On surprises and uncertainty in the Chinese art market


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!

Asian Art in London II The Oriental Ceramic Society Exhibition is a stunner!


Far and away, our favourite absolute highlight of AAL has been The Oriental Ceramic Society display in New Bond Street, courtesy of Sotheby’s, CHINA WITHOUT DRAGONS: RARE PIECES FROM ORIENTAL CERAMIC SOCIETY MEMBERS. There have been some absolutely startling pieces of ceramic art on show from earliest times to the late 20th century. The only problem with this stunning exhibition as we see  it is that it is on for such a short time – just a few days, closing November 9. Surely it would have been possible to allow as many people as possible to view these unique pieces during the whole course of AAL?

Here, anyway, are our firm favourites:

ed-ocs-at-sothebys-sancai-horse-figureExtraordinary! The only word for this remarkable object which is catalogued as a pottery zodiac figure of a horse in sancai glaze ‘Tang dynasty 7th or 8th century’. Well, we have certainly never seen anything like this before! There is evidence of a sense of humour here which is not exactly typical of Tang . . .

ed-ocs-at-sothebys-kangxi-blackamoor                    A glazed biscuit porcelain figure of a black attendant standing on a lotus leaf. Late Kangxi and formerly in the Rockefeller collections.

ocs-at-sothebys-20th-c-grisaille-pot An outstanding 20th century piece from the Jingdezhen kilns: brushpot painted in grisaille and coloured enamels.

ocs-kiln Well, cute is hardly the word for this one. Apparently, this is a 19th century glazed biscuit pouring vessel in the form of a kiln decorated with butterflies. It is a beautiful piece but it appears to us remarkably modern in its conception and form. It must have been created by a great talent . . .

If you miss the exhibition, you can at least put your name down for the catalogue. It will be published next Spring, 2017, at a pre-publication price of £50. Enquiries by email to ocs.london@btinternet.com. It will, however, be sent free of charge to members of The Oriental Ceramic Society. Membership for a UK member costs just £55 so it seems a no-brainer to sign up today and get your catalogue f.o.c.!

Mao Tse-Tung letter sold at Sotheby’s for £605,000

Strictly speaking, it may not be art but a letter from Mao Tse Tung to British Labour Party leader Clement Attlee has challenged some of the higher prices in the market for Chinese bygones.

A 1937 letter from Chinese Communist Party leader Mao to Attlee, has sold at Sotheby’s London rooms for £605 000.

mao letter2

Excerpt from Chairman Mao’s letter to Clemet Attlee Image courtesy Sotheby’s

In the letter, Mao asks Attlee to help him battle against Japanese troops invading China. The typed letter reads: “We believe that the British people, when they know the truth about Japanese aggression in China, will rise in support of the Chinese people, will organise practical assistance on their behalf, and will compel their own government to adopt a policy of active resistance to a danger that ultimately threatens them no less than ourselves.”

mao letter

Mao’s letter, which has an extremely rare example of Mao’s signature (above), was sent to Atlee through the journalist James Bertram, along with a note to Attlee asking him to to “keep the enclosed letter, if only as a curiosity.”

The lot, which went under the hammer at Sotheby’s London premises, had an estimate of £100,000-150,000, was bought by a Chinese private collector who obvioulsy thought, at over £600,000, it was certainly a curiosity worth acquiring.

The sale was timed following the widely publicised four-day visit to the UK by Chinese President Xi Jinping in October, when interest in Chinese history is at a high in the UK. Not high enough, however, to keep it here!

Last month, Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell famously threw a copy of the Chinese Communist Party leader’s Little Red Book at Chancellor George Osborne in Parliament, as he claimed UK assets were being sold to China.


Mao Tse Tung   Photo courtesy Bettman/Corbis


A tale of Yongzheng dragon chargers £218,500 or £1,500?

Yonzheng charger Sold by Sotheby’s for £218,500

One of Sotheby’s best prices last week was for ‘a rare iron-red and underglaze-blue nine dragon charger Yongzheng mark and period’. It was formerly the property of collectors George and Cornelia Wingfield Digby.

Despite considerable historic damage, and an unconvincing repair job, it made £218,500, inclusive of buyer’s premium. It is, of course, not the only one around: there are almost identical ones in The Shanghai Museum in People’s Square, Shanghai, and in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. There are also a few, rather later copies in circulation . . .

The charger sold last week was described in Sotheby’s catalogue as being a ‘nine dragon charger: a central dragon within the central medallion, with four to the interior, around the rim, and another four underneath to the exterior. There is a six character mark to the base within a double circle, size  47.5cm., 18 ¾ in.’
But the condition report reveals extensive historic damage. ‘The dish was broken into five pieces. It has now been repaired with the cracks still visible under the naked eye. There are large areas of overspray, possibly also concealing associated rim chips. The base is oversprayed, with the mark painted over. There are some chips to the foot, the largest measuring 0.7×0.4cm. The central interior has a 0.2×0.1cm area of paint loss (under the glaze) to the lower left of the dragon tail. Minor glaze firing imperfections such as iron spots and burst glaze bubbles.’
Of course, it is slightly surprising that such a desirable piece should have been so poorly restored but, most likely, it was a simple matter of getting the wrong person for the job. It is, indeed, a very fine piece in all its variations – and you can get one for a lot less than a quarter of a million pounds, and in rather better condition!
Yongzheng mark Yongzheng mark to base

Sotheby’s include a very good explanatory note in the catalogue. ‘Dishes of this magnificent size and formidable decoration were made to impress. Such wares were used at Imperial banquets and on special celebratory occasions, such as the ‘Thousand Elderly Banquet’ held in honour of senior citizens when thousands of invited guests were served a great feast. The Manchu custom of banqueting closely followed the Mongolian and Tibetan tradition of shared communal dining.A Yongzheng dish of this design and large size in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, vol. 3, Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 223; another in the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, was included in the exhibition Seikado zo Shincho toji. Keitokuchin kanyo no bi [Qing porcelain collected in the Seikado. Beauty of the Jingdezhen imperial kilns], Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, 2006, cat. no. 53; and another in the Meiyintang collection is published in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1723. Compare also a Yongzheng dish sold three times in our rooms, once in London in 1995, and twice in Hong Kong, in 2005 and 9th October 2012, lot 125, from the collection of Dr Alice Cheng; another sold in our London rooms, 6th December 1994, lot 179; and a third, with a slightly reduced rim, sold at Christie’s London, 10th April 1978, lot 49.’

This piece would have been made in Jingdezhen and the decoration is a Yongzheng  interpretation of an early-Ming pattern. The Yongzheng emperor is reputed to have sent porcelain from the palace to Jingdezhen in order to establish rather better production standards as well as to serve as models and inspirations for designs. This dragon design follows after a Xuande prototype, where dishes were painted with a side-facing five-clawed dragon amongst crashing waves in the centre, the side decorated with three dragons striding amid clouds. An example of this Xuande dish, excavated at the waste heap of the Ming Imperial Kilns in Zhushan, was included in the exhibition Xuande Imperial Kiln Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 87. (Source: Sotheby’s)

Sotheby’s give some excellent well-researched background to the piece. ‘The creative ingenuity of the Yongzheng potter is evident from the successful transference of a pattern that was originally made for much smaller vessels. The different design elements on this dish are perfectly composed to give no hint of overcrowding or spatial gaps that could hinder the overall harmony. While maintaining the essence of the original design, the artist created a motif that is familiar yet fresh: the side-facing dragon has been replaced with a frontal dragon and the crashing waves no longer cover any part of the dragon’s body to give a greater sense of the creature’s dominance and strength. The use of red heightens the contrast between the dynamism of the background and that of the dragons while endowing the scene with further auspicious meaning. Moreover, the extent of the Qing craftsman’s proficiency is evident in the additional crested rolling wave band encircling the rim of the dish which frames and draws the expansive design together, an element that was not necessary for the smaller Ming dishes.

‘Yongzheng dishes of this type continued to be favoured by the Qianlong emperor who commissioned the making of very similar vessels. Examples of dishes from both periods are illustrated in Min Shin no bijutsu [Ming and Qing art], Tokyo, 1982, pls. 154 and 172; and another Qianlong example in the Nanjing Museum was included in the exhibition Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1995, cat. no. 81, and also illustrated on the dust jacket.’