On surprises and uncertainty in the Chinese art market


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!

Hansons have high hopes for blue & white vase

Hansons vase

Blue & white vase due to appear at Hansons on July 1

Hansons, the auctioneers based in Etwall Derbyshire, clearly have high hopes for a large blue & white vase coming up on July 1st during their 3-day Summer Sale. They have taken the unusual step of taking a full page advertisement in The Antiques Trade Gazette, upcoming issue of June 25 devoted to this single lot, 807a.

They are estimating it at £300,000-500,000 with a curiously charming provenance as ‘By family descent, recorded in the collection of a great-aunt in Cornwall in the 1930s’. It is unclear at the present time as to whether we will be apprised of the identity of the great aunt. The purpose is, of course, clear. In a procelain market rife with copies, all auctioneers are desperate to grasp at any straw which might place a Chinese item on record as dating from before the 1940s, when modern copies started to appear in profusion. The Qianlong seal mark (below) looks OK and the base appears to bear suitable marks of age.

hanson base Hanson mark to base Qianlong seal mark to base

Hansons supply a full catalogue entry:

Lot Number: 806a

A fine Chinese blue and white vase, seal mark of Qianlong, of hexagonal mallet form, painted in imitation of Ming ‘heaped and piled’ style, the bulbous body with cut branches of peaches alternating with flower and lingzhi stems, similar stems on the waisted neck, all facets framed at the corners with European derived Baroque scrollwork spandrels, the shoulder encompassed by a wan-diaper between barbed borders, the rim and foot with key-fret bands, height 66cm, seal mark of Qianlong in underglaze blue.

Notes: The ‘Baroque’ elements of the design recall the influence of European decorative arts in the art and architecture seen at The Summer Palace.

Provenance: By family descent, recorded in the collection of a great-aunt in Cornwall in the 1930s. A very similar example was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 5th October 2011, where the catalogue records the example of this particular imperial pattern in museums & private collections.

There have been some examples of individual Chinese vases doing well this summer after auctioneers invested in advertising and publicity – notably, the Malletts of Cheltenham sale of a vase formerly owned by a Mr George (a largely unknown collector) at a stunning £750,000. Clearly, Hansons are hoping for a similar result!

Hansons ATG ad104 Antiques Trade Gazette advertisement

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.

If the Chinese art well is drying up, how will the market change?

opinion hl

Putting together a well balanced catalogue with a few star items to carry along the sale and boost the prices on some of the less desirable pieces is a perennial problem for auctioneers. Nowhere is this more true than in the market for Chinese art objects where a few particularly desirable items tend to build interest in a sale as a whole. If you’re flying in from Beijing to buy a tasty thangka or a piece of particularly promising porcelain, then you might as well look closely at the catalogue for other lots to amortise your costs.

There was an interesting observation made in last week’s Antiques Trade Gazette by correspondent Roland Arkell. ‘Each year, as the well of market-fresh material from old Western collections begins to empty, it seems a little harder to put together a box-ticking sale of Chinese works of art than it was 12 months before. The squeeze seen in London this season – where takings in the Chinese marketplace effectively halved – is being seem elsewhere too. The low-hanging fruit has long been picked.’

This is an issue which is consuming auctioneers and dealers alike. Their livelihood depends on constantly unearthing interesting new things to sell. It is a given that a substantial proportion of the purchased or looted Chinese art imported into the UK during the 19th and 19th centuries has been unearthed by auctioneers trawling country houses, by specialist dealers approached to handle sales and, to a lesser extent, by ‘knockers’ accessing smaller and more remote collections. How much is actually left in the UK, whether reposing in glass cabinets or lurking unloved under the sink, is anybody’s guess but there can be little doubt of the fact, as Arkell puts it, that ‘the low-hanging fruit has long been picked’.

However, capitalism is a resilient phenomenon with a remarkable ability to regenerate under the most difficult conditions. The demand in the marketplace for Chinese art has, thus far, been very selective. It has been for the very best pieces, for large and instantly impressive pieces and for the undamaged. Nice large vases, Qianlong or Yongzheng mark and period, pairs of preferably, have tended to sail through the auction rooms amidst rising price hysteria. But what will happen when the most beautiful big vases and the most exquisite little pieces of jade are no longer to be had?

Well, of course, buyers will move on (or be directed by the cleverer dealers and auctioneers) to some rather more abstruse, currently unappreciated, areas of Chinese collecting currently not in favour with the market. There will be a renewed enthusiasm for more ordinary but, nonetheless, well crafted objects. And damaged items, presently abjured, will become acceptable if well and professionally repaired.


The Mary Stewart meiping vase: some small change out of £300,000

Last week at the Lyon & Turnbull sale in Cambridgeshire, a relatively small but quite pretty 19th century blue and white meiping vase, with an apocryphal Kangxi mark to the base, was offered for sale. You know the sort of thing, some of us have half a dozen of them in the storeroom . . . It was a vase that might reasonably have been expected, on a good day, to get £2,000. Although indubitably pretty, it has been extensively restored at some point in its history. Incredibly (it seemed in the room), it leapt up to a hammer price of £240,000 (premium would add another £59,250 to the bill taking it within a whisper of £300,000). Admittedly, it had a little bit of provenance, coming from the collection of the late Mary Stewart. She had been given it by her dealer Hugh Moss ‘to put on her desk and keep flowers in’. Of course, it may well have provided the inspiration for a slew of highly successful romantic novels, but that is hardly the point. It was simply a well crafted, relatively recent object in far from triple A condition.

We believe that we shall see, in the not so distant future, rather a lot of results like this as the market starts to dry up. (There was also a carved wooden brush pot in the same sale estimated at a few hundred pounds which got £48,000). Particularly attractive blue and white 19th century pieces, earlier Song dynasty pots, Chinese export ware (almost totally unappreciated by the Chinese market today) and 18th and 19th century cloisonné will make their mark in the auction rooms as the market moves on irrevocably.

Such is capitalism and the Chinese are now amongst the most enthusiastic adherents to this form of international economic activity. And, of course, there are more than one and a half billion of them harbouring a middle class which is growing dramatically in wealth and aspiration. One of the wells may be drying up but a lot of new boreholes are going to have to be sunk to satisfy a demand which will be seemingly insatiable.

Chiswick Auctions drop ivory sales after court case

China-Ivory-destru_2782691b ed

The trade magazine Antiques Trade Gazette reports in its current issue that Chiswick Auctions are to stop selling ivory pieces. The auction house was prosecuted October 13 for selling a lot catalogued as ‘an antique carved ivory tusk worked as a train of elephants.’ Under CITES regulations it is illegal to sell items containing ivory which date from after an arbitrary cut-off date of 1947.

Chiswick had previously sold the piece to a Portobello Road trader from whom it was seized in a police raid. The police sent the item away for testing (at a reputed cost in excess of £2,000) and a laboratory test indicated that it came from an elephant deceased in the mid-1960s. Chiswick chose to plead guilty and were fined £4,500 (the maximum fine being £5,000) which was reduced to a still very hefty £3,200 after taking into consideration the guilty plea.

Now Chiswick’s managing director has apparently told ATG that his auction house “will lead the way” with a self-imposed ban on all ivory sales except where ivory constitutes less than 5% of the object concerned.

opinion hl

The View from Here This most unfortunate case, which we have written on before, raises many disturbing issues, viz.

it seems unfortunate to us that Chiswick Auctions failed to defend the action. Clearly, a mistake was made and, giving them the benefit of the doubt, the Lot either slipped through in the normal chaos of daily life in an auction room, or, possibly, the employee who allowed it to go on sale genuinely thought it was a piece pre-1947.

Frankly, it is extremely difficult very often to tell between a piece from 1947 and one from 1964-66. As such, the law as it stands is unworkable. We are doubtful about the laboratory testing and extending the logic to the extreme implied by the law, can the laboratory tell between a piece made in December 1946 and one originating in January 1947. To put it bluntly, in this case, as the old adage goes, the law is an ass.

The fine imposed was at the uppermost level allowed by the Act controlling trade in endangered species. This was a first offence, the consideration involved was, in monetary terms, very modest, and there was no evidence to the fact that this had been a deliberate course of action perpetrated by the accused. The evidence appears to suggest it was a genuine mistake that was made and a fine of a few hundred pounds would seem to us to be nearer the mark.

Having received such a punitive fine, in our view, instead of meekly caving in, the auction house would have been best advised to lodge an appeal against the sentence. To respond by claiming to lead the way on banning ivory sales seems disingenuous and rather unfortunate. These proceedings will inevitably pass into both case law and folklore and will further serve the cause of driving the trade in genuine and unique historic artefacts underground. The witch hunt is set to continue . . .