I sensed immediately that the sales of Asian Art this autumn would be different.
The auction catalogues were heftier, not magazine-sized as they have been since 2001. The new bulk indicated that offerings in the three prime groups -- Chinese, Japanese/Korean and Indian art -- would be diverse, and that special collections would most likely be involved, and they were.
Among the illustrious sellers at the Chinese auction at Christies was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which deaccessioned a number of duplicates, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, whose offerings included a splendid archaic bronze vessel. The Nathan L. Halpern Collection offered several objects that were also at Christies; and an astounding collection of Chinese furniture came from the celebrated holdings of Tsao Hui Min. At Sothebys there was a splendid collection of imperial robes from the collection of Lillian Rojtman Berkman.
Another noteworthy phenomenon: the number of dealers and individuals interested in the repatriation of important pieces. This was especially evident in the surprisingly successful auction of contemporary Indian paintings.
Chinese Bed Achieves World Auction Record
Not since Christies great furniture sale from Californias "Museum of Classical Furniture Collection" in 1996 has there been an offering like the 43 tables, chairs, daybeds, cabinets and storage chests at Christies on September 21. The objects reflected both the oriental preference for ornamental styling and the Western taste for simplicity. Both Asian and Western collector groups seemed pleased with the selections.
The star of the sale was a three-railing bed of zitan wood from the Qianlong period (1736-1795) with elaborate scrolling elements and acanthus leaf decorations. Estimated to sell for $500,000-$700,000, the bed went to an Asian dealer for $847,500.
Doris Duke and the Million Dollar "You"
The Doris Duke Foundations offerings hit new heights. A mottled archaistic censer and cover of the late Qing Dynasty with scroll handles, a dragon head and playful lion cubs, carrying a $80,000 low estimate came in at $266,000. A pair of brilliantly colored baluster vases with covers and leaded handles found a buyer at close to $160,000.
Dealer, Roger Keverne was the buyer of a Doris Duke xiaoyiu, a bronze vessel in the form of an owl of the Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC) at $511,500. Mr. Keverne also set a record with his purchase of a bronze wine vessel, or "you", which reached $1,071,500. Overall sales of archaic bronze vessels reached historic heights.
Disappointing Tang Sales
Only a few of the offerings in the usually highly favored Tang dynasty objects found buyers. Among these were a superb pottery figure of a court lady holding a small mandarin duck, a mid-level prancing horse from the Halpern collection, and a pair of early Tang horses.
All in all the sales in the Chinese Furniture, Archaic Bronzes and General Works of Art area totaled $11,168,000.
Christies Strongest Sale of Japanese/Korean Art Since 2000
A pair of six-panel screens by an unknown hand announcing the arrival of a Portuguese ship at Nagasakis harbor sparked Christies Japan sales. The brilliantly colored panels in ink, gold and gold leaf on paper, dating from about 1625, were purchased by an American collector for $589,900.
The next highest dollar purchase was by an Asian dealer, who paid $365,900 for an album of 36 paintings and poems by Iwasa Matabei (1578-1650) mounted in an accordion file.
A likeness of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Avolokitesvara) dominating a masterful 14th-15th century scroll, color and gold on ramie by an unknown Korean artist was won by an unidentified buyer at $343,500. A single owner sale of Noh robes and masks totaled more than $400,000. A sale in this specialty group of such variety and taste is rare in this market.
The Japanese/Korean sale brought in almost $4,227,000, the best result since 2000.
Khmer Statue Brings Over $1,000,000
The last day of the Christies sale this fall brought numerous surprises, not the least of which was the sale of a statue of the goddess Uma, a sandstone figure of the 11th century. Estimated at $200,000-300,000, the finely carved woman in topknot and fishtail sash was last acquired by the celebrated London antiques firm of Spink and Son, for under $200,000 in 1984. A European collector purchased it for $1,127,500.
The spectacular sale had other highlights as well, among these a Gandhara (northwest India) statue of the "Teaching Buddha," on a throne supported by two elephants and an array of bodhisattvas. Coming from a Japanese collection, it went for $601,100. "A Celestial Woman under a Flowering Branch," is well known in the literature of the field. This voluptuous sandstone figure from 10th century Madhya Pradesh had been featured in an exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. She will now go to the home of a European collector.
Bidding Wars for 20th-Century
The last afternoon session at Christies brought in many Indian collectors and dealers. Some came from overseas but a large contingent, I learned, were Seattle residents. The overwhelming majority of the paintings were by Indias first generation of moderns, painters who had studied in Paris, or in Europe, generally now quite elderly. They include figures like Francis Newton Souza, Ram Kumar, Maqbool Fida Housain and Jagdish Swaminathan. The prices achieved were surprisingly high. Almost $2,500,000 in sales was realized with world records for three of the painters, Sabavala, Raza and Swaminathan.
The total Christies sales in the Indian/Southeast Asia category were in excess of $8,000,000, and their total sales this fall for the Asian field were about $23,500,000 -- the highest ever.
Collectors Energize Sothebys Chinese Sales
An exceptionally fine white-glazed Cizhou vase from the Yongle period (1403-1424) was the top lot of Sothebys Chinese Ceramics sale. Yongle ware is translucent and thin. The neck of this particular vase has a classical scroll and headbands, material elements that raised the intensity of the bidding war. It is surprising that the assigned estimate of $50,000-70,000 was so low, but then I have often observed that certain groups or subgroups jump in valuation for no clear reason and that some groups just as mysteriously go down. Anyway, in spirited bidding, Eskenazi of London won out with a bid of $820,000.
Private collectors were among the successful top bidders on other exceptional objects. An Asian collector bought a fine Jade russet-colored ceremonial blade of the Neolithic period (2500-2000 BC), with a curved cutting edge, of which comparable examples exist in both the Fogg Museum at Harvard and the Art Institute of Chicago. The winning bid was $232,000.
A rare copper-inlaid bronze basin, a ritual vessel for holding water or jianof the Warring States period (475-221 BC), secured a bid of $176,000. A band of hunting and fighting scenes are depicted in metal inlay on the jian, its four looped carrying handles are adorned with monkey-headed birds, and a rich patina in green with heavy red oxidation adds to its attraction. The lucky buyeran American collector.
Selective Buying in the Han/Tang Tomb Sculpture Category
Only slightly more than half the offerings in this category managed to find buyers. None of the Tang horses were chosen. Is it possible that the market for this formerly highly favored object has been oversupplied by the amount of material being unearthed in China?
Of the other sculptures in the group, it was the earth spirits and a very fine quartet of hand painted Tang ladies, in striking red and orange costumes with patterned shawls and massive hairdos, that found appreciative collectors. The winning bid of $142,000 by an Asian collector was slightly under the high estimate of $150,000. Two lokapalas, or heavenly king figures, raised a bid of $96,000 from an American collector.
A group of 18th and 19th century imperial dragon robes and ladies informal court wear, in all its sumptuous splendor, from the collection of Lillian Rojtman Berkman, did particularly well. The carefully choreographed patterns, colors and trimmings enlivened the auction.
The sale realized over $3,900,000.
The Image of the Buddha in Sculpture, Painting and Ceramics Dominates a Unified Sothebys Presentation
More than 60 offerings made up Sothebys sale under the category "Image of the Buddha." Its range of objects covered China, India, Thailand and Cambodia, and the timeline from 2nd century Gandhara, India to Tibetan art of the 18th century.
A private Chinese collector acquired the top lot of this sale, "The Heart of the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra," a calligraphic script by the painter Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) during the Yuan Dynasty. The low estimate of $400,000 was exceeded more than four and a half-fold by a bid of $1,912,000.
An incredibly rare and finely worked bodhisattva (Avalokitesvara) figure in gilt bronze with a flame halo of the Sui/Tang dynasty period (7th to 8th century) prefigures later representation which are less ascetic and more rounded. At $596,000 the statue went to a private Chinese collector as well, another example of the repatriation currently in the works.
A 75-inch Gandharan figure of the Maitreya or Buddha of the Future in gray schist dating from the 2nd to 3rd century, a Greek influence seen in its graceful presentation, was acquired by the Asian trade at $344,000.
Sothebys was gratified by the tremendous interest in the objects offered and the quality of the response during and after the sale, and indicated it would return to the topic of the Buddha in later sales.
The total figure for the "Arts of the Buddha" sale was just shy of $5,000,000.
Indians and New Collectors Favor the Southeast Asian Sale
Again a strong showing by the Asian community, domestic and foreign, anchored this Sothebys sale that realized in excess of $3 million.
The figure of a Ganesh (elephant god) with painted details in stone of the 12th century, seated on a lotus pedestal, was the star of the sale. An anonymous buyer paid $332,800 for it. The Ganesh is revered in Tibet for its wealth bestowing characteristics, and this statue was presumed to have been taken from its original Himalayan location, and brought to East India.
Other Indian sculptures figured prominently among the top ten sellers. These included a gray schist Gandharan Buddha and a statue of Uma, each receiving $90,000, and another Ganesh, this one in copper alloy, going to an anonymous bidder at $60,000.
In its sale of 20th century Indian painters more than $1,000,000 was bid including surprisingly high figures for a Tyeb Mehta, and two works by M. Fida Husain. An untitled work by V.S. Gaitonde, a recently deceased abstract painter, was comparatively under-priced at $45,000.
The Indian miniature component also did especially well, with a leaf from a Ramayana offered by the Paul F. Walter Collection reaching a $30,000 figure.
Total Sothebys figures for the three Asian sales reached $12,000,000.