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    Art from the East
by Fred Stern
Christie's Mar. 21 sale of art is expected to bring in $10.4 million-$13.9 million.
Two Japanese screens depicting the arrival of a Portuguese ship in Nagasaki harbor
17th century
est. $250,000 at Christie's
Korean porcelain faceted ritual bowl
Choson Period (18th century)
est. $280,000 at Christie's
Large wood figure of Bodhisattva
Song dynasty (960-1279 AD)
at Sotheby's
Slave Dancers with Kneeling Figure
Western Han dynasty (2nd-1st century)
at Kaikodo Gallery
Red pottery stem bowl with white and black pigment
Majiayao culture, (3800-2000 BC)
at J.J. Lally
Neolithic red pottery ewer with human features
Qijia culture, (ca. 2250-1900 BC)
at J.J. Lally
Neolithic white pottery beaker
Dawenkou culture, (4300-1900 BC)
at J.J. Lally
Asian art week in New York -- the week of Mar. 20-25, 2000 -- is different this year! That's the consensus of galleries, dealers, the auction houses and collectors.

It's not hard to pin down the changes, all of which bode well for the Asian art scene. There are new galleries, new collectors and new areas of collecting, all playing out against the backdrop of a booming economy.

First, the galleries, which have been multiplying geometrically. Today, there are close to a thousand galleries in the U.S. and Europe, all very different from those of the past.

Before the 1980s, galleries dealing in Asian art were generalists, offering jewelry, textiles, pottery and ceramics in all sorts of condition. Sometimes a knowledgeable or lucky collector could make some fabulous discoveries, but usually there is little to find.

Today's dealer is highly specialized, carrying Himalayan art, Japanese swords, kimonos, Indian miniatures, Indonesian textiles or any other of the dozens of Asian art subgroups.

Milan and Paris are now competing with the established Asian art galleries in London and Hong Kong. New York has become the undisputed leader in terms of market size, growth and prestige.

The field is attracting many new collectors who are delighted by the relatively low "entry fees" into Asian collecting areas, compared to the high prices of contemporary Western work. There are new buyers from Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina. And with recent stronger financial markets, the Asian buyer is coming back, led by those from Korea.

But veteran collectors are changing too, becoming more sophisticated and selective in their purchases and moving to higher and more expensive ground.

Some are switching to new specialty areas of collecting, selling their older acquisitions to the burgeoning market at substantially higher prices, and investing the proceeds in their new Asian interests.

During a recent visit to the Midwest, I was amazed at the size, scope and prominence accorded Pacific art in area museums. The Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington has sizable holdings from Sumatra and Borneo including masks, batik textiles and skillfully carved sculpture of the Dayak people. The Indianapolis Art Museum has a popular exhibit of Chinese porcelain that is prominently displayed and well installed.

But back to New York and its triple play: Auctions, Armory shows and gallery exhibitions. The two major auction houses are again providing the major focus.

The auction houses
Christie's brings a special exhibition of Ancient Beijing treasures, transforming its contemporary galleries into Asian showplaces, Mar. 18-Apr. 12. Many objects have never left Beijing before. The display celebrates Christie's successful Asian sales: $28,000,000 in the U.S. in 1999.

Christie's offers a three-day marathon of auctions, running Mar. 21-23. One highlight is a pair of six-panel Japanese screens from the early 17th century. A Portuguese ship in the harbor of Nagasaki offloads cargo while the captain leads a colorful procession to church. Although the country was then closed off to all outside visitors, some exceptions were obviously made. Low estimate for the screens is $250,000.

A masterpiece of the potter's art, a 10-facet ritual bowl from Korea's Choson period (18th century), stands out in the Korean component of the auction. It is expected to bring around $280,000.

Sotheby's salutes Asia Week with four sales. On Mar. 21, more than 300 Netsuke go on sale (netsuke are toggles attached to the belts of Japanese men). This group, with some dating to the 18th century, is from the Bushell collection, and includes wood, bamboo or ivory examples at an average price of $3,500. They are an excellent entry step to collecting Asian art.

Another prize at Sotheby's is an exceptionally beautiful blue and white 18th-century plate featuring a cascade and oak tree, among other motifs. Its presale estimate is $130,000. Other highlights include a large wood figure of a Bodhisattva from the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), estimated at $500,000, and a Tibetan thanka (a devotional painting from the 13th and 14th centuries, done on cloth) depicting one of the five Transcendent Buddhas, which carries a $150,000 low estimate.

The Asian art fairs
Both New York armories have Asian art shows during Asia Week. For "Arts of Pacific Asia," over 70 exhibitors from as far away as Australia set up shop at the Lexington Avenue Armory at 26th Street, Mar 23-26.

Even more international in scope, with 60 exhibitors from six countries, is the "Asian Art Fair" at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue at 67th Street, Mar. 24-29. A special loan exhibition of the Daiitokui Myo-o from the Clark Center for Japanese art will highlight the exhibition. This deity is one of five Bright Kings and is said to have mystical knowledge and the power to help conquer passion and desire.

At the galleries
Gallery shows during Asia Week include the excellent "High Elevation, Himalayan Art 1400-1890," a collection featuring hundreds of sculptures, thankas, ritual vessels and ritual swords from a Viennese family. The works are on view at E & J Frankel, 1040 Madison Avenue, through Apr. 1.

Kaikodo, located at 164 East 64th Street, features "Realms of Faith," Mar. 18-Apr. 15. Over 40 paintings and 34 objects from China and Japan dating from the 1st century BC to late imperial times explore the inter-relationships between people and their religions -- primarily Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. Among the many visual delights are a wooden pagoda from the Liao Dynasty dating to the early 11th century and a painted pottery Sleeve dancers with Kneeling Figure from the Western Han Dynasty (2nd and 1st century BC).

J.J. Lally & Co. at 41 East 57th Street offers a display of ancient Chinese ceramics and tomb sculptures, Mar. 20-Apr. 8. By far the most interesting are Neolithic pottery vessels dating to the 6th to the 3rd centuries BC.

I especially liked a red pottery stem bowl with white and black pigment of the Majiayao culture (3800-2000 BC). Sophisticated in design, it has a strong humorous touch. A Qijia culture (circa 2250-1900 BC) ewer with human eyes, nose and mouth, reveals the potter's impeccable skills.

Finally, Lally has a plain white pottery beaker with a small ring handle from the Dawenkou culture (5th-3rd century BC). Its graceful curves indicate how far pottery had advanced in that Neolithic period.

The jury is still out on whether these were funerary objects or ritual vessels and status symbols. Prices range the from low to mid-five figures.

FRED STERN is Artnet Magazine's Asian art columnist.