Asian art

New York all set to be the world centre for Asian art

The Art Newspaper reporter saw a trend towards later Chinese art, satisfied dealers active museums buyers—and some worrying fakes


It has been coming for fifteen years: New York looks destined to become the centre of the growing market in Asian art. Confirmation of this was given by the enormous success of last month’s Asia Week, a title once applied to the sales of Asian art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but this year including also the successful second edition of the International Asian Art Fair, gallery shows and London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi exhibiting for the first time in the US.

The Asian Art Fair, organised by Brian and Anna Haughton, had more exhibitors than last year, its first. Buyers came from all over the world and not just the US; dealers sold most of their major items and Asian art as a whole has been confirmed as a growing field, attracting many investors.

The market for Asian art has not suffered the tremendous ups and downs that so drastically affected Impressionist paintings; rather, it has registered steady growth, fuelled recently by Asian buyers who will significantly determine its future. With the Asian Art Fair now a regular New York fixture, many will agree with London dealer Fabio Rossi, who, half-joking, said that if it goes on like this, dealers will be working for only a couple of weeks a year when they exhibit at the major fairs around the world.

Several buyers were American museum curators. Their European colleagues were rarer; American museums and institutions generally impose fewer restrictions on the purchase of works of art than their European counterparts, which require a documented provenance for the objects they acquire. The VAT on the importation of works of art is also having a decisive effect on the European market and driving it to the US.

The fair was not particularly strong in early Chinese works of art, with the notable exception of Gisèle Croes’s stand, where the European dealer presented ancient pottery figures and bronzes, some of which had previously been exhibited at Maastricht. Other dealers, including the Chinese Porcelain Company, offered funerary figurines, now beginning to appeal to Chinese collectors whose tabu regarding tomb objects is slowly diminishing (most early Chinese art—and particularly that which has fetched some of the highest prices in recent years—comes from ancient graves, having been part of the deceased’s accoutrements). Among the early works of art, a major exhibit was the superb textile fragment dated on the basis of laboratory testing to the Tang period, and comparable to the one kept at the Shoshoin. It was exhibited by London dealer Francesca Galloway, who chooses consistently high quality objects. Textiles continue to attract buyers and scholarly interest: significantly, the next Percival David Foundation seminar will be devoted to Chinese textiles (London, 16-18 June).

A growing interest in the more recent Chinese art

There has been a recent shift in the market, confirmed also at the fair, towards objects of the later periods. In 1995, in London, this caused a bamboo brush-holder of the seventeenth century to cost more than a Neolithic pot of the third millennium BC. It can be explained by an aesthetic re-evaluation of previously neglected forms of art, a nostalgia for the nineteenth century and a renewed delight in chinoiserie. Even top dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi launched his first show of China Coast Paintings last winter in London and was a lender to the exhibition “A tale of three cities, Canton, Shanghai and Canton” held at Sotheby’s in January: his was the enamelled panel of unusually large size, demonstrating that the eye of the real connoisseur never fails.

Will the “end of Hong Kong” mean fewer early goods?

But the shift in the market is probably also being caused by the sources of early works of art drying up. This is one of the major preoccupations of many dealers and it is related to the imminent fate of Hong Kong. It has become increasingly difficult to find valuable antiques there, while more fakes than previously noted have surfaced and have been sold in the last few years. With the “end of Hong Kong,” it will be interesting to see where major dealers will find the objects to sell.

Fakes: a serious and growing problem

Chinese jades, one of the major collectable items until about 1996, were virtually absent at the fair, probably because very few collectors now dare to acquire them, so uncertain are they that they are genuine. This did not, however, prevent the successful sale of a small group of extremely dubious jades by one of New York’s galleries of Chinese art.

Recently a number of good fakes have appeared on the market and some famous Chinese and Western scholars have cast doubts on the authenticity of objects on sale or in public and private collections. Even one of the objects in the exhibition of treasures from the Palace Museum, Taipei (until recently in Washington after having been at the Met in New York), was labelled “Liangzhu period jade” and assigned to the Neolithic period, although it would have been safer to consider it an eighteenth-century “fake,” crafted to meet the demand for archaic jades by the Qing emperors.

This shows how important it is to apply laboratory tests, already conducted in China on jades, particularly the archaic ones. Dealers such as James J. Lally, who in 1993 presented the jades which had belong to Professor Max Loehr, are looking forward to tests that will give more objective evidence against which to judge the opinions of scholars.

Chinese works of art are generally bedevilled by fakes and Asia Week was no exception. This problem is of paramount importance and, in the medium and long terms, it could affect the market irreparably by undermining the confidence of the buyers.

It is true that making mistakes is part of the risks taken by a collector, who can, however, easily become a victim of the less scrupulous dealers. There is much inappropriate use of “scholarship”, often reduced to a supporting role in the market. This confusion of roles is not good for anybody in the field of Chinese art and harms both dealers and scholars requiring, at this stage, a drastic application of the Confucian principle of the “rectification of names.”

The Eskenazi formula: sound scholarship, outstanding goods

A notable exception—though not the only one—to this tendency is represented by Giuseppe Eskenazi, who has set the standard in his exhibition catalogues by occasionally asking experts in the field to write introductory essays while keeping a clear distinction between his activity as a dealer and scholarship. The catalogue to his first New York show contains an essay by Regina Krahl which introduces collectors and visitors to the focus of the exhibition, a group of ceramic figures ranging from the Han to the Tang dynasties.

This show, to which a substantial contribution was made by Giuseppe’s son, Daniel, was the event of Asia Week, being the first time that this top dealer was exhibiting in the US. Probably not all New York dealers appreciated his coming, but his presence in the Big Apple must have done good to the market as a whole. More than 500 visitors attended the opening and “Will I see you at Eskenazi’s?” was the refrain circulating among afficionados days before . Visitors enjoyed not only the ceramic figures which formed the core of the exhibition but the general selection, which gave a good idea of the range of materials and of the quality which has made Chinese art and Eskenazi’s name so famous. Hundreds of visitors flocked to the exhibition the following days before the doors finally closed, leaving many to await the next show. Photographic souvenirs of the sold-out exhibition remained for those who could not, for one reason or other, buy the originals: beautiful images of a Tang dynasty terracotta camel with raiders and a couple of Han-period attendants photographed from unusual angles, alive and expressive.

The deceptive power of photography, particularly effective when applied to works of art and often used to make objects look better than they do in reality, had been deliberately avoided. Eskenazi’s staff had fun taking photographs of the objects instead of exploiting the “deflecting” power of the camera lens: quality does not need to be artificially constructed.