Paris shines in December Chinese art sales

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The Qianlong Imperial seal which was sold this month in Paris for euro 17.5m. (pounds sterling £14.58 equivalent). Picture courtesy Pierre Berge & Associes.

There were two exceptionally high prices achieved in this month’s Paris Asian Sales, which traditionally follow the London Asian beanfeast during November. Highest prices was achieved by a Qianlong seal, formerly the personal property of the Emperor. The sale, to an unnamed Chinese collector, took place in Paris on December 14 after a heated bidding war, the Drouot auction house said.

The palm-sized seal (actually 4in. square) is made of red and white steatite, a type of mineral rock from Fujian province. It was one of hundreds owned by Emperor Qianlong, The previous world record set for an auctioned seal was €14m in 2011 and the latest seal sold was originally acquired by a young French naval doctor who visited China in the late 19th Century, and had remained in his family ever since.

Local Asian art expert Alice Jossaume told AFP news agency it had been expected to sell for between €800,000 and €1m. Emperor Qianlong, an avid art collector who ruled China for much of the 18th Century, was an artist himself who would use seals to sign his works, and commissioned some for their intricate craftsmanship.

The seal  in question features nine dragons which signify masculinity and the imperial authority. Drouot said more than 1,800 Qianlong seals were made, out of which 700 disappeared. Another 1,000 are kept by China’s Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

Christies held a euro 22.5 million Asian sale shortly afterwards. Of this total twelve million euros (pounds sterling ten million) was attributable to an 11th century gilt bronze figure of the Buddha Vairocana (see picture below).

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Chinese art market booms in Paris

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A Chinese buyer examines a porcelain piece at a Drouot pre-auction exhibition in Paris    Picture by Li Xiang, China Daily

The market for Chinese works of art is not just booming in acknowledged centres like London and New York, but auction houses and dealers in Paris are reporting a substantial growth in the number of Chinese buyers.

An associate director of French auction house Artcurial, Isabelle Bresset, was quoted in a recent issue of China Daily, as saying, ‘We have seen the number of Chinese clients double over the past year. More than 90 per cent of the visitors at the pre-auction exhibitions of Asian art are from Asia.’

Nearby, at  legendary French auction house Drouot, Catherine Delvaux, chief of communications, thinks the trend has taken place over a rather longer period, ‘The steady growth of the Asian market is perhaps one of the most important trends in the global art market in the past decade. Everyone in the market, including auctioneers, dealers and fair organisers, is interested in touching base with wealthy Chinese collectors.’

The UK’s weekly ‘bible’ for all antiques auctions, The Antiques Trade Gazette, is now replete with colourful full page advertisements for Asian sales throughout Europe, and especially Paris.

In France alone, the total sales for Asian art exceeded 200 million euros in 2012, accounting for 24% of all sales in the French art market. These are figures which can be relied upon as they are issued by the Conseil de Ventes, the French auction regulatory authority.

Many experts are saying that whilst sales figures may be declining on mainland China, they are actually increasing abroad where Chinese buyers are more comfortable away from the fakes and forgeries which mar the marketplace at home. As one Chinese dealer put it to us, ‘I am much more comfortable buying from a major auction house in Europe. They tend to ‘weed out’ the forgeries, do good research and can be relied upon.’

Note: The record for a piece of Chinese art sold in a French auction house still stands at US$31 million which was paid in 2011 for an 18th century Quianlong period silk scroll painting.