Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    Art from the East
by Fred Stern
Glazed bottle vase
with Qianlong markings
$126,000 at Sotheby's New York
Sept. 20, 2000
Conical bowl
with Xuande markings
ca. 1426
at Sotheby's
Sept. 20, 2000
Yidam Embracing Vajravarahi
14th century
at Sotheby's
Sept. 20, 2000
14th century
at Christie's New York
Sept. 19, 2000
Porcelain brush holder
Choson Period
(18th century)
at Christie's
Sept. 19, 2000
Khmer style
10th century
at Christie's
Sept. 20, 2000
Lonquan Celadon jar
Sung Dynasty (1127-1279)
at Christie's
Sept. 21, 2000
Huanghuali day bed
Early 17th century
at Christie's
Sept. 21, 2000
Textile designs
on an all-purpose chest
19th century
at Honeychurch
Panel from an altar table
19th century
at Honeychurch
Krishna Awaits his Beloved Kangra
ca. 1780
at Asia Society
Asavari Ragini Malwa
at Asia Society
Shi Tao
Leaf from Album of Landscapes with Poetic Inscriptions
at China Institute
Silk panel from
The Five Poisons
Ming Dynasty (17th century)
at Kaikodo
16th century
at the Folk Art International Gallery
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
Far and away the meteor of Sotheby's Chinese art sale on Sept. 20 proved to be the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) blue and white jar that had been the property of Charles A. Dana, a member of Lincoln's war cabinet. This heirloom found a private collector who would more than double the $400,000 low estimate with a winning bid of $830,750.

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 private Japanese collector acquired a pair of 17th-century six-fold brocaded ink, color and gold screens depicting scenes of the capital, Kyoto. Finely painted but unsigned, the screens portray the Gion procession and famous sights within Kyoto and the surrounding countryside. The screens were estimated at $200,000 but bidding stopped short of the mark -- the collector obtained the screens for $137,750.

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
A 14th-century Tibetan gilt-bronze Cakrasamvara was top item in this sale. Cakrasamvara means "he who holds the wheel," i.e., he who governs. The jewel-encrusted sculpture of Yidam embracing his consort Vajravarahi almost doubled its low estimate, reaching $192,750, to become the highest priced item in this sale. More spirited bidding followed as a dancing Balakrishna, a 13th-century bronze Chola figure in an exuberant mode, reached $110,000.

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
Rare Korean items brought the highest prices here. Among these were a 14th-century gilt-bronze figure of a Boddhisattva, which is of course an "enlightened being on the way to Buddhahood," seated on a hexagonal lotus platform in the "relaxation mode." It fetched $446,000 from an anonymous buyer after extensive bidding, topping its $280,000 estimate.

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
Three offerings in this sale exceeded the $100,000 mark, but the prices were close to the low estimates.

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 Longquan celadon jar and cover with a fierce dragon, perfectly glazed in sea-green and coiled around the jar's neck, topped sales in this category. The jar was from the Southern Sung Dynasty (1127-1279). It was acquired by a dealer in the East Asian trade for $358,000, more than seven times the low estimate.

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
Through November, Honeychurch Antiques. Ltd., in Seattle, Wa., has mounted an exhibition of Tibetan furniture dating from the middle and end of the 19th century. It might seem strange that Tibetans -- who to this day lead a nomadic lifestyle -- would have furnishings, especially such brilliant ones. Of necessity many pieces serve a dual function -- chair by day, bed by night.

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
Edwin Binney, heir to the Crayola fortune, built a magnificent collection of Indian miniatures spanning eight centuries and representing the important courts of the Indian subcontinent. Binney donated this collection, which numbered all in all 1450 works of art, to the San Diego Museum. A selection of 70 of these items is temporarily housed at New York's Asia Society, 502 Park Avenue at 59th Street, Oct. 12, 2000-Jan. 7, 2001.

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
On view through Dec. 10 at the China Institute, 125 East 65 Street in New York, is "The Chinese Painter as Poet." The emphasis is on the work of the "scholar artist" and the melding of literature and painting, an undertaking that has proved quite fruitful for Chinese artists. The tradition first emerged in the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) and has survived through the centuries.

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
A wide-ranging show, titled "In the Eye of the Beholder," recently closed at Kaikodo Gallery, one of New York's premier Chinese art venues. Some 82 offerings were for sale, covering every Chinese and Japanese dynasty. The show closed Oct. 21.

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.

Whispered prayers
The Folk Art International gallery has brought together sacred art and artifacts from the 9th century to the present in "Whispered Prayers: Images and Objects of Himalayan Culture," at its location on Maiden Lane in San Francisco, Oct. 12-Nov. 23, 2000.

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.