There were some great moments at the Asian art auctions this spring.
The Hollywood screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, whose work on American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was highly acclaimed, built a great collection of Indian miniature paintings in just a few short years. Like all smart collectors, they bought what they liked but also kept an eye on the potential for increased value. The auction of their collection, which consisted of 72 items, at Sotheby's New York on Mar. 22, 2002, reached the record total of $1,487,000, the highest ever for Indian miniatures. Edward Wilkinson, director of Sotheby's Indian and Southeast Asian department, noted active participation by dealers, private collectors and institutions.
Star of the sale was an Illustration to the Gita Govinda of Krishna and Radha Making Love. The beauty and freshness of this opaque watercolor denies its age (1776-1780). Estimated at $50,000, it brought the hammer down at $130,000 to sustained applause.
Another illustration to the Gita Govinda, a 12th-century classic, brought the second highest price at $89,800. Here Radha enters the bower of Govinda on a dark night with doves rising on gray skies.
Overall, 87 percent of the lots sold.
Of the Asia Week auctions in New York, one sale was able to reach the happy plateau of 100 percent sold. This was the Blanche Exstein Collection of Chinese snuff bottles, which sold at Christie's New York on Mar. 21, for a total of $l,322,000. Apparently the appetite for such items among American and European collectors is insatiable. Among the top ten bottles sold, prices exceeded the low estimate, often by 100 percent.
The Robert Hatfield Ellsworth Collection of Chinese archaic and gilt bronzes, offered at Sotheby's on Mar. 19, proved somewhat less lucrative than had been hoped. The 171 lots were estimated to go for between $2,500,000 and $3,500,000, but realized a total of only $1,678,000. (A private sale of the central item in the collection, the Chariot Group, brought $600,000. This raised the sale total to $2.3 million.)
It was interesting to see how many private collectors took this opportunity to acquire the top items in the collection.
In the auction, a 9th century B.C. Western Zhou tripod water kettle soared past its high presale estimate to go for $467,000. The nine-inch tall, beautifully patinated object went to a private collector.
Camels provided the highlights at Sotheby's sale of Chinese objects on Mar. 20, with two stellar objects in the top positions. A camel with a Sogdian rider holding a hunting owl, proceeding in very lively trot (quite different from the usually placid Tang tomb camels), garnered the top spot with a bid of $412,000 from a private collector. Also going to a private collector was a group of two camels, with riders and a pet monkey, for $225,000.
A bamboo neck vase in beautiful celadon glaze from the Southern Song Dynasty was the third highest item in the auction, again going to a private collector for $187,000.
The auction totaled $3,120,000, but only 31 percent of the 330 lots offered found buyers. One major disappointment were the jades. They received only lukewarm interest.
Sotheby's Indian and Southeast Asian art auction on Mar. 21 again brought out private collectors who acquired six of the top ten lots.
A magnificent avatar (manifestation) of Vishnu in the form of Varaha, the rescuer of the world, in a shape that combines the head of a boar with otherwise human features, sold for $292,000. It is beautifully worked in light buff sandstone, standing 55 inches tall. The figure, which comes from 10th-century Madhya Pradesh, has been described as "conveying a sense of enormous energy" (P. Pal).
A Gandharan head of Buddha in dark gray schist with the usual Greco-Roman features dating to the 2nd or 3rd century brought almost twice its low estimate when it sold for $256,000. The auction total of $3,253,000 proved quite satisfactory to Edward Wilkinson, the department head.
For some time now Sotheby's has not been conducting Japanese or Korean auctions in New York. That venue has shifted back to London.
At Christie's, Hugo Wehe, the specialist in Indian and Southeast Asian Art, had this to say about the house's Indian auction on Mar. 20: "Rare pieces from Kashmir, Indonesia, India and Tibet testified to a varied market. The field focused on quality and rarity." The top lot proved to be a bronze statue of the Medicine Buddha (so called because he holds the medicinal fruit in his right hand) from Central Java of the 8th or 9th century. The bronze figure rests on a double row of lotus, while at his back is a mandorla with a flame border and canopy. A private New York collector paid $226,000 for this rare object. A bronze Buddha from Kashmir with superb detailing, and remnants of red pigment found a home with a European collector at $138,000.
The sale brought in a total of $2,351,000, with 55 percent of the lots sold.
Christie's sale of Chinese ceramics and works of art on Mar. 21 brought "thrilling results that reflected collectors' response to selective offerings of high consistency and quality," said Tina Zonan, head of Christie's Chinese art department.
A much admired Ferghana horse of exceptional quality was purchased by a private buyer for $534,000, accounting for 10 percent of the sale total. An octagonal vessel of fine white porcelain, identified as a mortar from the 10th or 11th century A.D., brought a final bid of $501,000 from a private collector, exceeding the low estimate by 75 percent.
The sale brought the fantastic total of $6,827,000, rather more than last year's sale, which totaled $4,000,000.
Christie's Japanese and Korean sale resulted in a total take of $2,817,000, and was dominated by Korean objects. The top item of the sale proved to be a painting by the Korean painter Park Sookeun (1914-1965), whose work, done in oil and mixed media on board, reached a new world record of $578,000, well over its low presale estimate of $150,000. The Sookeun counted for 20 percent of the sale total.
Another Korean object, a ten-panel screen by an unknown artist of the late l8th century showing the "Immortals" brought $226,000.
To sum up, Christie's Asia Week auctions totaled $13,317,000, while Sotheby's sales reached $l0,l28,000.