Auctions USA

Asia Week sees stalled sales and discerning buyers

Tastes seem to shift to Shang bronzes, Qianlong century jades, as collectors and dealers pass on overpriced and lesser material

NEW YORK. Last week’s Asian art auctions (13-17 September) marked a new shift with buyers sitting on their hands for aggressively estimated 17th-century furniture and less important jades and bronzes. Instead, they ventured with a vengeance towards rarities frequently bearing lower estimates.

For example, at Sotheby’s 503-lot sale, a pair of huanghulai yokeback chairs, dating from the 17th century stalled at $650,00 (est $800,000-$1.2m) and another larger pair stopped at $850,000 (est $1.2-$1.5m), with both sets bought in.

“There’s volatility in this market,” said James Lally, New York dealer, referring to the chairs. Few western dealers seemed to be buying at their Chinese works of art sale yet Lally snagged an Imperial Qianlong gilt medal hat stand for $410,500 (est $130,000-$150,000).

A trio of Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period jade inlaid, parcel gilt vases stopped at $280,000 (est $300-500,000) and also did not sell. Bidding for an Imperial, carved cinnabar lacquer day bed with surprisingly contemporary lines, from the Qing Dynasty slowed to $75,000 (est $150,000-250,000) and did not sell.

“The back and side arms were wrong,” said Lark Mason, former Sotheby’s Chinese expert and owner of iGavel, Inc. and (no relation to The Art Newspaper’s correspondent). He said of Asian buyers, that “demand means tens of thousands of new millionaires who are, pardon the word, unsophisticated and looking to impress with their new wealth. I met one yesterday who spent more than $1m on five items—Chinese jades and other Qing works of art—privately. He wants to put his money somewhere and art is better than US currency which is declining in value.”

Many Asians collectors were being more discerning than in previous years. So a Shang Dynasty bronze Fangyi ritual food vessel stalled at $987,000 (est $1.5m-$2m). Sotheby’s under bidder at $2m for an archaic ritual bronze Hu vessel, from the late Shang Dynsaty (est $2.5m-$3 m) was an elderly zoot-suited Hong Kong businessman who preferred anonymity, and walked out of the room as the work failed to sell.

Meanwhile, Abercrombie t-shirt clad Joyce Liang, who heads up the Hong Kong Joyce Gallery, scooped up bronzes, a ritual food Ding vessel for $362,500 (est $80,000-$120,000), a globular bronze Pou vessel $386,500 (est $150,000-$250,000), and a Gui food vessel $338,500 (est $70-90,000), all from the Shang Dynasty (12th-11th century BC) in under seven minutes at Sotheby’s. At Christie’s 1,300-lot sale, she scored a tripod Jue wine vessel (est $40,000-60,000) for $902,500. In all, Liang spent around $2m.

“I took them for my own collection, because they’re truly original, as Ming ceramics are really copies of Shang in shape and pattern,” said Liang. “More Asians are gravitating towards Shang because those examples have greater depth in history than Ming porcelain,” she said.

“The building of 1,000 museums in China is spurring interest now in early material,” said Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society museum in New York. “Many Asians are and will be collecting antiquities,” she said.

Private dealer Jeffrey Wang, of nearby Flushing, Queens, which has a large population of Asian immigrants, plunked down a combined $1,159,500 for three Qing Dynasty rhino cups. “I bought for just one Hong Kong collector,” said Wang. “The attraction of rhino cups is their history, their intricate carving,” he said.

Beijing private dealer Bainian Dai Tang said he picked up a Qing Dynasty Coromandel screen for $302,500 (est $250,000-350,000) indicating another new shift in taste. Coco Chanel had one, as did many Park Avenue high-society ladies in the 1940s. “Before Chinese collectors lived in modern flats and those screens would not fit inside, but now some have European-style homes and they are perfect for [those types of dwellings],” he said.

Bidding was ferocious for some jades, but spotty for lesser quality ones. At Christie’s, an 18th-century jade melon box jetted to $2.1m (est $100,000-$150,000) with an Asian trade buyer snagging it. A jade vase from the 18th-19th century, but archaistic in style zoomed to $2.65m (est $750,000-$1 m) going to an Asian private collector bidding by the phone manned by Rachel Shen from Christie’s Shanghai office. The Asian trade took a Ming style moon flask from the Qianlong period for $2.6m (est $500,000-$700,000). A pair of modern blue and white vases from the 20th century soared to $602,500 ($40,000-$60,000) going to a US private buyer.

However much failed to sell. “What did not sell at Sotheby’s was neither Chinese taste today nor quality,” said Hank Cheng of the San Francisco Dragon House. His purchases were solely for Asians. “Today, the market for early, fine works of art is all in China, not here,” he said.

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