The Roman fear of the "Ides of March" proved unwarranted for New York's two Asian art fairs this spring. Both the International Asian Art Fair at the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street, which specializes in objects priced at $25,000 and up, and the more modest New York Arts of Pacific Asia Show at the downtown Armory on Lexington Avenue and 26th Street, did "land office business." Exhibitors told this writer that they never saw such an ebullient group of buyers and that every day exceeded expectations.
It seems that each year the quality of participating galleries goes up and the vetting process becomes more critical. No wonder visitors to the fair are so happy.
Sales were lively at gallery shows as well. Eskenazi, which brought an impressive group of Tang terracottas to the Pace Wildenstein Gallery on 57th Street, reported good "museum sales. Scholten reported excellent sales of its Japanese screens. Frederick Schultz had museum sales before he even opened his "Jain" showings. Throckmorton was thrilled with his jade buyers.
Kaikodo's "Natural Selection" exhibition, with its range of objects priced from $1,500 to $400,000, reveled in its effectiveness. E & J Frankel found many imbibers for its unique wine-related objects. Chambers' exhibition, "Chinese furniture from Ming to Qing," runs until May 12, 2001, and indications here are good as well.
As for the auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's, herewith, a brief rundown. All prices include the 15 percent buyer's premium.
Chinese ceramics and works of art at Christie's, Mar. 20
In the middle of Christie's first day sale for Asia Week, a huge bronze ritual wine jar was knocked down for $9.3 million, the highest price ever paid for an Asian art object at auction. The anonymous buyer won the work, which was estimated at $3 million, after a heated telephone duel.
Why the stratospheric price? Three explanations come immediately to mind: rarity -- the work is the largest "fanglei" (ritual wine jar) in memory; provenance -- the Bahr, Yau and Loo collections; and condition -- superb. Even though the "fanglei" has no cover, it "blew its lid."
The second thunder stroke for Christie's was the sale of the Alan and Simone Hartman collection of Tang Dynasty Sancai-Glazed Pottery, comprising 48 objects in pristine condition. It had been agreed that the collection would be offered as a single unit and that if it didn't reach its low estimate of $1.1 million, it would be auctioned piece by piece. This proved unnecessary when a private European collector offered $1,381,000 for the whole lot.
Among the top items in the collection were a sculpture of a boy dozing atop a water buffalo, a rare pottery figure of a seated lion, a lady falconer and a very large figure of a wine merchant.
Eskenazi Ltd. was high bidder on a Yongzheng (1723-1795 A.D.) tea-dust glazed jardinière at $94,000, almost five times the low bid of $20,000, and on a Junyao dish dating to Northern Sung (960- 1127 A.D.) at $70,500.
In one fell swoop, then, Christie's had its highest sale of Chinese objects ever -- $13,918,000. And by just carrying its other two sales (Japanese and Indian objects) at 2000 levels it was able to reach a record sales total for an Asian sales week: $20,681,000.
Indian and Southeast Asian art at Christie's, Mar. 21
The seemingly inexhaustible appeal of Tibetan gilt bronze Buddhist deities led to higher than expected prices at Christie's.
Dating to the Yongle period (1403-1425 A.D.) was a large figure of Manjushri, the principal Boddhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism, which exceeded its low estimate of $150,000 by $98,000, and went to a private U.S. collector. Although often shown mounted on a lion or as the god of agriculture, Manjushri is here shown resting on a double frieze.
Four Indian gods -- Vishnu and Lakshmi paired with Shiva and Parvati in a tenth century sandstone frieze from Uttar Pradesh, are unmatched in style and execution. The linear styling and slightly swaying figures have a rhythmic movement of great beauty. At $226,000 the object went slightly above its low estimate, to an American private collector.
A gilt bronze Tibetan finial from the 13th or 14th century created a sensation with its exuberant rococo styling that represented a "makara," a mythological animal that is part crocodile, part elephant, with the paws of a lion. At $149,000, it topped its low estimate by almost 500 percent.
Christie's expert Hugo Wehe proudly credited "knowledgeable, discerning eyes of bidders, for sparking the good sales pattern." The ten top items accounted for almost 40 percent of the sale, but at $2,614,000, the results barely reached last year's final figure.
Japanese and Korean art at Christie's, Mar. 22
This was the only category in which Christie's fell seriously behind last year's figures: $2,562,000 against $7,440,800.
Although it is always hard to pinpoint the reason for a disappointing sale, here the failure of several important Japanese screens to reach their floor was crucial. They had been estimated to bring $200,000-$300,000. Two Korean scrolls, estimated each at $500,000, also did not sell.
Still there were some pleasant surprises, including a 15th-century Korean stoneware bottle of the Choson period that became the top lot in the auction when it sold for $226,000. It was followed closely by a Korean celadon and reverse-inlaid stoneware ewer from the l2th century Koryo dynasty at $204,000, slightly above its high estimate of $200,000.
An anonymous ten-panel screen titled Audience at Court had a winning bid of $127,000 against an estimate of only $70,000.
Indian and Southeast Asian art at Sotheby's, Mar. 20
A meager $2,400,000 total in this category contrasted strongly with last year's $6,000,000-plus number. It seemed an ominous sign for Sotheby's for the rest of the week, but fortunately the bad luck did not materialize.
Edward Wilkinson, Sotheby's specialist, offered a partial explanation for the showing. "We concentrated on Indian miniature paintings and 19th and 20th century modern Indian paintings, instead of staying with the proven strength of Tibetan objects. Many of our offerings were slotted for under $10,000. We just can't realize our targets at these figures. Our low estimates were based more or less on last year's numbers and we can't kid ourselves, the economy has shifted and we should have made the necessary adjustments."
It seems that the bidders just weren't willing to make some of the relatively "high commitments" called for. "Had Sotheby's lowered its estimates by just 10 or 11 percent, I would have been in the running," confided one bidder.
Two great copper gilt Buddhas did reach the $300,000-plus plateau. A seated Tibetan figure from the 13th century, 25 inches high, reached $390,750, slightly below its low estimate. A 13th century standing Nepalese Buddha brought $346,750.
The third highest figure was paid for an India Company manuscript of 122 illustrations dated around 1825. It reached $98,500. Its pages include vivid portraits of Kings Oude and the Mughal emperor, Akbar II, on fine bombycine paper.
Two Khmer sandstone figures of Vishnu and the goddess Uma (aka Devi) dating to the 11th century brought $98,500 and $81,250, respectively. Majestic and graceful execution characterizes these Baphoun-style representations.
Japanese and Korean art at Sotheby's
Two pairs of six-panel screens mounted on brocade and painted by Goshun (1752-1811 A.D.) in Maruyama style proved to be the top item, selling at $203,000, slightly above the low estimate. Three fishermen are pictured -- a small boy, his father and grandfather, as a lone plover stands amidst the reeds.
Another screen, dating to the second half of the 17th century, was purchased for $58,250. The anonymous six-panel work shows a cityscape of Rakuchu Rakugal. It was bought by a California dealer.
Netsukes (toggles), several from the famed Bushnell collection, had an unusually strong showing of $455,610. Among them were an unsigned netsuke of an ivory kirin (a mythological animal), which realized $29,500 against an estimate of $25,000. An ivory hare brought $37,500 against a low estimate of $4,000.
At $1,926,000 total, the sale topped the 2000 figure by roughly $200,000.
Chinese Ceramics and works of art at Sotheby's, Mar. 22
This proved to be the most successful sale of Sotheby's week, bringing in a total of $3,113,000 as against last year's figure of $2,614,000.
According to James Godfrey, director of Sotheby's Chinese works of art department, "The constant telephone ringing with prospective buyers from America, Europe and Asia reinforced the fact that the market responds eagerly to objects fresh to the market.
"Porcelains dominated the top ten lots of the day, especially an early Ming wintergreen glazed stemcut with a Yongle sealmark. It went for $533,700, an unbelievable reach over its high estimate of $150,000. Its Hong Kong sale in 1981, realized only $120,000. A peachbloom water pot with a Kangxi (1662-1722) mark from Chicago's Alsdorf collection brought $335,750."
Sotheby's Asia Week ended with a figure of $7,438,000, somewhat less that the 2000 sum of $10,417,000.
FRED STERN writes on Asian art for Artnet Magazine.