Art lovers have become a bit spoiled by the recent phenomenal rise of the Asian auction market.
We may fail to remember that just a few years ago the Asian auctions (regularly held during the last week in March) consisted of only single auctions at the two leading houses. The audience for the sales was apt to consist of academicians and their graduate students, a few collectors who had spent time in Asia and included gallerists who hoped to find the "Star of India" or its equivalent among the neglected lots.
Today, Christie's and Sotheby's alone offer as many as eight sales between them, with perhaps 4,000 lots representing the vast markets for Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Indian art, Chinese furniture and Korean ceramics. Auction clients include an increasing number of collectors along with dealers from Hong Kong, London, Europe and of course an ever-growing American contingent.
In this context, while some of the sales results leave something to be desired, the long-range outlook for Asian art at auction remains highly favorable. The trend is definitely upwards.
Asia Week at Sotheby's
Total sales for Asia Week auctions at Sotheby's came in at $11,200,000, a bit low in comparison to last year's total of $17,000,000. For the first time Sotheby's did not include classic Chinese paintings and calligraphy in its offerings, consigning these categories to the much stronger market in Hong Kong.
Despite the overall results, Sotheby's sold more Japanese art than last year, $2,036,000 as against $1,721,000. Last year's Southeast Asian sale grossed $6,900,000 million dollars but it had a 5th-century Gupta Buddha which single-handedly added a cool $1,020,000 to the take. This year's total of $4,900,000 is quite respectable. (All figures include the buyer's commission, 15 percent on the first $50,000 and 10 percent on the rest).
Sotheby's Chinese art sales
It was expected that Sotheby's prize offering, a rare large sancai, or glazed pottery camel, would bring a high price. The Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) work has a non-Chinese rider and triple colors (green, amber and cream). But it failed to reach the high estimate ($300,000) by a sliver, coming in at $261,000. Nevertheless, it was the top item in the sale. The camel and its rider will enter a U.S. collection.
An 18th-century dark green elephant sold for the second highest price, $112,500. The charm of this beast no doubt helped it top its low estimate by roughly $12,000, enriching another U.S. collection.
A benevolent-looking Buddha in seated position in gilded lacquered stucco also brought $112,500. It's rare to find a figure of such size and quality from the Yuan/early Ming (1279-1400 A.D.) period.
A fresco fragment depicting a Bodhisattva -- an enlightened being that has willed not to reach the status of Buddhahood in order to help ordinary humans achieve enlightenment -- sold for $90,000, far surpassing the $15,000 that was expected. The work is judged to be of the Jin/Yuan dynasty (1115-1300 AD), and shows the sage in a colorful setting wearing a bejeweled crown.
"The middle market was highly selective and this resulted in our not exceeding a 68 percent sold-by-lot result. Better items achieved expected minimums. Asian dealers are back with us with special emphasis on Qing mark ceramics (1644-1911) competing against the private market and European dealers," opined James Godfrey, the Sotheby's specialist who oversaw this sale.
Sotheby's Chinese furniture
Lark Mason, Sotheby's specialist in Chinese furniture, urged patience with the relatively weak auction results, given the relative newness of this market.
A 17th-century bookcase was the top item. This three-tiered rosewood object featured two narrow drawers near the top and dragon carvings on the apron. A U.S. dealer purchased it for $90,000, near its low presale estimate.
A horseshoe-back armchair of the 16th to 17th century was the next highest item, selling at $79,500, well above its high estimate of $50,000. Similar chairs can be found in the Palace Museum collection in Beijing.
Japanese art at Sotheby's
"A high percentage of the lots offered (77 percent) sold way above their high estimates," according to R. Iida and Nei Davey, the specialists in charge of this sale. "Trends are stronger than last September."
A British dealer purchased the top item, a signed inlaid silver and shakudo vase dating from the Meiji period (1868-1912). The elegant piece, with a high estimate of $3,000, sold for an astonishing $55,200.
A U.S. dealer purchased a pair of six-fold screens showing scenes near the 17th-century capital of Kyoto. Mounted on brocade, rendered in various colors and highlighted in gold, the screens were generously sized at 60 by 138 inches. The screens did not reach the low estimate of $60,000, but did sell for $51,750.
The brilliant ceramist Namikawa Sosuke created an elaborate vase depicting a cockerel and hens in a snowy landscape. It dates from the Meiji period. For the 16-inch-high vase, a U.S. collector bid $ 51,750, topping the $40,000 high estimate.
A pair of Shibayama-style inlaid tusk vases of the late 19th century brought $46,000, slightly below the low estimate. Each ivory tusk is decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl, ivory, coral, tortoiseshell and edged with enameled silver lappets. A U.S. collector made the purchase.
The highest price in the Greenfield collection of netsuke, inros and boxes was $55,200 for an inlaid box signed by the artist Ichiryu Tomotoshi of the Meiji period (1868-1912). The miniature box features scenes of salmon swimming upstream, flights of cranes and is greatly enhanced by silver and gilt details. The high bid was all the more amazing in light of the item's presale high estimate -- $3,000.
Indian and Southeast Asian art
Carlton Rochell, Jr., director of Sotheby's Asia division, noted that while private collectors dominated the auction, there was strong trade and institutional participation.
A Sino-Tibetan bronze set a record for a bronze at auction with a $745,000 bid from a U.S. collector. The object was a Ming Dynasty (15th century) gilt-bronze figure of Yamantaka, the wrathful manifestation of the bodhissattva of wisdom). Yamantaka with his 18 legs and 36 arms is shown embracing his consort in this incredible 36-inch-high statue.
A more benign figure, that of Amitayus, the Buddha of eternal life, garnered the next highest price. Amitayus is popular because he is credited with the ability to prolong life. The gilt bronze figure seated on a lotus throne wearing a highly ornamented dhoti stems from the Xuande period (1426-1435 A.D.). A collector paid $607,500, more than twice the high estimate of $300,000.
An important Pala black stone stele of Syamatara, a voluptuous goddess from the Bengal region of 11th-century India, was won by an Asian collector for $200,500, far exceeding its estimated high of $120,000.
Another Indian statue, this time from Gandhara, shows a pensive bohissattva. The gray schist figure with closed eyes appears to be meditating seated on an interestingly sculpted throne. An American collector added this jewel to his collection at $167,500, near the low estimate.
Asia Week totals at Christie's
Christie's had a fantastic Asia Week. Its Chinese sales almost doubled l998's results of $4,800,000 with a total of $8,200,000 for 1999. The Japanese and Korean art auction total of $2,500,000 was more than double the $1,000,000 achieved in 1998. The Southeast Asia offerings also did quite well at $2,500,000.
All in all, Christie's 1999 sales totaled $13,200,000, upping the 1998 mark by 70 percent.
Chinese art at Christie's
An incredible bid of $1,432,500 won the painting titled Travellers in Autumn Mountains in the style of Guo Xi. It had been estimated at $70,000. The 13th-14th century painting was rumored to have been bought by the well-known collector Mr. Wang. Its provenance includes the Huizong emperor and eight other owners.
A rare pair of fine famille rose yellow-ground Meiping -- a vase -- with a Qianlong (1736-1795) seal mark was bought by the premier London dealer, Eskenazi, Ltd. The finely enameled vase features nine mischievous dragons with merged tails, ending in a monster's high relief mask. The winning bid of $400,000 substantially exceeded the high estimate of $130,500.
A rare painted and gold-decorated red pottery figure of a courtier kneeling in obeisance to an unseen person (Tang dynasty, 618-907 AD) brought $442,500 from a European collector, midway between the high and low estimate. The 21-inch-long, carefully modeled statue in a reddish court costume shows strong pigmentation.
An early 18th-century (Yongzheng, 1723-1735 AD) amphora with celadon glazing encouraged fierce bidding. Showing a clear Tang influence, the amphora features a blue underglaze. While other examples exist, it is very rare in this exceptional condition. Again a U.S. collector captured this prize, paying $442,500, more than double the high estimate of $180,000.
Christie's Japanese and Korean sale
An unusually fine 17th-century six-panel gold and black screen represents the excitement that greeted the arrival of a Portuguese vessel in Nagasaki. Painted by an unknown artist, the screen pictures Portuguese traders carefully approaching a group of Jesuits. The presentation is both ornamentally inspiring and stylistically grave. An unknown buyer paid $497,000 for the screen, a touch below the low estimate.
Another top lot was a work by Saito Yoshihige (b. 1904), one of modern Japan's leading abstract painters, who won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1960 and a year later took the top prize at the Sao Paulo Bienal. After fierce bidding an anonymous buyer won the large red and white painting for $266,000.
In the Korean ceramics category the top winner was a Punch'ong flask of the Choson Period (15th to 16th century). Green patches and streaks along one lotus panel distinguish this ovoid flask. At $266,500 it topped its high estimate.
A trompe l'oeil eight-paneled screen titled Scholars Accoutrements shows an array of books, chests and writing utensils in neatly designed cubby holes. The anonymous painting is Korean and dates from the end of the 19th century. It easily doubled its high estimate of $70,000.
Christie's Indian and Southeast Asian art
"A strong international group of bidders, with European and American collectors participating, led to increased involvement by institutional buyers as well," said Dr. Hugo Weihe, head of Christie's Indian and Southeast Asian art department.
Top lot was a 28-inch-high Tibetan gilt bronze figure of Lokapala Virupaksa, the guardian king of the West. In this opulent presentation from the 13th-14th century, the king holds a serpent in his left hand while gesturing with his right. A Buddhist legend assets that the four guardian kings, each assigned to a cardinal point of the compass, were the protectors of Buddha. It sold for a shade less than the low estimate of $400,000.
A U.S. collector secured the 13th-century bronze group of the Indian deities, Shiva and Pavarti. The traditional presentation with Shiva holding a battle axe in one hand an antelope in the other is augmented by Parvati the warmth of whose almond-shaped eyes accompany her open handed gesture. Originally in a Swiss collection, the purchase was made by an American collector who spent $200,500, considerably below the low estimate for his prize.
A bronze gilt figure of Tara excited vigorous bidding. A female buddha and meditational deity who is the most popular goddess in Tibet, the 12th century Nepalese figure, standing on a double lotus base, is exquisitely attired. A U.S. collector brought this statue home at $134,500, slightly above its high estimate ($120,000).
An important bronze stupa from Gandhara (3rd-4th century) was bought by the National Heritage Board of Singapore. A stupa is a religious monument representing Buddha's enlightened mind. Stupas are used as reliquaries, holding offerings and precious relics. The Singapore buyer paid $112,500, or slightly above the low estimate.
The preponderance of Indian and Tibetan art objects in both Christie's and Sotheby's auctions and their percentage of total take, as well as the high attendance of collectors at Tibetan showings and other art functions throughout the week, indicates a steadily growing interest in art the Tibetan and Himalayan regions.