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.


      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

Mixed fortunes for L&T at Crosshall Manor

866 Top seller at £80,000

The second day of Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull’s 2-day Asian Sale today saw mixed fortunes at what is developing as their southern outpost at Crosshall Manor, St. Neots, Cambridgeshire. Although the sale saw many unsold lots in the mid and lower levels, most of the ‘quality’ items up for sale found new homes at respectable prices.

Unlike last December’s sale, when a modest little Kangxi vase soared unexpectedly to around the £300,000 mark, there were no such breath taking occurrences. Lee Young, Head of the Asian Department, professed himself pleased with the overall result of the sale which, it would appear, was well in excess of £1m. However, he admitted it was often ‘difficult’ when it came to returning unsold lots.

It seems that the market itself has changed dramatically from last year when comparatively modest pieces of blue and white flew away. Buyers are now more cautious and whilst there is always a home for an outstanding piece, less immediately desirable lots are struggling. There may be a number of factors at play: there is a pronounced downturn in the market in China itself and the multiplicity of Asian sales is emptying the pockets of Chinese buyers. Over the last month, there have been Asian Art events in London, New York and Hong Kong. Indeed, L& T themselves are just returned from Hong Kong where they exhibited at the Hong Kong Art & Antiques Fair at the end of May. “We met several new buyers as a result and a good proportion of the high value lots sold today went to new clients we met there.”

Today, telephone and internet bidders, in that order, dominated the room. When the sale started, there were just nine members of the buying public in the room. Buyers were heavily outnumbered by L&T staff manning the phones and the computers. Last December, virtually every chair was taken.

There were solid prices for the best. A Yongzheng ruby-ground famille rose peony bowl achieved the top price of £80,000 hammer (estimate £80-120,000), and a rhinoceros horn libation cup got £74,000. As we wrote before, there were three exceptional oils by Chen Yanning (born 1945). Two failed to sell but a fine painting of two girls entitled ‘Serenity’ sold for £60,000, against an estimate of £80,000-120,000.


Chen Yanning’s ‘Serenity’: sold for £60,000

Although a large number of lots sold around the bottom estimate, there were some that roared away against expectations. Lot 730, an iron red dragon bottle vase with Daoguang mark and of the period, estimated at £6,000-8,000, was finally knocked down at £70,000 after a long, extended bidding process. Eventually a bidder from China on the telephone appeared to tire of the slow bidding in increments of £2,000. At £42,000 he placed a kill-all closing bid of £70,000!


Daoguang mark  and period dragon vase: £70,000

L & T fine modern Chinese paintings on offer at Crosshall Manor

Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull have a group of interesting Chinese paintings by an accomplished contemporary artist coming up for sale on Tuesday at Crosshall Manor, St. Neots, some 50 miles north of London. They are to offer for sale a collection of three paintings by artist Chen Yanning (born 1945) in the upcoming Fine Asian Works of Art auction on 16 June 2015.  The works are in a strong realist tradition which will appeal to buyers who are not attracted to so-called ‘cutting edge’ modern works but who rather cherish traditional, painterly skills.

The paintings have come from Susan and Michael Gassaway, owners of the Syllavethy Gallery, Aberdeenshire, who have something of a fascinating background with Chen Yanning. They first met Chen Yanning on a trip to China in 1984, when he was Head of the Guangdong Institute of Fine Art. To reciprocate his hospitality, Susan and Michael invited Yanning to visit the UK to view some of the Old Masters of Western Art that he had only seen in books back in China.

Two years later, Yanning arrived in Aberdeen and together with Susan and Michael, he visited the museums in Scotland and London. (Yanning, it is recorded, made the museum attendants nervous as he wanted to get up close to study the thickness of paint on his favourite masterpieces!) He, Susan and Michael communicated by using sign language and drawing sketches and quickly established a great friendship.

CHEN YANNING (B. 1945)  STILT-HOUSE  oil on canvas


Yanning was invited to visit the US in the Eighties. When he decided to remain there, Susan and Michael offered to support him by finding portrait commissions for him in the UK. With hard work they amassed a fine collection of portrait commissions from a very wide variety of people, from those who scraped together the money because they so admired Yanning’s talent, to dignitaries including the Lord Mayor of London, Richard Branson, all the Body Shop family and the Royal Family including the Queen, Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne. Yanning’s portrait of the Queen was subsequently used by Royal Mail for the Jubilee Year stamp.

Susan made all the arrangements for portrait sittings, from booking flights, to hotels and sittings, often several in different parts of the UK during one trip. She accompanied Yanning as the driver and Jill-of-all fixer. During the sessions, Susan would chat to the sitters placing herself in their direct line of their vision so that they moved as little as possible and Yanning could concentrate on his work. This is a very exceptional friendship going far beyond a mere business association.

During his career, Yanning’s paintings have been acquired by major museums including the Chinese National Gallery, the Museum of Chinese History and the West Australian National Gallery and elsewhere around the world. His paintings have also been selected for the Chinese National Art Exhibition, the Paris Salon, and others around the world including Australia, Japan, Canada and Brazil.

Yanning’s exposure to Eastern and Western influence has come to define his unique style and accomplishment, which continues to achieve a broad appeal; this collection of paintings (as pictured) is anticipated to spark interest amongst Chinese contemporary art collectors and galleries around the globe.

CHEN YANNING (B. 1945)  SERENITY  oil on canvas


Who am I? Lyon & Turnbull Asian Sale teaser

SONY DSC L&T at Crosshall Manor last December

Following upon last December’s sensationally successful event, Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull ( return to Crosshall Manor, St Neots, Cambridgeshire for another sale June 15-16. This time around, it is a mammoth two day sale: almost 700 lots of Chinese and Japanese ceramics, pictures and other collectables on Day 2; and 249 lots from a private, single owner collection on Day One.

Items in the single owner collection are quite modestly estimated and it could provide an opportunity to acquire some attractive and previously carefully selected objects. The first day’s sale is lyrically entitled ‘The Considered Eye’, in tribute to the anonymous collector of the objects on sale: the family have requested anonymity, so L&T have written a rather teasing introduction to the catalogue with much information about the erstwhile owner but no actual name.

It’s a little bit like a Victorian parlour game: Who am I? Well, there are quite a number of interesting  clues. Presumably, the owner in question is deceased. He probably died during his ’70s or ’80s having been collecting for forty years ca. 1970-2010. We learn he travelled, presumably to China, during the 1970s. He collected Oriental art but also had been or was interested in European porcelain and early bronzes, English silver and coins and modern and contemporary art.

He patronised Douglas J K Wright Ltd Oriental Art from 1974 onwards, bought jade and visited the painted enamel exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in 1978. Later, in 1986, he visited Chinese Works of Art from the Scholar’s Study at Spink & Son in New York; also Spink’s exhibitions in London 1983-89.

He was born in the month of the crab and travelled extensively acquiring Oriental objects. In the UK, there were frequent visits to the BM, the V&A and the Ashmolean. Later, there would be a trip to Japan which had the effect of broadening the scope of the collection. He collected the works of the Japan-based French printmaker Paul Jacoulet.

Well, not too difficult is it? Answers by email, with your address, before June 13 to The first email with the likely correct answer will win a bottle of Moet Chandon!

Wucai dragon & phoenix baluster vases

Lot 55 A pair of wucai ‘Dragon and Phoenix’ baluster vases, Wanli mark but 18th or 19th century.  Est £5,000-8,000.

Lyon & Turnbull presents China Insight@ The Burrell


Forever sharp marketeers, Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull have got together with Glasgow’s famous Burrell Collection for a weekend of events April 25-6 centred around the Chinese art market. It’s sure to be a hit with collectors, dealers and aficionados of Chinese art.

The location is as prestigious as the event is promising: The Burrell Collection, Pollok Country Park, 2060 Pollokshaws Road, Glasgow G43 1AT

These are the bullet points:

  • Lyon & Turnbull partners with The Burrell Collection for the first time to raise money for Glasgow Museums
  • One-off opportunity for lucky few to tour the stores led by Curator Dr Yupin Chung
  • World experts make their Scottish debut

L&T and The Burrell will produce a two day fundraising event centred around the art and marketplace of the 21st Century’s most rapidly developing sector: Chinese art. A subject area close to the heart of Sir William Burrell, proceeds from the events will be donated to support Glasgow Museum’s, in particular the valuable work at The Burrell Collection.

The weekend’s activity is tailored to suit appreciators of Chinese art, as well as owners and collectors; Saturday will feature specialist lectures and guided gallery tours, while on Sunday there’s an opportunity to get your own artwork or antique appraised by experts including top specialists as seen on The Antiques Roadshow.

Councillor Archie Graham, the Chair of Glasgow Life, said: “This promises to be a fascinating weekend, where not only can you find out more about Chinese art – one of Sir William’s greatest interests – but there will be special tours and an opportunity to find out if that old painting or trinket in the attic is actually a lost treasures. We’re delighted to be working with Lyon & Turnbull on this event at a time when the city has just committed to the next step in transforming the Burrell Collection with a major refurbishment and redisplay of the gallery – creating a home worthy of the world-class status of Sir William’s incredible gift.”

Perhaps the biggest coup is the opportunity to win a one-off guided tour of the Burrell Collection stores with Dr Yupin Chung Curator of Chinese & Far Eastern Civilisations. Taking you beneath the award-winning Burrell Collection building, the lucky few will benefit from Dr Chung’s unique insight into Sir William Burrell’s commercial success and meticulous method of collecting.  There are 12 places to be won, and anyone that buys a ticket to China Insight will automatically be entered into the ‘store tour’ raffle announced at the event’s opening at 11am on Saturday 25th April.

The lecture programme that same day will feature leading specialists from the Chinese Art world. Jacqueline Simcox, published author and world authority on Chinese textiles will speak on Chinese Imperial and court costume. Jacqueline has previously lectured at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Royal Academy and the British Museum and will be making her debut in Glasgow. Joining Jacqueline will be Nixi Cura co-founder of the Arts of China Consortium at New York University who will speak on Chinese painting. Nixi is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. Lee Young, Head of the Asian Art department at Lyon & Turnbull and Dr Yupin Chung, Curator of Chinese & Far Eastern Civilisations at The Burrell Collection will represent their respective institutions on stage.

On Sunday, the Burrell Collection main atrium will be buzzing around valuation tables where members of the public can bring in their own art and antiques to be valued and appraised. Lee Young & Steven Moore, as seen on the Antiques Roadshow, will head the team of specialists from Lyon & Turnbull with expertise including – Chinese & Japanese works of art, as well as items of other origin from jewellery & silver, to paintings and ceramics. All items will be seen. This type of event often throws up hidden treasures.


Lyon & Turnbull auctioneer Paul Roberts at their highly successful December 2014 sale in St Neots, Cambridgeshire Photo Paul Harris

Opening times:

Saturday 11am – 5pm

Sunday 11am – 4pm

Entry fees:

Saturday Talks & Tours

Day ticket £10, call 0141 287 2591 to book or visit the

Burrell Collection. All proceeds go to The Burrell Collection

*Purchase of a Saturday day ticket will automatically enter you into the ‘store tour’ raffle announced at the event’s opening at 11am on Saturday. Lucky winners will take the tour at 4pm that day.

Sunday Valuation day

£5 for first item and £1 for items thereafter.

All proceeds go to The Burrell Collection







After a strong end to 2014, what of 2015 in the Chinese art market?

opinion hl

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.

L&T £280,000 vase fake Kangxi

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.

anderson & garland2

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.

Masalski collection sold by Hansons

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.

tooveys 520,000 vase

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.

charterhouse porcelain panels

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 . . .

Small but perfectly formed, Chinese snuff bottles are taking off . . .

Schnupfer_corrected The snuff box in Europe

Snuff was discovered at the end of the 15th century by Christopher Columbus and his fellow adventurers as they roamed the western side of the Atlantic. But snuff took a while to take off in China. The earliest recorded date on a Chinese snuff bottle is 1644 but they would really take off in the 18th century..While 17th-century Europeans stored their powdered tobacoo in boxes, the humidity in much of China (and the lack of pockets in Chinese garments) necessitated a handheld, airtight repository — and thus the snuff bottle was born.

These tiny vessels were the focus of “Small Delights: Chinese Snuff Bottles,” a yearlong show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year. Some of the most sought-after examples exhibited came from the imperial workshops of the Qianlong emperor, a noted patron of the arts.

They were never particularly valued. Indeed. upon meeting a friend or acquaintance in the street it was customary to extend one’s arm (your supply of stuff being secreted in the sleeve) and snuff bottles and contents were duly exchanged.

However, that appears to be changing significantly. Three or four years ago it was relatively easy to pick up interesting Chinese snuff bottles for around £50, sometimes even less. If you hoped to ride a snuff bottle bottle boom, there can be little doubt you are too late.

Several provincial sales this autumn have highlighted the increasing value of Chinese snuff bottles. Two we have been at – Woolley & Wallis in November and Lyon & Turnbull earlier this month – evidenced vastly increased prices for these alluring small objects. To a certain extent, provenance at both auctions played a part although Mary Stewart, the romantic novelist whose collection was dispersed at L&T, was hardly renowned before her death at a world-class Chinese collector. However, she did have good dealers lurking in the background. At the Woolley & Wallis sale some snuff bottle lots got up to 20 times their estimates.

A sale last week online, however, underlines what might confidently be termed an emergent trend. Even more sensational results were achieved by Berlin-based Auctionata.

With intense bidding for every single item, ‘Exceptional Snuff Bottles from a Spanish Collection’ was Auctionata’s first auction to sell out entirely, leading to an impressive overall result of € 161,652 (incl. buyer’s premium).

The auction presented 64 snuff bottles from a private collection in Spain. The small, yet artfully crafted vessels attracted bidders with their impressive diversity of designs and precious materials such as agate, jade, overlay glass and porcelain.

For nearly four hours, Auctioneer Philipp von Hutten and Auctionata’s Senior Specialist for Asian Art, Dr. Arne Sildatke, presented the small but fine artworks to 498 users from 28 different countries. Throughout the auction, bidders from China, Thailand, United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany engaged in heated bidding contests which resulted in hammer prices that surpassed the estimates by far. The most sought after object of the night was a shadow agate snuff bottle with a bird motif and a dark-brown and black grain and a stopper of gilt brass with filigree decoration and round turquoises from the Qing dynasty, which ultimately sold for € 15,600. Another highlight was a shadow agate snuff bottle with telief handles from Qing Dynasty in light brown with a dark brown to black veining which sold for € 11,400 (all prices including buyer’s premium).

The reasoning behind the increased demand for these small but usually perfectly formed objects is hardly difficult to divine. They represent eminently portable wealth. And there is, of course, a pent up demand for wealth which might be transferred across certain national borders without tiresome duties and taxes, and retained as an apparently unostentatious way of investing ones wealth.


Shadow Agate Snuff Bottle with Birds, Qing Dynasty

Agate, light brown with a dark brown to black veining. Stopper of gilt brass with filigree decoration and round turqouises and bone spoon. Height: 7 cm.

Sold for € 15,600 (incl. buyer’s premium)


Chinese bidets, chamber pots and spittoons come out of the closet

book review typewriter   ‘Out of the Ordinary’

When we talk of Chinese export porcelain we tend to think of the finely worked grander items produced for a sophisticated Western taste: tea services, dinner sets, tureens and armorial plates are seen around relatively often. Everyday objects, fashioned in unusual shapes, like bidets, chamber pots, spittoons and barber’s bowls tend to surface rather less frequently. Now they are doing rather well: at auction only last week I noticed en export porcelain blue and white bidet (illustrated in this new publication) get £3,750. Now we have a detailed guide to these more unusual pieces from Jorge Welsh Books.

bidet L&T

Export porcelain bidet. £3,750 last week at Lyon & Turnbull

Chinese export porcelain was produced in an extraordinary range of shapes during the late 17th and 18th centuries, some of which are truly out of the ordinary. This lavish catalogue from Jorge Welsh, who is also hosting an exhibition in his Kensington Church Street gallery, focuses on the most unusual forms of porcelain, frequently ordered in smaller quantities and through private trade.

Most of these items were copied from Western prototypes made in metal, ceramics or glass, and can also be characterized by their functionality. This catalogue (in actuality a large format coffee table book) includes egg cups, strainers, cutlery handles, pudding moulds, custard pots, ladles, funnels, bulb pots, snuff boxes, cane handles, barber’s bowls and chamber pots, amongst others. The sheer variety of forms in this group is a testament to the significant reach of the porcelain trade as well as the remarkable adaptability of the Chinese potter.

Pair of Famille Rose Goose Tureens and Covers

A handsome pair of famille rose goose tureens at Jorge Welsh’s gallery

Commissioned according to the latest fashions, they also provide an insight into the scope of the European orders and the sophistication of contemporary consumer society in Europe at this time. The popularity of new, exotic and luxury products such as tea, coffee, chocolate and various spices, as well as some alcoholic beverages, stimulated new social practices and the need for numerous porcelain utensils. Also used for personal grooming, fashionable accoutrements and furnishing the home, Chinese porcelain permeated many of the more intimate aspects of daily life during this period.

The book is particularly well illustrated. If £100 seems a bit on the steep side, I do remember the advice given me years ago by an old China hand. ‘You should always lay aside 10% of your buying budget for reference books.’ They don’t depreciate in value, either. I have seen a shelf of sought after Chinese art reference books make as much as £10,000 at auction.


OUT OF THE ORDINARY  LIVING WITH CHINESE EXPORT PORCELAIN    Published by Jorge Welsh Books, London and Lisbon, October 2014

  • Language: English
  • Hardcover
  • ISBN 978-0-9573547-1-5
  • 23.5 × 29.7 cm
  • 344 pages, 351 colour illustrations
  • £100.00

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.

Drama and surprise mark auctioneer L&T’s southern foray


Crosshall Manor Lyon &Turnbull Asian Sale today   Photo Paul Harris

It was always going to be a brave venture. Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull decided to forsake their magnificent metropolitan Edinburgh auction rooms for the back room of a modest home counties manor house in the backwaters of Cambridgeshire. Are they mad, or what?

Well, of course, they want to crack the remunerative Asian market big time and, somehow, Edinburgh is a bridge too far for Chinese buyers who want to fly into Heathrow, nobble the goods and get out with them without the pain of connecting flights. And so, they came to Cambridgeshire, just an hour or so from London and its own repository of big money. As the sale opened this morning, one wondered whether or not the strategy was going to work. The Chinese had certainly arrived in some force: in a small room with just forty or fifty seats, Chinese buyers occupied almost thirty.

The London trade was almost completely absent although L&T said they had viewed and would be on telephone and internet from their gilded cages in Mayfair and St. James’s . Anyway, probably just as well they did not appear: it was a tight enough squeeze for the Chinese and a dozen or so UK buyers in between the glass cases surrounding the buyers and the large enclosure for L&T staff (some 15 at one count) manning computers, telephones and cellphones (goodness knows which provider they were using – I certainly could get virtually no signal on my Three mobile . . . ).

The enclosed geography of the auction room had something of the atmosphere of a gambling den – which was, on second thoughts, probably approaching the reality of the proceedings. The sale started slowly and unexcitingly. There were many passed lots and quite a number of bargains to be had: on reflection that was probably the time to buy well because things were to change dramatically . . .

It seemed that as soon as Paul Roberts took to the rostrum things really rather picked up. Now that should not be ascribed to the considerable charisma of this senior executive of Lyon and Turnbull. Rather, he chose his entrance well . . . to sell the Asian contents of the estate of romantic novelist (Lady) Mary Stewart. She had some rather good stuff, courtesy of her top rank dealers Hugh and Sidney Moss. A carved rhinoceros horn libation cup kicked off her collection with £44,000 on the hammer . . .


Happy or what? Auctioneer Paul Roberts knocks down a little blue & white vase for £240,000    Photo Paul Harris

However, the surprise of the sale was an unpretentious little Meiping blue and white vase catalogued as ‘Kangxi mark but later’ and estimated at £800-1200. Nothing special really – as the dealer sitting beside me observed, ‘It’s a £2,000 vase.’ Well, it took rather a long time to sell. But it’s a long way up into the stratosphere for a £2,000 vase to reach £240,000. As the competing bids came in, the reaction of the Chinese in the room, who had the vase in clear view, turned from utter bemusement to open derision. With premium and the rest it cost the telephone bidder around £300,000.

As far as we could see the factor which commended it to putative future owners was The Provenance: ‘Gift from Hugh Moss, 1970s, early 1980s.’ As you know, dealers of the quality of Hugh Moss don’t give rubbish to one of their best clients. However, I hazard a guess he may be a trifle amused when he reads about it . . .


Telephone and internet dominated proceedings with a dozen or more L&T staff manning the lines    Photo Paul Harris

From that point in the sale, things never really let up. On some lots, there would be twelve to fourteen L&T staff rising to their feet with telephone and internet bids. A couple of lots later, an unassuming  Wucai dragon and phoenix dish estimated at £800-1200 was knocked down for £25,000. Three lots later a pleasant carved wood brush pot estimated at £1,200-500 was sold for £48,000. The snuff bottles, with their impeccable provenance, went crazy.

Other collections similarly did well and the only disappointment was The Max Lowenson Tang Horses. As handsome as they were, the Chinese market demonstrated its distinct lack of enthusiasm for funerary ornaments. However, a Yongzheng celadon and blue charger from the same collection as their June blue and white charger success (£345,000 hammer) was knocked down for £200,000. A pair of doucai ‘butterflies and flowers’ medallion bowls got £75,000, against an estimate of £20,000-30,000.

All in all, it was a rather good day for Lyon & Turnbull.We asked a representative of the company if they would be coming back to Crosshall Manor for their next Asian Sale. “I imagine so,” she cheerfully confirmed. However, with the level of telephone and internet bidding which characterised this sale, the same result might have been achieved from the basement at 25 Acacia Gardens . . . oh, and a note to L&T admin. For goodness sake, if you are returning, get wifi access installed for your bidders. The Chinese buyers were very frustrated not to be able to get onto their life support system, WeChat.



L&T presents a collection of collections

L&T 269 2

Tang horse from the Max Lowenson Collection

Edinburgh-based auctioneer Lyon & Turnbull presents something of a collection of collections in next week’s Asian sale which takes place in St Neots, Cambridgeshire rather than in Edinburgh.

The 552-lot sale draws from a number of private collections. In addition to two unspecified Scottish private collections, there are items drawn from the collections of the late Scottish romantic novelist (Lady) Mary Stewart, the Leonard Gow Collection, the Alexander Ritchie Collection and two Tang horses from the Max Lowenson Collection.

The two magnificent prancing Tang horses from Max Lowenson’s collection are 50cm high and have been tested by Oxford Authentication (Lot 269).  Lowenson (1875-1947) was born in Riga, Latvia, moved to live in Wales and travelled extensively in the course of his business interests throughout Europe and the Far East. He was an avid collector of Chinese art, particularly Han and Tang pieces. Many were bought from great country house sales during the first half of the 20th century. The Tang horses are estimated at £20,000-30,000.

L&T 269

Lot 269 Tang horses

The collection of Glasgow shipping magnate Leonard Gow was renowned during the 1920s and 30s. At one time, he was known to possess the finest collection of Kangxi porcelain in Britain. He also collected some later pieces and it is a selection of these which is included in the sale. For anyone wishing to acquire something with an impeccable provenance, this is a splendid opportunity to buy. Gow was a man of great taste and only acquired the very best. There will be available a magnificent pair of Kangxi blue and white covered jars (Lot 351) estimated at just £3-5,000 which should do well.

L&T 351

Lot 351 A pair of Kangxi covered jars

Mary Stewart was a legendary figure to those who enjoyed romantic fiction. It is not generally known, however, that she collected Asian works of art buying from dealers like Hugh Moss and Sydney Moss. She collected a wide range of pieces ranging from snuff bottles to early Ming wares. Lyon & Turnbull draw buyers’ attention to a Quianlong Buddhist lion (Lot 217) estimated at ££20,000-40,000, and a Ming or Qing chimera (Lot 212) estimated at £8-12,000.


L&T 212 L&T 217

Two pieces from the Lady Mary Stewart Collection: 217 and 212

The sale takes place next Tuesday December 2 at Crosshall Manor, St. Neots ( Explaining the move to the south from the company’s Edinburgh base, L&T’s Head of Asian Department Lee Young says, “With a substantial proportion of buyers located within London and surrounding areas, in addition to the incoming buyers from China and Hong Kong, St Neots is conveniently located just 50 minutes by train from London Kings Cross to make it easier for interested parties to attend the sale. If this formula proves to be successful we would certainly plan to make this a regular service offered by Lyon & Turnbull to help our buyers.”

Hong Kong expert questions security in the China art market

As we reported ten days ago, a heart-stopping presentation during Asian Art in London, sponsored by Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull, was made by a Senior Inspector in the Hong Kong Police, also a private art security consultant, Toby J A Bull. In our view, it was probably the most significant talk in a long series of events.


Toby J A Bull of Trackart Art Risk Consultancy, Hong Kong  Photo Paul Harris

The talk, entitled A Quest for Authenticity in the Chinese Art Market, dealt with a range of areas of concern for dealers and collectors ranging from the nebulous role of Hong Kong in the international trade to tomb robbing, fakes and forgeries, money laundering and theft. He started his presentation with a dramatic quotation from the novel The Gilded Seal by James Twining: ‘Forgery is the paedophilia of the art world. Once the suspicion is raised, you are presumed guilty, even when proven innocent. It’s a shadow that never leaves, poisoning everything you touch. So you need to be either very brave, or very sure that you’re right, before you try forgery in this city . . .’. As a result, the Hong Kong art business is a tightly held industry difficult to penetrate and opaque in the extreme.

Bull emphasised initially that he was not talking on behalf of the Hong Kong Police, although he is a Senior Inspector there. There is no art crime squad within the Hong Kong Police. As he spun his tale, however, it became quite clear why he was not talking on behalf of the Police: the Police Authority simply has no role in preventing illegal activities related to the art world.

The 1997 agreement between China and the UK specifically provided for strict Chinese laws on the protection of cultural relics NOT to apply to Hong Kong: one country, two systems. There are separate Export Laws and in terms of Hong Kong’s Import and Export Ordinance (Part IV), there is provision for a Freeport handling ‘Unmanifested Cargo’ which simply facilitates smuggling. Once goods have passed through the Freeport of Hong Kong they are effectively legitimised with all the necessary export-import paperwork. This is particularly relevant in relation to the import of antiquities to mainland China where an import duty of around 35% is imposed.

The vast volume of goods in containers means that a statistically minute proportion is ever examined. Between 1992 and 1996 (under the UK) HK$ 15 million of Chinese antiquities were seized in HK; the figure went down dramatically between 1997 and 2006 totalling HK$2.3m.; between 2007 and 2012 no Chinese antiquities at all were seized ! Many of these containers carry thousands of copies of antiquities: forgeries. Not only is porcelain copied on an industrial scale within mainland China, but, even, Kuomintang stickers to accompany items said to originate from the haul of evacuated antiquities during the dying days of the civil war 1948-49. The quality of fakes is now extremely high.

There is no unit in the Hong Kong police these days engaged in investigating illegal activities in the local art world despite the fact that large quantities of stolen and forged artefacts pass through the Freeport every week. These include the products of tomb robbing in China. Such looting “requires an elaborate, multi-layered network of grave robbers, middlemen and art dealers.” Such networks flourish in China.

Hong Kong very often benefits. In 2002, antiquities looted from eight outer temples of The Forbidden City were included in a Christie’s Hong Kong auction catalogue and were ultimately withdrawn from sale. Christie’s deemed it an isolated case’ and averred that it ‘devoted considerable resources to investigating the provenance of all objects offered for sale’.

“The majority of art is stolen for money laundering purposes and art sales are often components of the laundering process,” Bull said. The media usually reports in terms of dramatic value the stealing of works of art. This helps the criminals who will fund their ongoing activities at around 3-10% of such publicised value. Effectively, stolen art is used as a financial underpinning to the China-Hong Kong underworld.


One of Toby Bull’s slides from his presentation    Photo Paul Harris

In Hong Kong, anti-money laundering regulatory action is based within the Anti-Money Laundering task Force (AMLTF) of which China and Hong Kong are both members. It investigates both financial institutions and Designated Non-Financial Businesses and Profession (DNBFs). Incredibly, the art market is not classified amongst the DNBF’s!

On occasion, thefts are particularly brazen. In April 2014, the Chinese mainland auctioneer Poly International held an auction in the Hong Kong Grand Hyatt Hotel where the hammer went down for the equivalent of US$3.7m. on a painting by the popular Chinese artist Cui Ruzhuo (see below). It was packed up for delivery to the buyer and stacked for collection whereupon it disappeared and has never been seen since. The Hong Kong Police were involved but were obliged to back off after Poly roundly declared it was simply ‘lost property’. Many in the Police Authority believe it was simply stolen and that Poly were keen to have the whole unedifying matter dropped . . .