Spring 2003 dawns on Mar. 21, and the New York auction houses kick off their semiannual week of Asian art sales a few days later. The outlook is rather pessimistic. Christie's and Sotheby's are together forecasting total Asian art sales in the $28 million-32 million range. Believe it or not, a scant 20 years ago the art world was looking forward to a billion-dollar Asia week, featuring $10-million Tang horses and many other astonishing things.
Last year, the Asian sales had many offerings in the $500,000-$1,000,000 class. This time around the sale's scarcely boast a baker's dozen of lots at this level. To top it off, past sales catalogues weighed as much as a Manhattan telephone book (or so it seemed); today they are much lighter. What are the reasons for these changes?
Clearly, collectors are unsure whether this is a good time to put their art on the auction block, given the uncertainty of the political picture and the vagaries of the American stock market. But several established collectors have taken the plunge. The Neustatter Collection, on offer in Christie's Indian and Southeast Asian sale on Mar. 27, 2003, and its star piece, a dancing shiva from the Chola Dynasty, is sure to spark spirited bidding. The Neustatter Thai and Sri Lankan Buddhas are also likely to do well.
The Hamilton collection of snuff bottles, which had its inception at a charity auction in 1960s Houston, will no doubt sell well in the afternoon session at Sotheby's on Mar. 22. London super-dealer Anthony d'Offay's collection of sandstone stele and other Indian and Khmer properties should also garner buyers at Christie's Chinese sale on Mar. 27.
A collection of 400-plus Japanese prints, off the market for years and spanning the spectrum of Japanese art from the 1700s to the present, is expected to bring between $1.2 million-$1.8 million at Christie's on Mar. 25.
On the buyer's end, Wall Streeters whose year-end bonuses financed their passion for Asian art are cutting back, or may even have lost their jobs. And the uncertain international mood could keep overseas buyers from U.S. auction halls -- though some observers anticipate bargain-hunting from Chinese collectors.
The week of auctions starts off on Monday, Mar. 24, at Christie's sale of Japanese and Korean art, featuring 280 Japanese and 41 Korean lots. The presale estimate runs to $5,000,000 for the Japanese segment and $4,000,000 for the Korean. Christie's offers its traditional mix for this auction: screens, ceramics (antique as well as modern), fine lacquer, paintings and a modest showing of netsuke.
Among some of the screens on offer is a six-panel glamorization of the samurai, Battle of Ichinotani from the Tale of Heiki, produced in the 17th century by an anonymous painter, that is estimated at $120,000-$180,000. Another vibrant panel, Horses in a Stable from the Kano School (17th century), is a symphony of contrasting shades of gold and brown (est. $60,000-$80,000). Also for sale is The Months, two six-panel depictions of 19th-century beauties by a woman artist (est. $400,000-$500,000).
Lacquered writing and document boxes are among the most elegant items in Japan's decorative art repertory. This sale has an exceptional matched writing and document box from the Edo period, inspired by The Tale of Genji. It is expected to bring $80,000-$120,000. A dozen other less pricey items are also being offered.
A 7th-century statue of the Buddha of the Future (Maitreya) seated in the gesture of contemplation is the highlight of the Korean section. Conservative estimates vary from $1,200,000-$1,800,000 for this Three Kingdom masterpiece.
A rare Punch'ong bottle from the 15th century, Choson period, modeled in the form of a rice bale is expected to bring $500,000-$600,000. A hanging scroll, the only known visualization of the Hwaom Pure Land depicts 52 Buddhas descending from a cloud, is also on the block. Dating to the 13th century (Koryo dynasty), it is estimated at $250,000-$350,000.
Christie's hosts a special sale on Mar. 25 of an unidentified single-owner collection that spans 250 years of Japanese prints. Every major artist and many minor ones are represented. This sale is a great opportunity for collectors to fill in gaps or for a novice to begin buying some of the important figures.
Hiroshige is represented by more than 100 prints, including Views of Edo, Famous Places of Edo, Sixty-nine stations of the Kisokaido and Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido. In addition there are numerous prints by Hokusai, Keisai Eisen, Kuniyoshi, Yoshitoshi and Utamaro.
The top lot in the sale is Hiroshige's Fireworks, which carries a presale estimate of $70,000-$90,000. The same artist's Nightview is tagged at $30,000-$50,000 and the dreamy Seba is estimated at $65,000-$85,000. The sale is expected to bring about $1,500,000 in total.
Approximately 290 objects make up the Chinese ceramics and works of art sale to be held on Mar. 26. It is expected to realize about $8,000,000.
A gray limestone torso of a Boddhisattva dating to the later part of the Tang dynasty (8th century) is the top lot of this segment of Christie's Asian sales. It is targeted to bring $400,000-$600,000 and has not been on the market since 1969. A gray pottery figure of Kasyapa (an aged enlightened being or Luhan) in the Nirvana pose, dating to the Tang/Liao dynasty (618-1125) is estimated to sell for $250,00-$350,000.
No sale of Chinese objects is complete without its complement of Tang horses. This one has a fine sancai-glazed caparisoned horse that measures 33 inches long. Decorative plaques embellish the harness and the mane is crenelated, indicating ownership by a significant noble. The presale low estimate is $300,000.
A highly interesting sancai-glazed pottery figure of a Tang lady in superb finery is featured at $80,000-$120,000. A bronze and silver figural lamp base dating to the Warring States period (475-221 BC) picturing a courtier on a rectangular base with rich patina is offered at $200,000-$300,000. Also on the block are a number of ceramic dishes and meipings (vases) whose estimates range from $100,000 to $220,000. A blue and white baluster jar of the Yuan dynasty (14th Century) is tagged at $150,000-$200,000.
Approximately 220 objects are in Christie's Indian and Southeast Asian art sale to be held on Mar. 27, which is estimated at a total of $5,200,000. The affection of American collectors for Buddhist and Hindu art has never been greater. A lot has to do with the tranquility this art generates and the mystical aura that surrounds it.
Gandharan sculpture -- Buddhist images with Greco-Roman features -- have been favorites for years. A pensive Boddhisattva in gray schist of the 2nd or 3rd century (est. $200,000-$300,000) is the prime Gandharan offering in this sale. The piece is consigned by an English collector and has not been on the market since before 1970. Another Gandharan object, a stucco figure of a Buddha, 3rd century, finely modeled with hands folded in his lap, is estimated at $120,000-$150,000.
From Tibet comes a 27-inch figure of a gilt bronze Boddhisattva thought to have come from the Kashmir School in Western Tibet and dated to the 10th century. Heavily jeweled with a fine diamond pendant and wearing a long dhoti, it carries a $450,000-$600,000 estimate.
From the collection of gallerist Anthony d'Offay is a series of steles including a Khmer sandstone stele with a figure of Buddha. This 11th-century piece is estimated to bring between $60,000-$80,000. Hand finials, other stele, lingas, temple lamps and a series of statues make up the rest of the d'Offay collection.
A small selection of Indian miniatures brings the sale to a close. Among these the outstanding pieces are. A Jeweled Woman before a Palace Gateway, a Jaipur 18th-century (est. $25,000-$35,000) gouache showing an array of animals in the gateway and lush trees in the near distance and a mid 18th-century Oudh gouache, Sohni Swimming to Meet her Lover Mahinval (est. $20,000-$30,000).
Sotheby's has pulled back this spring, and is only offering two days of auctions during Aisa Week. First up is its Indian and Southeast Asian art sale on Mar. 26. The approximately 190 objects are estimated to sell for a total of $4,000,000.
One highlight is a 10 1/2 in. Tibetan/Chinese Gilt-copper statue of Buddha that bears a Xuande mark and is thought to date from 1426-1435. Superbly cast with carefully delineated robes over a well-framed torso, his features are very mobile and indicate great satisfaction with his present state of enlightenment. The presale estimate is $80,000-$120,000.
Another top lot is a sandstone figure of a Surasundari, or handsome woman, from the wall of a 10th-century Indian temple. With her undulating figure accentuated by a delicately draping scarf, she possesses the characteristics of a fertility goddess. It is estimated that she will bring $80,000-$120,000.
A Thai 7th-century Maitreya, or Buddha of the Future, in copper alloy standing 10 inches tall on a flexed lotus base is estimated at $100,000-$125,000. His hands are modeled to give both the offering and the teaching gesture. The sculpture has been widely exhibited, most recently at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
A 15th-century mandala from central Tibet is estimated at $60,000-$90,000. A Somaskanda showing the family of Shiva, Parvarti and their son from the Chola Period in Southern India (11th -12th century) has a low estimate of $200,000.
Approximately 400 objects are on the block in Sotheby's Chinese works of art sale on Mar. 27. The total estimate is $5.2 million-$6.6 million.
The auction world is holding its breath to see if a pair of wonderful Tang horses made for the royal tombs and standing 26 inches tall and 30 inches long can reach the $1,000,000 level. The great Tang horse of the British Rail Pension Fund brought in over $6,000,000 at a previous Sotheby auction in December 1989.
The sale features many other Tang objects for collectors with slimmer budgets. Six amusing, anthropomorphized zodiac figures, standing 22 inches tall and representing the ox, rat, tiger, rabbit, horse and cockerel signs, may bring $60,000-$80,000. A large clay reclining pottery camel, on whose back a monkey and its young are domiciled on a rug, presents an unusual scene at $50,000-60,000.
The Ann and John Hamilton collection of snuff bottles the prime offering of the afternoon (although snuff bottles from other collections are also being auctioned). More than two hundred objects are scheduled for presentation and an $800,000 figure seems indicated. The earliest specimens are from the 1750s.
Among the most highly prized are a fine rare imperial enameled metal "European subject" bottle from the Beijing Palace Workshops bearing a Quinlong mark and dating from 1760-1795. It is guestimated to bring $80,000-120,000. A more recent rock crystal bottle by Ma Shaoxuan (1910-1925) may bring $80,000-100,000.
At the Shows
The two armories will again be in action as sites for art fairs featuring dealers in Asian art from around the globe. The Asian Art Fair at the Park Avenue Armory on 67th Street is slated for Mar. 28-Apr. 2. The Arts of Pacific Asia at the Armory at Lexington Avenue and 26th Street goes up Mar. 27-Mar. 30.