Art market

Following the postponement of Asia Week due to the World Trade Centre attack, sales flopped amid scant enthusiasm

Gandharan sculpture did well in an otherwise difficult week at the postponed Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions

The postponement of Asia Week from mid-September following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was praised by some, lamented by others. Those in favour cited the difficulty—or impossibility—of getting to New York, coupled with the mood of despondency in the city, making shopping on any level seem superfluous. Those opposed cited a loss of momentum and the difficulty of having the New York sales followed almost immediately by sales in Hong Kong and in London in November. In any case, it seemed certain that many of the bids placed with dealers by Far Eastern clients in September were cancelled, although some reported an improvement of interest just before the sales took place.

With the exception of the Falk Collection at Christie’s , it was a difficult week for the auction houses, with many highs and lows. The buying pattern that was established before 11 September continues: the very, very best works will sell for high prices, while the middle and lower ranges languish. It is a time of tremendous uncertainty, with everyone looking for answers that are sometimes just not there. Why, for example, has the market for Tibetan art, recently strong and vibrant, gone suddenly flat? No one knows for sure. And why is Gandharan sculpture so strong?

In all of the Asian areas this week—Chinese Works of art, Japanese and Korean, and Indian and Southeast Asian—Christie’s had far better material, an advantage that it has enjoyed for some time.

Chinese works of Art

Christie’s session of Chinese Furniture and Works of Art on the afternoon of 16 October was a very different thing from the morning session of Falk, Part I.

At $3.8 million, the total fell below pre-sale expectations of $5-7 million. The sale was especially strong in Ming and Qing furniture but it did far less well than expected, with only half out of 41 lots finding buyers and many of the unsold lots attracting no interest whatsoever.

The star lots sold. The best piece, a late 16th/early 17th-century huanghuali horseshoe-back folding armchair sold for $424,000 (est. $300,000-500,000) to London dealer Nicholas Grindley. The chair, which has silver-inlaid iron hardware, and is one of only six known examples, was consigned by Elizabeth A. Sackler, giving it an added fillip of provenance as well as rarity and quality.

Sotheby’s sale the following day was less than half sold with a total far below the estimated $5 million to $6 million. It was a disappointing start for Joe Yang, the newly appointed head of Sotheby’s Chinese Works of Art in New York. The major pieces had very high estimates, which caused them to fail. For example, a rare sancai-glazed Tang dynasty ewer that carried a whopping estimate of $800,000-$900,000, sank at $720,000. The strategy, however, paid off in one important case, that of a Tang dynasty white glazed elephant candelabrum. Despite having a weak glaze, being heavily restored, shopped around, and bearing a very pushy estimate, it managed to sell for $225,750 ($200,000-250,000) to an American collector. A rare bronze ritual footed vessel (gui) bearing an inscription and dating from the 11th century sold over the telephone to London dealer Roger Keverne for $269,750 (est. $180,000-250,000), the highest price in the sale. The last time it was up at auction, at Sotheby’s New York in May, 1989, it brought $105,000 (est. $70,000-90,000).

The sale included 92 lots of snuff bottles from a private Asian collection and the best of these brought spectacular prices, thanks to the Taiwanese trade who were bidding heavily. The finest was a rare octagonal Yongzheng mark and period example made in the Beijing Palace Workshops that sold for $214,750 (est. $100,000-120,000) (see page 79).

Japanese and Korean Art

Christie’s sale of Japanese art went moderately well, but not terrifically. Classical Japanese ceramics were strongest, highlighted by a magnificent early 18th-century enamelled stoneware dish signed by Ogada Kenzan (1663-1743), Japan’s most renowned potter. Competition for the dish was hot because of its beauty, rarity, large size and the boldness of the painting. The buyer, an Asian collector, paid $204,000 (est. $180,000-220,000). The sale included some 100 prints which met with less success. Three portraits of actors by the highly sought-after 18th-century artist Toshusai Sharaku, which carried estimates ranging from $80,000 to $220,000, did not attract a single bid.

Contemporary Japanese ceramics were offered for the first time, most of them priced below $5,000 and many of them extremely attractive. Katsura Yamaguchi, head of Christie’s Japanese department, said that he was pleased to see many Western buyers for the pieces. This is definitely an area to watch. The session of Korean art was exciting, not least because 32 of the 66 lots were from the Falk Collection. The most important was an iron-coated, inlaid and celadon-glazed stoneware Koryo dynasty vase (maebyong) that sold to the Asian trade for $248,000 (est. $140,000-160,000).

The lot that everyone had their eye on was an anonymous early 16th-century mountain landscape from the well-known collection of Stephen Junkunc III of Chicago, where it had been for more than 50 years, inventoried as a Chinese painting. Heakyum Kim, head of Christie’s Korean department, researched the hanging scroll, and discovered that it is, in fact, Korean and was possibly painted by An Kyon, the most important court painter of the early Choson period. No signed paintings by the artist are known to exist. The scroll made $248,000 (est. $150,000-200,000), the highest price of the day, although several experts believe it to be worth $1 million. Kim noted an increased Western interest in all Korean paintings, from the rare 16th-century scroll to Park Sookeun’s “Jobless” of 1961, which sold for $193,000 (est. $150,000-180,000).

One can blame the economy and the market, but sometimes it is simply a lack of good material that causes a sale to fail. Sotheby’s Japanese sale did extremely badly, but it did not contain very much of interest. The two most important objects were expensive lacquer boxes, none of which sold, nor did the major pieces of Satsuma earthenware and Ko-Kutani ceramics. The Korean section contained only 10 lots, the most important being a 19th-century Choson dynasty blue and white hexagonal bottle (est. $60,000-80,000) that went unsold.

Indian and Southeast Asian Art

Extremely selective buying across the board was seen at both houses, but prices soared for the best pieces. Sotheby’s star lot was a 12th-century gilt-copper sculpture of a seated bodhisattva Ajaya Avalokitesvara, that could just as easily have been placed in a Chinese sale, since it comes from the Kingdom of Dali in southwest China. The piece, which was of the highest quality, sold to a New York collector for $368,750 (est. $150,000-200,000).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The enthusiasm just wasn't there'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 119 November 2001