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Western collectors still paying highest prices for top lots of Asian art

While Chinese sustain the middle market for rare but flashy cinnabar, rhinoceros horn and cloisonné

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New York

Christie’s achieved its highest ever total of $29.8 million at the September round of Asian art sales, while Sotheby’s made $23 million. Newly rich Asian collectors helped push up prices, but it is still the Western collectors who are paying the highest prices for the top lots.

“The buying activity of mainland Chinese clients has increased tenfold over the past three years in New York alone”, says Tina Zonars, Christie’s Chinese department specialist. “But it’s the strong world economy which is producing these results.” Her sale brought $14,488,060, more than its top estimate, and the highest total ever for a various owners Asian auction. “Americans continue to represent 50% of the buyers”, Ms Zonars says, and indeed the three most expensive lots went to US buyers. Asian private collectors took four of the top 10 lots.

Because of the increasing appetite for Chinese art, pieces that epitomise Chinese taste have a much broader appeal than in the past. This was the case of Wang Meng’s hanging scroll Fishing in green depths, which once would have appealed mainly to the Chinese. A major American collector paid a world record price of $1.7 million (est. $700,000/900,000) for the 14th-century scroll at Christie’s. In the same sale, London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi snapped up a blue and white Persian inscribed vase with a Zhengde mark, dating from 1506-21, for $1.7 million—a hefty 10 times estimate. The previous day at Sotheby’s, he had been forced to $3.9 million, again 10 times estimate, to bag an early blue and white meiping Ming vase which had been used as a lamp by philanthropist Laurence S. Rockefeller in his Pocantico Hills estate in New York. The vase was unusually tall, at 14 inches, and bidders were not deterred by the hole drilled through its base.

“My client is a European who has been collecting for over 20 years and also has European paintings, and English and French furniture but his collection of blue and white porcelain is weak”, says Mr Eskenazi, who told The Art Newspaper that he has five clients prepared to pay such prices—and not a single one is Chinese. “Two are in the States and three are Europeans”, he says.

“There are huge amounts of money being made in China now, but new Chinese buyers are not yet collecting at the upper levels”, says Mr Eskenazi. “Over time, they will become like the Russians and buy back sophisticated examples at the top level.”

Perfect condition is no longer considered essential in this field, “rarity and beauty are now being sought, regardless of condition”, says Mr Eskenazi. An example was an iron-red decorated blue-and-white stem cup very much in the Chinese taste. Despite a chip and cracks, it was fought over at Christie’s before selling to a Chinese buyer for $374,000 (est. $10,000/15,000).

Purely decorative pieces are of particular appeal to Chinese buyers. “They go after what is flashy but scarce in China, such as carved cinnabar, rhinoceros horn and cloisonné”, says Joe-Hynn Yang, Sotheby’s Chinese department head, “and they pay crazy prices”. He cites a Chinese buyer who bought an 18th-century cinnabar box for $24,000. He says cloisonné prices are four times those paid several years ago.

Another continuing problem is the paucity of important Chinese furniture. Sotheby’s sold the only example: a pair of late Ming dynasty lacquer cabinets with Wanli emperor marks, for $1.1 million (est. $1/1.5 million) to a private Chinese collector. The 11-foot-high cabinets had an impeccable American provenance, having been acquired by a Goodrich tyre heir in 1918 in Beijing.

The Korean art market is also changing. Christie’s sale was weak in ceramics and nine lots out of 20 did not sell. “Most buyers now have solid ceramics collections, so they are focusing on paintings which are increasingly difficult to find”, says Heakyum Kim, Christie’s specialist. Korean and Japanese private collectors and institutions vied for an 18th-century Korean landscape painting. Chong Son’s (1676-1759), Eight views of the Xiao and Xiang rivers. Its price was driven up to almost double estimate at $598,400. At Sotheby’s Arts of the Buddha sale, a Tang dynasty gilt copper Buddha sold for $732,800 (est. $200,000/300,000) to an American collector.

Overall, the Asian market is becoming increasingly discriminating. At Christie’s, more than 20% was bought in by lot while at Sotheby’s almost 50% of the lots failed to find buyers.

box:

Asia Week results, New York, 20-24 September

Christie’s

Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art $14,488,060

Japanese and Korean Art $4,056,360

Indian and Southeast Asian Art $11,328,020

Total $29,872,440

Sotheby’s

Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art $12,772,620

The Arts of the Buddha $2,101,400

Indian and Southeast Asian Art $8,192,120

Total $23,066,140

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