Bonhams emerge as top player in The Big Three after Asian Art in London

Last week’s Asian Art in London was particularly notable for witnessing the emergence of Bonhams auction house as the top player, historically regarded as No. 3 after Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Recent months have seen its more famous rivals grappling with problems financial and organisational and the evidence strongly suggests that Bonhams have cleverly snuck in to grab the laurels.

Bonhams Fine Chinese Art sale at New Bond Street London on November 9 made £11,971,313, the highest total for an Asian art auction in London last week.

Leading the Bonhams sale was a set of four Huanghuali Folding Chairs that achieved a well-nigh incredible £5,296,250, winning the accolade for the most valuable Asian work of art to be sold last week in London. As one wag put it, ‘Not bad for a set of deckchairs !’

4 chairs bonhams

The folding chairs appear to be the only known version of this form and type, and may now be considered a masterpiece of Ming Dynasty furniture. They had been estimated at £150,000 – 200,000 and came from an Italian aristocratic vendor. In a packed saleroom, the bidding war finally came down to a tense battle between a bidder in the room and one on the phone, with the chairs finally knocked down to the phone bidder.

The chairs came from the collection of the distinguished Italian diplomat, Marchese Taliani de Marchio, (1887 – 1968) and his wife, Maragaretha, the Archduchess d’Austria Toscana (1894 – 1986). From 1938 to 1946, Taliani served as Ambassador to the Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek Government. Despite spending only eight years in China, the Talianis were shrewd and gifted connoisseurs who assembled a collection of extremely important pieces that convey the rich history of Chinese decorative arts. 

An important and exceedingly rare pair of Huanghuali Tapering Cabinets from the Ming Dynasty from the same collection, estimated at £200,000-300,000, sold for a remarkable price of £1,688,750.

Bonhams International Head of Chinese Art, Asaph Hyman said, “The exceptional prices realised for the rare set of folding chairs and the pair of cabinets are amongst the highest ever achieved for Chinese furniture, a result that reflects their importance. We feel very privileged to have been entrusted with this historic collection.”

Earlier in the week on 6 and 7 November, Bonhams Asian Art sale at Knightsbridge made £2,377,150. The top lot was a famille rose scholar and fisherman dish that sold for £93,750.

Thursday November 9 turned out to be an auspicious day for Bonhams. That evening it was awarded the prestigious Asian Art in London prize for the outstanding work of art offered by an auction house. It was presented to Suzannah Yip, Director of Bonhams Japanese Department, at AAL’s Gala Evening at the British Museum. It was a joint winner with Chiswick Auctions.

The prize-winning object was a beautiful roiro – black lacquer panel – by Shibata Zeshin (1807-91). The panel is decorated with bell crickets on grasses growing on a bank, set against a silver lacquer full moon, and embellished with silver dewdrops.

The award – sponsored by Apollo Magazine and the Antiques Trade Gazette – was judged by museum curators from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and Victoria and Albert Museum, London, together with representatives from the sponsors Apollo magazine and Antiques Trade Gazette.

20171108_180114 William Sargent addresses a packedroom at Bonhams London on November 8      Photo Paul Harris

It should also be noted that Bonhams took the opportunity of AAL to mount a series of receptions, lectures and special exhibitions. Most impressive was a display of Chinese tureens made for the Spanish Nobility, which was accompanied by a lecture from William R Sargent, formerly at the Peabody Essex Museum.

All in all, a great performance from Bonhams and a shot across the bows of Sotheby’s and Christie’s who, as one observer put it, ‘will need to buck their ideas up.’


One of the Fantastic Creatures on display at Bonham’s, London.  Photo Paul Harris

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

Auctioneers look to Asia for expansion

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It is being reported that the larger auction houses are looking to Asia for growth over the next few years. We reported, almost a month ago, that the substantial provincial house Woolley & Wallis attributed their success during 2014 to the twin effects of their Asian sales and their jewellery sales. Now, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s are identifying Asia, and particularly Greater China (the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan) as the repository of their hopes in the near and medium future.

However, there is a slightly different cast to this analysis than that of recent times. Rather than looking to China and the Chinese recovering their heritage in the salerooms, there is a realisation that Chinese buyers are becoming more ambitious and wide ranging in their quest for art: they are becoming a regular, and vital, feature of Impressionist and Modern art sales, as well as jewellery and European furniture sales, especially in the area of highly decorated, extravagant pieces which appeal to the Asian palate.

The new President of Christie’s Mr Jussi Pylkkaenen is reported by The Antiques Trade Gazette as saying, ‘It’s not just the amount of money they are spending, but how they are spending it that matters. They are moving on from buying just Asian art to new categories.’

It is understood that Sotheby’s, soon to announce their 2014 results, will report that their Greater Chinese clients spent more than US$1bn. at their auctions. Quite apart from any national analysis, both houses seem to be saying that around 30% of their sales last year came from buyers new to them.

If Chinese buyers are moving on to European and international items will this diminish their interest in buying back their own art? This is what many experts are wondering. The key probably lies in the fact that the number of new buyers entering the market at auction generally is expanding dramatically. It seems doubtful if Europe or, even, America is providing such new entrants in vast numbers. We suspect that a large proportion of them are from so-called Greater China, including SE Asia.

This represents a newly affluent middle class with sums in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend at auction. This is a market which is set to expand dramatically and which will, in numbers if not in cash, overtake the more traditional millionaire (and now billionaire) sector of the population. They will be the unknown internet bidders hunched over their computers in bedrooms and boxrooms from Beijing to Baotou driving up the prices in the auction rooms of the UK.


Christie’s open Shanghai base on historic Bund

It is becoming abundantly clear that all the major London auction houses are vying with each other to establish themselves in pole position in what they see as the lucrative Chinese market.

The main competitors presently are Sotheby’s and Christie’s and it is understood that Bonham’s, currently for sale on the market itself, will also likely join the race as soon as its future is determined having recently opened opulent new premises in Hong Kong’s Pacific Plaza.

This week, Christie’s have made some important announcements.

  • Christie’s Shanghai is opening its new home at a historical landmark building on the Bund
  • A new category of Chinese Contemporary Design to be featured at the Shanghai Autumn Auction on 24 October, in addition to Asian and Western 20th Century and Contemporary Art evening sale and a Prestigious Lifestyle sale
  • A ground breaking and cross-category private sales exhibition, The Art of The Horse, tours Shanghai and Hong Kong

One year after its ground-breaking inaugural sale in mainland China, Christie’s announces the opening of a new home and a multi-purpose art space at Shanghai’s historical Bund. To mark the occasion, Christie’s will present its Shanghai autumn auctions on 24 October featuring an evening sale of Asian and Western 20th Century and Contemporary Art, a Prestigious Lifestyle sale, and the launch of a new category of Chinese Contemporary Design. A private selling exhibition, The Art of The Horse, will be the opening exhibition at Christie’s Shanghai on 21 October, and tours to Hong Kong in November.

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Christie’s are establishing themselves on Shanghai’s historic Bund on the banks of the Huangpu River. Photo by Paul Harris

Located in the heart of The Bund, the historic commercial centre of the city graced by its most elegant buildings, Christie’s Shanghai is housed at the Ampire Building which was built in 1907 and has been part of the urban landscape over the past century. The combination of heritage and style is a perfect match for Christie’s.  Covering an area of nearly 1,000 square meters for exhibition galleries and offices, Christie’s Shanghai will serve as a convening place for collectors and art lovers by holding exhibitions, lectures, events, private sales, and embodies the same spirit of similar spaces developed by Christie’s in New York, London and Paris.

“Shanghai blends a fascinating history and a dynamic spirit, which makes it one of the great cultural centres in the world. The character and elegance of the classical building on the Bund, which has become Christie’s new ‘home’, is a perfect illustration of the uniqueness of this city. It will provide an ideal setting for us to continue developing our activities, with an expanded programme of auctions, exhibitions, lectures and events tailored to the interests of Chinese collectors,” said François Curiel, Chairman of Christie’s Asia Pacific.

Since setting up as the first international auction house in China in 1994 with a representative office, this latest landmark in Christie’s history demonstrates the auction house’s commitment to China and its art market.

Jinqing Cai, President of Christie’s China, said, “As we continue to expand in China, Christie’s new art space will allow us to accommodate the many activities that we have planned for China. Our mission is to become an integral part of the art community in China while promoting great works of art by Chinese artists and creative talents globally. The launch of our Chinese Contemporary Design category, for example, is also part of our plan to offer exciting initiatives to art lovers in China and worldwide. After being exhibited at Christie’s Paris, Hong Kong and New York, the collection will be offered at Christie’s Shanghai autumn auction.”


China auctions recover in 2013

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The message is clear in recently released figures for 2013 from the major international auction houses: without sales in Asia, the market would be flat-lining and it is both there, and in the contemporary art market, where most future growth looks likely to be.

Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales in Asia, principally out of Hong Kong, recovered dramatically last year after a pronounced dip in 2012 (as we recently predicted would happen). Christie’s report sales up last year in Asia from US$705.4m. to $977.5m. last year. Sotheby’s increase in sales was even more pronounced: up from $5592.9m. in 2012, to $931.4m. last year.

In 2012, China’s principal auction houses had seen revenue almost halve. That trend has been sharply reversed.  At Beijing’s Poly Auctions, which is effectively government owned via the military colossus, sales leapt from the equivalent of $965m. (RMB 6.1bn.) to $1.3bn (RMB 7.9bn.). At China Guardian, the second largest auction house, sales were up from $820m. (RMB 5.2bn.) to just over $1bn. (RMB 6.6bn.). No figures have been issued in relation to hammer sales unpaid for but, after the setbacks experienced by Chinese auctioneers between 2010 and 2012, it might be assumed that they now have a handle on that particular situation.

Global results saw Christie’s easily beat Sotheby’s to the top spot with total sales of $5.9bn. with Sotheby’s managing $5.1bn. That having been said, Sotheby’s’ saw a faster year on year revenue growth of 19% as opposed to 12%. Christie’s overtook Sotheby’s in the currently fashionable contemporary art market and without that growth the two would have very much found themselves at similar levels.