat the fever of the saleroom for achieving what are sometimes quite extraordinary amounts of money for comparatively modest items.

Galleries are, of course, expensive to maintain: lighting, staffing and insurances are just a few of the very heavy costs involved. Dealing with the public means you have to be insured, both against them and on behalf of them. Third party insurances have to be taken out for at least £2m. or £3m. in case they trip over the doorstep on the way in. And there is nothing so depressing as sitting in your gallery all day just in case a serious buyer might appear.

Hence the appeal of art fairs, temporary exhibitions and so-called pop-ups. All are rather more attractive, and certainly more exciting, than sitting twiddling ones thumbs in an expensive gallery whilst the meters runs incessantly.

The entry price for art fairs can be high and we are not talking about gate receipts. The largest income from fairs is derived from letting the space to exhibitors, followed by sponsorship. However, a second tier of cheaper-to-access exhibitions is now appearing. Entrepreneur Tim Etchells has started three new events in recent years: Art 13-15 in London, Sydney Contemporary down under and Art Central, which enjoyed its debut this year in Hong Kong. These fairs are less concerned with the super-rich private jet class of buyer and participation is cheaper.

Then, of course, there are the online sales. We are a bit sceptical of the phenomenon. Online certainly works for everyday items but art is rather more complex and should be unique. Assessing art online is tricky and many buyers would not dream of acquiring something they had not handled (porcelain) or seen in person (a painting or tapestry, for example). The advantage of the internet is probably that it will get just a few extra sales and as a low cost medium serves to amortise general sales costs.

Yes, the art market is changing. However, there are signs that even the new art fairs are becoming picky about who they let in over the door to exhibit. It appears they are going for quality rather than quantity. The whole business is organic and constantly changing and it would be a mistake to write off the gallery quite yet.

SONY DSC

A corner of the Olympia International Art & Antiques Fair, June 2015    Photo Paul Harris

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.