The month of December brought a string of successful Chinese art and antiques auctions throughout England. Interestingly, these results were entirely from what is often pejoratively termed ‘provincial auction houses’, who are sometimes located nearer the source of supply than your Christie’s or Sotheby’s. At the same time, disturbing rumours were coming out of China itself: sales were on the slide and the heat was going out of the market.
As we previously reported, December kicked off on the 2nd with Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull’s highly successful Asian Art sale at St Neots in Cambridgeshire. Their decision to move ‘nearer the smoke’ seemed to have been fully justified: an extraordinary £220,000 for a small, repaired Kangxi vase with a bit of provenance; £200,000 for an admittedly unusual Yonzheng celadon and blue charger; a pair of Yongzheng doucai bowls, £75,000; and an 18th or, maybe, 19th century carved wooden brush pot for £48,000.
Also on December 2, Anderson & Garland of Newcastle sold a collection of some 132 gouache on pith paper scenes of what would appear to be Imperial courtly life. The 11 red paper-covered albums sold for £32,000 to a Chinese buyer in the UK.
The next day, December 3, at Hanson’s in Derbyshire, a collection of jades put together by Russian General Theodor Rubiec Masalski, who served in China and was a former military attaché in Beijing, fetched over £60,000.
The following day, December 4, Sussex auctioneers Tooveys exposed a relatively small but pretty Qianlong famille rose calligraphic vase with Imperial connections. It had an extensive rivet repair to the neck and some losses but, nevertheless, sold on the hammer for £520,000 to a Chinese buyer in the room, who competed with bidders from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada and the UK who fought it out over nine telephone lines. This was the highest regional price of the year for an item of Chinese art in a provincial room.
Sherborne auctioneers Charterhouse rounded off this series of provincial Chinese auction successes on December 16 with the sale of a set of six Republic period porcelain panels for £140,000. In the famille verte and famille rose palettes, the Republic (1911-49) porcelain panels were by an unidentified artist (single panel illustrated below). They were knocked down for £140,000. It is worth noting that Charterhouse had previously sold a set of four panels by Wang Yeting, one of the so-called Eight Friends of Zhushan, for £420,000 in February 2014.
These dramatic sale results for out-of-London auctions came against a background of shrinking sales in China. Dealers we know in Beijing are reporting difficulties in shifting stock. The blame is firmly laid at the door of tough Chinese leader Xi Jinping who, in his drive to halt endemic corruption in all public bodies, has put, literally, the fear of death into officials who would normally around this time of year be receiving gifts from businessmen reliant upon their support in the securing of contracts, and business generally.
Some commentators have predicted the collapse of the whole Chinese art market, also affected by lower financial growth and restrictions on bank lending. Such a collapse seems to us unlikely. However, there can be little doubt that the Chinese art and antique market is undergoing something of a natural correction: having expanded so fast and so dramatically, that was inevitable at some stage. There were a considerable number of nervous participants in the boom and they will doubtless be breathing a sigh of relief now.
However, we do not think that medium-term this state of affairs will be perpetuated. Certainly, the first half of 2015 looks set for a rather less dramatic sales scenario which may well impact on UK auction prices. We think that things will improve during the second half of the year: there are too many vested interests in China to allow more than a temporary dent in the market. Soon, the buyers will re-emerge within China as they regain their courage and find their ways around tough new rules and Xi Jinping will, himself, ease the pressure as he sees Chinese growth slowing to a dangerously low level.
At the same time, the number of potential buyers is growing all the time in China as demography kicks in and the affluent middle classes grow in number and in sophistication. They have already switched, to a certain extent, out of foreign designer goods and into experiential spending, most obviously reflected in world travel. It won’t be long before they discover porcelain and painting . . .