Art market

Hong Kong sales report: imperial wares are top, even the vulgar

While an historic collection of Northern Song letters goes unsold

Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s spring auctions (28 April-1 May) passed relatively uneventfully, except perhaps for the notably bigger sale put on by Christie’s, both in the number of objects and results. The sales reinforced the truism that for Chinese buyers, as opposed to Western collectors of Chinese art, historical circumstances and inscriptions trump purely artistic considerations.

Christie’s four Chinese art auctions grossed a total of HK$145.2 million. The headliner, as has become the case in recent years, was the “Imperial Sale” (a clever piece of marketing, grouping objects associated with China’s ancien régime). The top lot was a rather vulgar famille rose yellow-ground vase with a Qianlong reign mark, with European-influenced floral patterns, that sold for HK$11.9 million, way above its high estimate of HK$4 million.

Another spectacular overachiever was a Yongzheng reign (Ming) blue-and-white meiping vase that went for HK$4.2 million, against a high estimate of HK$800,000. Other important pieces included an oddly hybrid famille rose/celadon vase with a Qianlong reign mark (HK$4.2 million); and three pieces with Yongzheng reign marks, a blue-and-white Ming moonflask (HK$4.4 million), a pretty famille rose “peach” dish (HK$2 million) and an exquisite famille rose coral-ground bowl (HK$5.3 million).

The most significant buy-ins were an apple-green-glaze lantern vase with a Qianlong reign mark (estimate HK$3.5 million), a rare copper-red and white meiping with a Yongzheng reign mark (estimate HK$2.2 million) and a glass jar of red carp swimming over a snowflake ground with a Qianlong reign mark (estimate HK$500,000). A sample of Emperor Kangxi’s calligraphy estimated at HK$180,000 sold for HK$411,250. The sale total came to HK$72.6 million.

The top lot at the Lacquer, Ceramics and Works of Art sale was an extremely rare carved black lacquer tray from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), estimated at HK$1.6 million, which went for HK$3.3 million. At the Classical Chinese Painting and Calligraphy sale, Qing eccentric Bada Shanren’s album “Flowers, fruits and birds” went far above its HK$1.5 million estimate to sell at HK$3.9 million; a set of fans inscribed by four different Southern Song emperors sold for HK$925,000; and a historically important set of written contracts from fifth-century Southern China went for HK$470,000. But many featured lots were unsold: a historic collection of Northern Song official correspondence (unpublished estimate HK$3 million); and an unusual handscroll combining a woodblock print of a Tang Dynasty imperial iron tablet, a letter by post-Tang eastern China’s King Qian Shu (d. 988), a letter by the Song calligrapher Zhu Xi, and many colophons by celebrated calligraphers from later dynasties (unpublished estimate HK$4 million).

The Modern and Contemporary Chinese painting sale included Zhang Daqian’s late (1969), almost Sam Francis-like “Mist clearing over pine-covered peaks,” which sold for HK$5.2 million; and, in a northward gesture, Lu Yanshao’s “Landscapes after verses by Chairman Mao”, six scrolls portraying the Long March, which sold for HK$1.1 million. But Zhang Daqian’s 1946 “Herding” failed to sell, despite historical connections such as an inscription by Pu Ru, last emperor Pu Yi’s cousin, and a dedication to Liu Shukun, renowned physician and collector.

Sotheby’s programme was notably less ambitious, with just two sales, realising HK$106.4 million. There were fewer buy-ins, however. The Ceramics and Works of Art sale featured a copper-red and blue meiping with a Qianlong mark, sold for HK$4.4 million; an Islamic-influenced Ming blue-and-white moonflask; a Ming blue-and-white “ducks” bowl with a Chenghua reign mark, sold for HK$3.3 million; and a monochrome Ming “snowflake blue” dice bowl, sold for HK$4.4 million. The most noteworthy buy-ins were a Qianlong mark copper-red moonflask, estimated at HK$2.5 million, and a Qianlong mark enamelled glass snuff bottle, estimated at HK$3 million.

The Chinese painting sale included “Comic entertainers at lantern festival”, the only extant work by Northern Song court painter Zhu Yu; and Ming fan paintings by Tang Yin, notable mostly for having passed through the collection of several of the greatest Cantonese collectors. Modern paintings were dominated by the T&S Collection, with many landscapes by the likes of Xu Gu, Fu Baoshi, and Zhang Daqian.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 115 June 2001