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|Art from the East
by Fred Stern
|Would rain fall on Asia Week in New York, Sept. 19-22, 2000? It was anyone's guess. Somehow the auction catalogues, which usually can give a "schlepper" a hernia, felt slimmer. A quick survey proved it -- the number of items offered were fewer, the low estimates were lower.
"Strong provenance from old collections," was the standard hoisted by Sotheby's director of Chinese art James B. Godfrey. "Quality not quantity," was the battle cry of Dr. Hugo Wehe, Christie's chief of Asian art sales.
When the air cleared, Christie's had realized a total of $13,893,000. Sotheby's reached $6,548,000, with roughly $2,000,000 in sales in each of three categories -- Japan (including Korea), China and India/Southeast Asia.
How did these figures compare to fall 1999 sales? For Christie's the figures pretty much held, taking into account a special Chinese sculpture sale in 1999 had brought an additional $3,008,000.
At Sotheby's, Japanese, Indian and Chinese works of art were more or less even with last year's figures. But sales of Korean objects this year could not come close to the $1,052,000 they added to last year's bottom line.
Both collectors and dealers, American and European, split most of the top lots between them. However, Japanese dealers strongly favored Sotheby's Japanese offerings.
Chinese art at Sotheby's
The second highest priced item, also from an American private collection, was a turquoise glazed bottle vase in pear-shaped splendor with Qianlong markings (1736-1795). It exceeded its low estimate 12-fold when it was purchased by a London dealer at $126,750.
A rare blue and white conical bowl with Xuande markings (ca. 1426) from an American collection went to an Asian private collector for $98,500, slightly above its low estimate.
Japanese art at Sotheby's
A pair of handscrolls picturing the Procession of Korean Envoys in Japan garnered almost 40 times its incredibly low estimate of $3,000 when its new owner acquired the scrolls at $115,750.
Indian and Southeast Asian art at Sotheby's
Contemporary Indian paintings were sold at auction for the first time. Landscape from Majitha's House by Amrita Sher-Gill achieved a breakthrough with a $75,500 price tag, eclipsing its $40,000 estimate. Edward Wilkinson, Sotheby's specialist in charge of this contemporary art sale, was especially happy with the 83 percent sold record of the group. Modern and Contemporary Indian paintings added $464,740 to Sotheby's coffers.
Japanese and Korean art at Christie's
An 18th-century Choson Period blue and white porcelain brush holder bearing the subtle image of a figure leaning against a rock brought $336,000, exceeding the $280,000 estimate. It was acquired by another anonymous buyer in the crowded and excited salesroom.
The well-known but rare portrait of the actor Ichikawa Komazo III by Sharaku (1794-95) anchored a strong Ukiyo-e selection that featured work by Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi. The colorful portrait realized $314,000 against a $200,000 estimate.
Indian and Southeast Asian art at Christie's
By far the strongest bidding was for an Indonesian bronze figure of Kubera, God of Wealth, dating to the ninth century. An American private collector acquired it for $171,000.
A European collector offered the successful bid on an important Khmer-style, tenth-century figure of Avalokiteshvara, "Lord of Compassion." The 17-inch-tall, four-armed standing bronze figure, its serene expression speaking of inner peace and understanding, fetched $138,000, exceeding the $100,000 estimate.
A large pair of gilt copper repousse recumbent deer, cast in 18th-century Tibet, commemorate Buddha's first lecture at the deer park of Samath. The pair was from a private Connecticut collection and the proceeds were earmarked for the acquisition fund of Harvard University. A European collector took them both for $94,000. They were slotted for a low of $30,000.
Chinese art at Christie's
A Kangxi (1622-1722) peachbloom-glazed chrysanthemum vase scored a similar triumph over its low estimate of $25,000. An unidentified buyer paid $171,000 for it.
An early 17th-century day bed in huanghuali hardwood reached a high of $143,500. This classic style bed went to a European collector. Its low estimate was $100,000.
"Largely exceeding pre-sale estimates, this sale was anchored on classic Chinese furniture and ceramics of the Ming and Qing dynasties," said Christie's Chinese department chief Theow Tow. The sale brought $5,325,000.
What of next spring's sales? Trade talks between China and the U.S. are likely to be influential and possible upcoming restrictions on the sale of Chinese antiquities could greatly raise asking prices of goods on hand, or could divert buyers to new categories not as yet in the limelight.
A cornucopia of Asian art shows accompanied this year's Asia Week auctions, and extended far beyond them.
Tibetan furniture at Honeychurch
Tibetan chests all show a strong Indian influence, very colorful and highly stylized. To illustrate, here are two 19th-century chests with remarkable workmanship and spirit. One is a general purpose chest with vivid textile-inspired painting and two small hinged doors. Another is a six panel altar table, or "chogtse." Two of the panels feature highly stylized female figures dancing with flowing robes and scarves. Each holds an offering bowl above her head.
"Power and Desire" at Asia Society
The exhibition, dubbed "Power and Desire: South Asian Paintings from the San Diego Museum," is divided into three segments: "Rule and domain," "love and longing" and "the divine realm." The miniatures more than anything else establish the lifestyle of the maharajahs, their philosophy, the romantic traditions of their love life and the role of the divine and the mythological in their thoughts and actions. Elaborate wall texts serve as valuable guides throughout the exhibition.
Painter as poet at the China Institute
The Chinese painter-poet assumes three functions: first he composes a poem, then he paints the album leaf or hanging scroll illustrating what he has written and finally he presents the poem itself in calligraphic form. The China Institute presents 35 examples including handscrolls, hanging scrolls, fans, woodblock prints and carved jade, dating from roughly 1000 AD to the present.
Choice works at Kaikodo
Those who missed the show can consult the stunning catalogue, which as always is a work of scholarly love. Here you will find ewers and dance statuettes from the time of Han and Tang, Japanese neolithic earthenware jars and Chinese stoneware bottles.
Most intriguing for me was a 17th-century Ming dynasty silk panel of the "five poisons" -- snakes, lizards, scorpions, tigers and centipedes -- all designed to ward off evil. An Imperial Dragon brocade of the Qing (1736-1796) dynasty looks like something out of William Blake and is equally challenging and fascinating. The dragon symbolizes royal authority.
The objects establish the relationship of Buddhism and the art of ritual. Tibetan thankas, bronzes, wood and stone sculpture capture the spirit of an indomitable people under tremendous pressure. The gallery offers a fascinating backdrop to this exhibition with a show of vintage photographs.
FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.