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!

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.

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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.