"It's a flight to quality," opined a spokesperson for Christie's in reference to the forthcoming Asia Week auctions in New York, which begin tomorrow, Mar. 19-22, 2002. "Sales of Asia-related material at various continental auctions were a bit inconclusive, but I would say that those bitten by the Asian art bug have not let up. They may be a bit more cautious now, in light of lower Wall Street bonuses. Collectors are less likely to experiment and want to invest their funds wisely."
Up at Sotheby's on York Avenue, the word was much the same -- cautious. "We have been careful in accepting lots" said a spokesperson. "We would rather have fewer offerings but of a higher quality at this point." The auction house went on to note, as always, that "good material, relatively new to the market, will do very well this season."
This search for quality could hardly be better manifested than in the sale of the Robert Hatfield Ellsworth Collection of Chinese archaic and gilt bronzes, which kicks of Asia week at Sotheby's on Mar. 19. Those who had the good fortune to see the installation of Ellsworth's superb collection in his apartment must be saddened to see these works consigned to auction, but they must likewise be pleased to see how many collectors and institutions will be immeasurably enriched.
The most imposing offering is an archaic bronze horse and carriage from the Eastern Han dynasty (First century AD). Handsomely patinated, it measures more than 15 inches tall and is 23 inches long. Fierce bidding is expected from the start, with an estimate of $750,000-$1,000,000.
An exceptionally rare tripod kettle with linked cover of Late Western Zhou origin (9th century BC) is tagged to bring between $300,000 and $400,000. Many other objects are expected to bring in excess of $100,000 each, for an anticipated auction total of $2.5 million to $3.5 million.
The Ellsworth Collection went on public exhibition at Sotheby's on Mar. 13.
Sales of special collections are as always a feature of Asia Week. One of these is the Mar. 22 sale at Sotheby's of Indian miniature paintings from the collection of screenwriters Gloria Katz and Williard Huyck (whose credits include American Graffiti). The miniatures date from the Mughal period (1526-1757 AD) into the early 19th century. Some of the offerings are in the $3,000 range, but the superb Guler paintings (considered the equivalent of the Florentine school) may sell for as much as $50,000.
A massive cut-glaze wine jar of the Xi Xia Period (1028-1227 AD), also from the Ellsworth collection, is in Christie's Chinese ceramics sale on Mar. 21. This ca. 20-in., tapering ovoid masterpiece is expected to bring between $200,000 and $300,000.
Among other sale highlights are a superb Meiping of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 AD), estimated at $280,000-$350,000, and a rare molded blue and white stemcup expected to sell for $150,000-$180,000. The stemcup, either of Late Yuan or Early Ming origin (14th century AD), is beautifully illustrated with a single magnificent dragon, and it has a chrysanthemum center medallion.
Auction mavens have seen magnificent Sancai Tang horses in the past, but the figure of a Ferghana horse at Christie's is truly exceptional. Standing over 25 inches tall, the horse is incredibly well glazed and most finely proportioned. It is not surprising that it is expected to take the hammer above $500,000.
A Tibetan Chinese silk and gold embroidered thangka of the 14th century is the star of the Indian and Southeast Asia auction at Christie's on Mar. 20, and is important and rare enough to be tagged at $750,000. In this sale, and in Sotheby's sale in the same category on Mar. 21, are superior quality gilt bronze Tibetan or Sri Lankan figures in the $20,000-$80,000 range.
Graystone and sandstone sculptures in both Indian auctions are beautiful examples of 6th to 14th century south and central Indian workmanship.
Finally, the Blanche Exstein Collection of snuff bottles at Christie's on Mar. 21 includes more than 260 objects. The star is a black and white jade bottle of the School of Zhiting, Suzhou (1750-1820 AD), period with a suggested price of $80,000- $120,000.
Christie's has a good website for its Asian sales.
Thunderclap in Sichuan
It was every archaeologist's dream and simultaneously every archaeologist's nightmare.
On July 18, l986, a group of Chinese workers at a local brickyard in the Sichuan village of Sanxingdui uncovered what turned out to be an ancient sacrificial pit. They immediately alerted archaeologists who happened to be nearby; carefully supervised scientific excavations began that very day.
Just as the archaeologists had decided their work was finished, a new and even more important find was made. . . a second sacrificial pit.
Through careful examination the scientists determined that the pits had last seen daylight around 1200 B.C. The evidence: late Shang period bronze vessels, jade swords with heavy carving, and indications of a sophisticated bronze technology that had centered around the Yellow River region.
But what puzzled and still confounds the archaeologists is the strange nature of their find. The huge looming statue of a man (or god or king) wearing sumptuous garments. Bronze masks with protruding eyes, strange elongated ears, colossal noses and deeply carved eyebrows surprised them.
Now, 15 years after the find, more than 128 of these items are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the new exhibition, "Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan," Mar. 6-Jun 16, 2002. These spectacular images of gods and humans, bronze vessels, outstanding jades, moneytrees and ceramic sculptures of all types are fascinating.
The Seattle Art Museum and the People's Republic of China as well as support from the Boeing Company made this show possible.