If you know nothing of Asian art and want a painless primer course (plus a good reading of the state of the market), head for the two Asian art fairs currently on view in New York. Both the International Asian Art Fair organized by Brian and Anna Haughton, and Bill Caskey's Arts of Pacific Asia Show feature every manner of arts from the East -- archaic bronzes to cutting edge contemporary painting. The wealth of museum-quality Ming furniture, tomb sculpture and imperial porcelain as well as lesser priced wares have already sparked notable sales.
Held at the Seventh Regiment Armory at Park Avenue and 68th Street, the International Asian Art Fair is hosting 61 dealers from ten countries, including China, Taiwan and Japan, and is open Mar. 25-30. This is the place to see the very best -- $200 million worth of splendors of the East that rival and sometimes outstrip in quality works at Sotheby's and Christie's sales.
Just as this fair showcases museum quality works, at the same time it's a barometer of tastes, trends and prices. Right now, archaic Chinese bronzes are hitting dramatic new highs for objets d'art.
Brussels dealer Gisele Cröes, who routinely shows megamillion-dollar bronzes, racked up 12 sales opening night. Among her more distinctive works is an ancient Chinese version of a TV tray, complete with small dishes, dinner plates and chopsticks in a patinated bronze of lapiz blues and sea greens. "From the 2nd century B.C., this footed tray will appeal to a highly cultured collector," says Cröes, whose goods have found their way into the collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Cernushe Museum in Paris. The tray is priced in the six figures.
Then, there's New York dealer Robert Ellsworth, who is featuring two unparalleled bronzes -- a yan, a 12th-century Shang Dynasty footed vessel with a primitive frieze bordering its rim, which was reserved opening night for $700,000; and a ding, a rare 14th-century B.C. vessel priced at $1.2 million. Both had been in a private Japanese collection since the 1930s.
Alexander Gotz takes the prize for the largest bronze in the show. This London dealer is touting a monumental Bronze Age drum from Java. At five-and-a half feet tall, the drum is the only known such example and retails for $650,000.
Early Indian miniatures seem to be the leading "small" of the moment. First time fair participant Sam Fogg, who plies medieval manuscripts in London, brought a cache of Indian miniatures. By the close of opening night, he had totaled more than $250,000 in sales of the delicate pictures, many touched with gold. His prize piece dates from 1594 and is of the Emperor Akbar's palace, both interiors and exteriors, for $200,000.
Skip several centuries and scout out the latest take on contemporary Asian decorative arts -- it's baskets, no less. Kagedo, Lea Snider and the Tai Gallery/Textile Arts have some of the very best. Tai Gallery's brisk sales tell of the soaring interest in woven arts. By the first day, this Santa Fe dealer had written up 13 baskets and early textiles.
All of bamboo, the baskets at Tai reveal both the surprising versatility of the material as well as the technical mastery of the artists. Check out Minoura Chikuho's Dance from the late '60s. This airy woven form resembling an outstretched kimono costs $18,000. By the way, connoisseurs of basketry would be well-advised to visit the Asia Society galleries, where "Bamboo Masterworks: Japanese Baskets from the Lloyd Cotsen Collection" is on view, Feb. 18-May 30, 1999.
Joan B. Mirviss also reported stunning sales of more than a dozen pieces. Buyers plucked up period scroll paintings and contemporary ceramics. She sold an elegant celadon bowl by ceramicist Fukami Sueharu titled Shin: The Approach of the Dawn for $12,000. What's fueling such spirited sales? "A highly sophisticated audience," replied Mirviss.
Ancient sculpture is also in abundance. John Eskenazi has a number of early pieces from southeast Asia in sandstone and gray schist. "Americans find three dimensional pieces easier to relate to than obscure calligraphy paintings," explained Fausta Eskenazi.
Contemporary paintings are on view in the booths of five dealers, ranging from Michael Goedhuis to Lawrence of Beijing. Particularly amusing are the large-scale photocollages of Wei Rong shown at Lawrence of Beijing. This artist places contemporary photos of a striking model in period photos, and prices the results at $50,000. The Hong Kong gallery Plum Blossoms brought along artist Zhu Wei to the fair. His two fiberglass sculptures of dismal Chinese bureaucrats were snapped up for $20,000.
The venerable London dealer Mallett displays the English take on Eastern style. For example, Mallett has a pair of Anglo-Indian padouk wood armchairs ornately inlaid with ivory then etched with floral designs. Priced at $375,000, the pair provide an apt counterpoint to the traditional Chippendale versions. There's also a wonderful four-drawer Chinese chest lacquered in black and gold. Made for the European market in 1740, the chest costs $140,000.
But there are lower priced goods here. Especially appealing is a grouping of miniature tomb sculptures priced from $1,000 to $4,000 at MD Flacks Ltd. In terracotta with handsome green and yellow glazes, the pieces are pint-sized furnishings -- traditional yoke backed chairs and chests.
For more middle market range wares -- Japanese prints, period photographs of Asia and Africa, porcelain and the full range of Asian arts, head downtown to the 69th Regiment Armory at 24th Street and Lexington Avenue, where the Arts of Pacific Asia Show runs Mar. 24-28 and features 67 dealers.
This year, textiles are center stage, with a total of nine dealers showing ikats, kimonos and dragon robes. London dealer Linda Wrigglesworth is featuring a richly embroidered dragon robe believed to be from the collection of the Empress Dowager Cixi.
"Ceremonial badges are an up and coming collectible," says Wrigglesworth. Of kesi weave on a gold ground, the badges are packed with Buddhist symbols and depict various animals that denoted civilian rank. Suitable for framing, the badges are priced from $1,500 on up.
For superior ikats, tie-dyed textiles with diffuse richly colored patterns in persimmon, magenta and sometimes chartreuse, James Blackmon has an outstanding collection. While some prices may appear staggering -- running up to $20,000 -- these textiles are labor intensive and sometimes took as long as two months to complete. Right now, ikats are receiving special attention in an exhibition at the Jewish Museum.
Of special note is 19th-century Chinese bamboo furniture at Eveyln's Antique Chinese Furniture, Inc., from San Francisco. Far lower-priced than hardwood versions, these renditions are highly decorative. A bookcase with detailed fretwork was quickly sold for $19,000.
Finally, contemporary Vietnamese art can be studied at the Hong Kong-based Galerie La Vong, whose wares include realistic paintings by Do Quang Em.
BROOK S. MASON writes on art and antiques from New York.