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.
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.
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!