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!

Imperial inksticks make their £191,000 mark at L&T

Edinburgh auctionneers Lyon & Turnbull held one of their periodic Asian sales in London this week on May 9.  An impressive range of objects from the scholar’s desk featured in this particular sale which kicked off with a private collection of no less than 58 scholar’s rocks fashioned from a wide variety of materials. Nearly all of them achieved respectable  figures around their estimates in the low thousands.

L&T 401 £191,000  A box of Imperial inkstickes sold by Lyon & Turnbull £191,000

However, the surprise of the day went to a rare set of 48 Imperial inksticks estimated modestly at £2,000-3,000 which were eventually knocked down at £191,000, inclusive of premium and costs.
They were by Wang Weigao, and were described as ‘Qianlong mark and of the period’.
These finely crafted pieces,comprising forty-eight inksticks contained in two fine gilt-lacquered ‘dragon’ boxes, illustrate the process of cotton cultivation and manufacturing in imperial China, each inkstick delicately carved on the one side with a particular stage of the process, accompanied by a gilt caption, and inscribed and gilt with a poem by Emperor Qianlong on the reverse, one of the inksticks inscribed with a ‘table of contents’, another inscribed with an introductory essay and signed ‘carved by Wang Weigao, supervisor of ink-making in the Imperial Library’ (Yu shu chu jiao xi zao mo jian sheng, chen Wang Weigao juan) . Each inkstick was just 6.9×2.5cm.

‘It’s Edinburgh’s own Asia Week’ as two Asian sales compete

Bonhams Edinburgh  Edinburgh Bonhams saleroom nicely dressed with rather a lot of huanghuali for Wednesday’s sale   Photo Paul Harris

There aren’t usually many Asian sales in Edinburgh. This week there are two – both on the same day. Ribbed about this, Bonhams’ Ian Glennie joked, ‘It’s Edinburgh’s own Asia week’. Of course, two swallows don’t make a summer and there isn’t much else Asian going on in Edinburgh this week . . .

Glennie avers, ‘We set the date for our spring Asian sale last October, then Lyon & Turnbull announce they are having an Asian sale the same day.’ It does seem that some sort of competitive accommodation has been reached between the two rooms: Bonhams sale is at 11 am and the Lyon & Turnbull event has been put back to 2 pm.

We viewed both sales on Sunday. The Bonhams sale is notweworthy for some rather fine pieces of furniture with rather a lot of huanghuali. The Lyon & Turnbull sale is a mixter maxter: you get the impression it is a ‘filler’ in between its more high profile Asian sales held at locations in London and St Neots. They haven’t printed a catalogue for the sale. That is a bit unusual. Even a roneoed list (you remember the roneo machine?) would have been useful, and very cheap. It is, of course, up online, as usual, but you will need to do your homework in advance and do the computer printouts if you are going to bid in person on site. In the event, we’ve left bids (in both sales) and will be off to London for the day . . .

 

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!

Some pictures from the China Arts & Culture Festival held in Edinburgh

P1120202 A scene from The Hubei Provinicial Peking Opera production at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre last Sunday. Below A touching scene from Farewell my Concubine Photos by Paul Harris

P1120185 Below A choral performance by singers from The Experimental High School (of Arts) at Beijing Normal University. Photo by Paul Harris

P1120141 Below: Hubei Provinicial Peking Opera costume (for The General) on display Photo by Paul Harris

P1120133Below: Charlotte Rostek, head of Glasgow office at auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull, gave a talk at the China Arts & Culture Festival on Chinese porcelain illustrated with pictures from her work as Emeritus Curator at Dumfries House and at L&T.

Charlotte Rostek  Experimental School of Shanghai Conservatory of MusicAbove: a rousing end to the concert given by The Experimental School of Shanghai Conservatory of Music  Photo by Paul Harris

L&T sell Thornhill cup in Hong Kong for over £3m.

Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull today sold in Hong Kong the so-called Thornhill Cup, a blue and white ‘dragon’ stem cup, for an impressive HK$ 36 million, approximately £3,170,000 in sterling. The rare and important item was valued at between £2m. and £4m. so the price was perfectly respectable.

L & T Thornhill stem cup The Thornhill Cup

Initially, bidding was fast with several bidders in the room and a bidder on the telephone. Once the bidding passed 25 million, it slowed into what appeared to be a thoughtful battle between the bidder on the phone and a bidder in the room. Bidding rose in increments of HKD 500,000 before eventually being knocked down in the room for 36m. HKD. At the time the hammer fell, that equated to just over £3,169,000. The hammer price if, of course, subject to a buyer’s premium of 25% on the first HK$800,000, 20% up to 15m. and thereafter 12% which take the price well over £3.5m.

The cup was sold on behalf of Staffordshire University which was bequeathed the artefact by London pharmacist and collector Ernest Thornhill. Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University, Rosy Crehan said today: “This is a fabulous result for the University of Staffordshire, it will allow us to care for and display the Thornhill Collection for future generations to enjoy. The funds raised will allow the remaining pieces of Chinese Oriental Ceramics to be curated, conserved and enjoyed in a new Ceramic Education and Research Facility. This is something Ernest Thornhill always hoped for and I am pleased that we will now be able to make his dream come true. ”

Lyon & Turnbull’s ‘Far East Adventure’ kicks off

464-ASIAN-Hero

Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull have already chased the Chinese market with a series of auctions near to the capital, London, and now they are going the whole hog with a May 31 sale in Hong Kong. Even on their own website, they term it ‘An Adventure’.

It is certainly that. It is also something of a gamble. In Hong Kong, they will, of course, be on the doorstep of the greatest repository of serious buyers of Chinese art. It is, arguably, the best way to reach that market but it still represents a financial and reputational gamble. If the gamble comes off, L&T will be in clover but if, for some reason, it fails then the cost will be enormous. Reputational most but also in terms of costs (getting there, setting up the auction, shipping, staff, etc.) which will represent a multiple of effecting the same operation on home territory.

L&T have produced what is probably their finest catalogue ever: size bumped up to full A4 and printed on the best heavy 180gsm glossy art paper. In the 198 page catalogue, the 151 lots in the sale are described in more than usual detail. Only the very best has made it into the catalogue and the star of the show has to be the so-called Thornhill Cup, which we wrote about in February http://chineseart.co.uk/news/high-hopes-for-sale-of-the-so-called-thornhill-cup/. Xuande mark and period, it is estimated at an ambitious UK £2-4 million, sent for sale by Staffordshire University who have owned it since 1944 following the bequest of collector Eric Thornhill. In many ways, the whole sale hinges on this one item . . .

L & T Thornhill stem cup

The Thornhill Cup to be sold by Lyon & Turnbull

High hopes for sale of the so-called Thornhill Cup

L & T Thornhill stem cup

It is rare that such high hopes are evinced for a piece of Chinese porcelain but Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull are rather more than bullish about the prospects for what is known now as ‘The Thornhill Cup’. Such are their ambitions for this object that they are to sell it in the Far East (Hong Kong) on May 31 , near to the big spending buyers. Even they will have to dig deep in their pockets with an estimate of between £2m. and £4m. Step forward Liu Yiqian?

According to L&T, the Ming Xuande (1426-35) mark and period blue and white stem cup is an excellent example of its type and is certainly a museum quality piece. This rare masterpiece is part of the Ernest S. Thornhill Collection of Asian Ceramics, comprising of some 270 pieces belonging to Staffordshire University, where it was bequeathed in 1944. The University’s Board of Governors has approved the sale of the stem cup, which, together with the rest of the collection, has been hidden away in storage for a significant number of years.

L&T’s Lee Young implies in his press release that the company is sparing no effort in bringing all experts and art advisers on board in recommending the stem cup to clients and potential purchasers. “In our industry, it is a privileged position when one is charged with selling an item of such historical importance. We have assembled a dedicated specialist team comprised of some of the leading lights in Asian art to ensure the best possible outcome is achieved.”

stem cup mark

The stem cup is crowned by the elegantly painted six-character reign mark within the cup, and circled by double rings, repeated on the inside and outside rim, and on the foot.

This is a truly remarkable and rare piece, of a type not seen at auction for many years. The motif of flying dragons was popular in the Yuan dynasty, but was revived in the Xuande as can be seen in this case. The fearsome five-clawed dragon flies amongst flames, chasing the eternally flaming pearl, above a sea with crashing waves tipped in white, with rocks seen around the base. The wares’ unique qualities include the glaze, which is thick and lustrous, with a buttery softness to it that responds to touch, and a luminosity unsurpassed in later wares.

This glaze is untainted by age, and, says L& T,  ‘consequently the piece still gives us the same pleasure today as when the Emperor Xuande held it in his hands. Today, very few examples exist outside museum collections. ‘

 

Staggering $1m. for Kangxi meiping dragon vase at Auctionata

lot 34 dragon vase

Earlier this week we picked out from the Auctionata Chinese sale, which took place earlier today, a Kangxi meiping blue and white dragon vase which we liked http://chineseart.co.uk/uncategorized/kangxi-dragon-vases-continue-to-challenge-the-collector/ . Estimated at around 5-10,000 euros,Lot 34 duly started at 5,000 euros before being knocked down online for a staggering 875,000 euros (around $1 million).

lot lot34 dragon vase cu

Detail of Auctionata’s million dollar vase

The vase in question was remarkably similar to another Kangxi dragon vase knocked down by Lyon & Turnbull at their December 3 sale last year. There were two differences from last year’s vase: the elevation of the head of the dragon and the arrangement of the mark to the base.

At the time of the L&T sale, it was generally thought that the hammer price of £240,000 must surely represent the top of the market. Today’s was almost three times last year’s record . . .  .

Kangxi dragon vases continue to challenge the collector

lot lot34 dragon vase cu

Lot 34 in Auctionata sale of December 18 Meiping dragon vase detail

Just over a year ago, on December 3 2014 auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull at Crosshall Manor, Cambridgeshire, sold a Kangxi meiping vase 23cm. in height and with dragon decoration for £240,000 hammer. It was something of a surprise because it was estimated at £2,000-3,000, which was probably just about right as a selling price for a pretty but modest vase which had, historically, suffered damage. However, it came with a missive which revealed that it was a gift to its erstwhile owner, the late Lady Stewart, from her respected Hong Kong dealer (who sold her much of her very fine snuff box collection), Hugh Moss. This excellent provenance duly propelled the price into the stratosphere. There was much merriment in the room as it was knocked down to telephone bidder . . .

In case you were outbid on that vase, there is what might be good news. A very, very similar one comes up for sale on Friday on Auctionata (Berlin), lot no. 34. It is estimated at around euros 10,000. It is of the same form (meiping), same height (23cm.) and is also decorated with a very similar dragon design, but which is not exactly the same. To the base, however, there is a very different mark: a horizontal in-line mark as opposed to the two column vertical mark on Lady Stewart’s vase.

lot 162 L&T dragon vase

The Lyon & Turnbull vase

lot 34 dragon vase

 Auctionata vase

During the Kangxi period vases were made in this style in blue and white, as well as in copper-red. They are not that common, however, these days. Auctionata, in their catalogue notes aver, ‘Meiping Vases with such [a] brilliant painting and bearing the mark of the Kangxi Emperor are very rare. A very similar vase is illustrated in: Elias, A Dealer’s Hand: The Chinese Art World through the Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi, New York 2013, p. 345, fig. 423. Another closely related example is in the collection of the Shanghai Museum and was exhibited in the exhibition Sovereign Splendor in 2011. Cf. Eliëns (ed.), Keizerlijk porselein uit het Shanghai Museum, Zwolle/The Hague 2011. Furthermore, other related versions can be found in some of the best collections of Chinese porcelain worldwide. Cf. a vase from the Palace Museum in Beijing, illustrated in Kangxi Yongzheng Qianlong, Hong Kong 1989, p. 23, pl. 6 and one from the Wang Xing Lou Collection, illustrated in Imperial Perfection, The Palace Porcelain of Three Chinese Emperors, Hong Kong 2004, no. 1.

‘The five-clawed dragon continued to be an Imperial symbol throughout the Qing Dynasty. The depiction of the dragon as on the present vase is characteristic for the Kangxi period, which is exemplified by a fierce and dominant demeanour adding a stronger impression of authority and majesty. This representation is shown by the detailed painting of the head and the scales, which demonstrates a development of the later Ming Dynasty versions. The full-faced view of the dragon already existed in Ming times but was extremely popular in the Qing Dynasty, distinguished by a greater feeling of vitality and a warlike spirit. ‘

We have compared both vases from photographs (we have only handled one and that was the Lady Stewart version). They are both equally well painted using the skills developed over the centuries by Chinese craftsmen. Such skills are, of course, extant to this day, particularly around Jingdezhen where exquisite work is achieved. Of the two marks, however, we much prefer the mark on the one sold by L&T last year. In our view, there is considerably less assurance in the creation of the in-line mark. As one expert put it, “The writing of the mark suggests someone trying to write in somebody else’s style, whereas the Stewart mark looks like someone just writing who has done it a thousand times.”

Marks, of course, are a tricky area and experts will often disagree on the very same mark. It is only our opinion and is not to demean what looks like a very pretty vase! As ever, it is a matter of caveat emptor . . .

lot162 mark cu   lot 34 draogn vase base

The marks to base: above, top The late Lady Stewart’s vase  Above Auctionata vase

Literature: Vgl. Eliëns (ed.), Keizerlijk porselein uit het Shanghai Museum, Zwolle/The Hague 2011. Vgl. Elias, A Dealer’s Hand: The Chinese Art World through the Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi, New York 2013

Condition: The vase to be sold this week is in good condition with a minimal chip on the underside of ring stand, barely visible to the naked eye. The height measures 23 cm.

 

Are UK owners of ivory in panic mode?

There are no statistics available so this might just be a guess on our part . . . but it does seem to us, at chineseart.co.uk, that there is an awful lot of Chinese worked ivory coming onto the market in the last few months. Indeed, there seems to be a plethora of beautifully worked pieces around at the moment. Are owners disposing of their collections in fear of the present Conservative government fulfilling its rash and ill thought out election pledge to ban the sale of ivory?

The many recent Asian and Chinese auctions have featured a considerable amount of ivory – certainly, rather more than usual. Some auctioneers, however, are abjuring ivory and not accepting it for sale at all. Chiswick Auctions went down that road after their prosecution and £3,200 fine in 2014 for selling a piece of worked ivory which turned out to date from the 1960s. In a recent Antiques Trade Gazette article on Asian Art in London, Lyon & Turnbull’s Lee Young went on record as stating his company would only accept some of the very best pieces and was drawing away from the area.

Effectively, if auctioneers stop selling historic ivory pieces they will simply pave the way for government legislation allowing the politicians to say, “Well, the market has decided not to sell the stuff so all we are doing is formalising it.”

Although there is a welcome academic initiative from the School of Law at Portsmouth University, which has just embarked on a year-long study of the possible outcome of a ban, it may well not have a direct impact on law making apart from spurring more unwelcome attention..

Our position here has always been that we think the existing CITES regulations are perfectly adequate as a basis for dealing in historic, worked ivory; and that any ban on trading such items would be unfair in the extreme on reputable dealers, collectors and those who have unwittingly inherited items of beauty and history which happen to be made of a material now ruthlessly condemned by the politically correct. As much as we deplore the killing of endangered elephants for modern use of ivory, it is not possible to turn back the clock. Historic pieces of worked ivory, many of them exquisitely accomplished centuries ago are a part of our heritage and should remain so. Any ban will, of course, drive the market underground, closing down availability and pushing up prices. So maybe now is actually the time to invest . . .

Illustrated below is one very fine piece which will be exposed for sale in Hannam’s next auction on December 11.

hannams lot 612

hannams lot 612 detailhannams lot 612 detail end

Lot 612 A Canton carved ivory tusk. Most probably 19th century, if not earlier, and particularly well carved.

 

Asian art auctions crowd the calendar in November

gavel 1 Auction fever in November

For the Asian art buyer next month promises to be a taxing, wallet emptying experience . . . It is the busiest month ever for Asian art auctions. Starting November 3 with London’s Chiswick Auctions, the next 28 days of the month of November will see no fewer  than 20 major auctions of Asian art.

The sales range in size from Sotheby’s November 11 sale of Classical Chinese Furniture from a European Private Collection with just 28 lots of fine-looking huanghuali furniture, to Woolley & Wallis’s usual two day extravaganza on November 17 and 18. They range in location from Bonhams Edinburgh rooms to Dukes in Dorchester and Peter Francis in Carmarthen.

The plethora of sales raises problems of logistics for the avid follower of Chinese auction offerings. Even if you only peruse catalogues on line, you have to set aside at least a couple of days. As for attending all the sales, that is a practical impossibility given the distances involved and the fact that many sales compete with each other on the same day!

Things calm down, thankfully, at the end of the month, although you may care to take in, if you have the energy and the bank balance left, the Lyon & Turnbull auction at Crosshall Manor, St Neots, Cambridgeshire. L&T are again abandoning their elegant Edinburgh saleroom for a small barn in order to be within relatively easy reach of the London market and Heathrow airport.

The auction mania is effectively driven by other surrounding events. The prestigious Olympia Winter Art & Antiques Fair has a strong Chinese and Asian showing this year and starts with its private view on November 2. Asian Art in London starts on November 5 and runs on until the 14th. Both events bring thousands of Asian buyers to London.

SONY DSC

      Lyon & Turnbull . . . at Crosshall Manor again     Photo Paul Harris

Listings for all the auctions can be found on our Auctions Nationwide page which is accessible from the slider bar on the Home Page of chineseart.co.uk