Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

the $25-million
asian auction week

by Fred Stern  

At Sotheby's:

Landscape Inspired by Du Fu
ca. 1700

Zhang Daqian
Guangming Peak of Mt. Huang

Chen Yifei
Suzhou Canal

Collection of 105 snuff bottles

Collection of eight snuff bottles

Archaic bronze lei
Western Zhou Dynasty

Limestone figure of a monk
Tang Dynasty

Mochizuki Hanzan
Lacquer five-case inro
18th century

Kakiemon porcelain model of a horse
late 17th century

Merrymaking Under Cherry Blossoms
17th century

Gupta red sandstone head of Buddha
Uttar Pradesh, Mathura region
5th century

Gilt-bronze figure of the Dharmapala Mahakala
Imperial China
mid-15th century

At Christie's:

Bronze bird-form vessel and cover, Hu
Warring states period

A gilt-bronze group of a Bodhisattva
seated on a horse
Ming Dynasty

A pair of black and gilt-lacquer throne chairs
Quinlong period

Wood Figure of Virudahaka
Kamakura period (Early 14th century)

Ivory Netsuke
Edo period (Late 18th-Early19th century)
   Sotheby's Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, Mar. 23 & 24
After a week of exhibitions that dazzled the eye and gladdened the soul, Sotheby's began a week of Asian art auctions that presented some 1,700 lots from all corners of Southeast Asia and the Far East to spirited bidding in its York Avenue bastion.

The first sale, Monday Mar. 23, featured Chinese painting and calligraphy from early Ming to the present. The top lot proved to be an album of ten leaves by the celebrated 17th-century master, Shitao (1642-1707), consisting of landscapes inspired by the poet, Du Fu (712-770). Expected to bring $250,000-$300,000, it reached $233,500. Prices given here include auction house commissions.

Guangming Peak of Mt. Huang, a colored ink drawing on paper depicting a brilliant landscape and inscribed to its last owner went for $68,500. Painted by the Picasso of present-day China, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), this price was somewhat below its low estimate of $70,000.

The realist painter, Chen Iffei (b. 1946), a 1980 immigrant to the U.S. and a popular artist with American galleries and museums, reached the third highest price in this auction with an oil depicting the Suzhou Canal. His atmospheric colors lit up the canvas, as the work reached $57,500 -- exceeding its top estimate of $50,000.

According to Sotheby's, decreased buying from Taiwan was largely responsible for the relatively high buy-in rate of 59 percent and the correspondingly low yield of $815,072. Sotheby's did note, however, that there were many new Western and younger buyers. It seems that more development in this market segment may be required.

Sotheby's Mar. 23 afternoon sale of snuff bottles drew a livelier response. Made from a range of materials including ivory, tourmaline, agate dishes, jadite, enamel-on-copper and lapis-lazuli, snuff bottles can date back to the Qianlong dynasty (1736-1795 AD) and earlier. Sotheby's offerings included material new to the market from the North Carolina Museum of Art (which has jumped on the contemporary art bandwagon with a vengeance in recent years) but consisted largely of bottles from the Candler collection. Formed by Pamela Candler's parents during her father's army years, the collection included 105 snuff bottles covering the last three centuries fitted in a Japanese lacquer cabinet. This proved to be the top lot of this section of this sale, realizing $74,000 -- slightly above the high estimate.

Another grouping of eight bottles housed in a special tray drew spirited bidding and eventually realized $43,700, substantially exceeding its high estimate of $30,000.

Of the 332 snuff bottles, 85 percent found buyers and the sale realized a healthy $1,104,162.

In Sotheby's second sale of Chinese art the next day, Mar. 24, the assorted offerings of ceramics, porcelain, furniture, sculpture, jade and metalwork posted strong results. Qing (1644-1911 AD) imperial porcelains were a highlight, along with the Sancai glazed Tang dynasty tomb figures and classical ancient bronzes.

A total of $5,047,437 was achieved as 295 out of the 423 lots offered found buyers. James Godfrey, director of Sotheby's Chinese art department, viewed the high yield as part of a growing trend. "The sale reaffirms New York's strength as the center for buying Asian art. But we are pleased that other world centers show strong participation as well. Today all the top lots showed competitive and aggressive bidding."

The top lot proved to be a rare and important archaic bronze lei (a ritual vessel) of the Western Zhou dynasty (about 1,000 BC). Impressive in size, audacious in its design, it was the star of the auction at $288,500. A European dealer took it home.

A tantalizing figure of a monk (Tang dynasty 618-907 AD), standing on lotus base at a commanding height of 63 inches, proved to be a stellar attraction. It brought $244,500 -- slightly less than its low estimate of $250,000.

An unusually rare Tang Sancai glazed horse with elaborate scroll-work on its saddle, bridle and blanket earned slightly less than its low estimate, selling at $ 222,500.

A New York dealer found a Northern Qi dynasty marble Buddha head irresistible. The bidder offered $178,500 for the sculpture -- almost twice as much as its high estimate of $90,000.

Sotheby's Japanese Art, Mar. 25
The Japanese auction began with an selection of inro. An inro is a small sectional carry-all, worn by Japanese gentlemen at the waist, traditionally containing medicines and herbals. Some 133 inros from the collection of the late C. A. Greenfield were offered. Formed in the 1930s and exhibited with great success at the Japan House Gallery in 1972, the Greenfield collection brought a total of $1,410,000 on the sale of 81 examples, or 62% of the lots.

Sotheby's Japanese art specialist Neil Davey called the sale a great success. "Good clean and nice designs commanded strong prices, as evidenced by the top ten lots of the sale. An international group of buyers competed vigorously throughout the sale. Some pieces failed to sell today because of condition problems."

Among the top lots was a five-tiered lacquer inro bearing a rich black background with finely combed waves depicting a hay-laden boat, a warrior with bow and arrow embellished in gold. It brought $63,000 from a German buyer, exceeding its high estimate.

Another five-compartment inro, dating from 1750 and decorated with a variety of shell and crab designs in gold and red lacquer, reached $50,600, more than twice its high estimate of $25,000.

That afternoon's sale of Japanese art brought in $1,721,930. It featured 210 lots, of which 174 were sold.

A large Kakiemon porcelain horse won top honors with a bid of $838,500, far exceeding its high estimate of $600,000. A London dealer garnered this 17-inch, late 17th century icon with its colorful decorations.

A pair of inlaid silver vases of the early 1920s with floral and heron decorations reached a bid of $41,400 -- more than five times its high estimate of $7,000.

A two-fold 17th century silk screen depicting Merrymaking under Cherry Blossoms, mounted on brocade and gold leaf on paper, reached a high of $35,650, easily topping its high estimate of $20,000.

Sotheby's Indian and Southeast Asian Art, Mar. 26
The unexpected highlight of the week proved to be the sale of Indian and Southeast Asian art on Thursday. A standing-room-only crowd bid vigorously for all items, achieving a record total of $6,900,000 and almost doubling the record of the last comparable sale in 1997, when $3,100,000 was reached. Of the 406 lots, 284 were sold.

A London dealer came away with the top lot -- a red Gupta 5th century Buddha from Uttar Pradesh, the Mathura region of India. It was the time an item of this type topped $1 million at Sotheby's, going for $1,020,000, more than three times its high estimate. The stunning head featured the usual elongated earlobes, almond-shaped eyes, lips recessed at the corners and hair in snail-shell curls.

Another first proved to be a Tibetan gilt bronze figure of the Dharmapala Mahakala that sold at $690,000. Its high estimate had been half that number.

In its week-long series of sales, Sotheby's realized a total in excess of $17 million, its strongest showing since the inception of Asia week in 1992.

Christie's Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy, Mar. 24
Christie's sale of Chinese paintings and calligraphy had a presale forecast of $1,300,000, but topped out at $2,109,443, with 166 lots offered and 52 percent sold. As C. M. Ma pointed out, the high total "was due to the first 27 lots of rare album leaves and fans from the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) and the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). A number of these works easily doubled and tripled their high estimates. Overall we saw the bidding strong from all parts of the world, especially from Hong Kong and Taiwan."

A rare handscroll in several sections and various sizes, and including the valued colophons of Song, Yuan, Ming and Quing calligraphers, was the highlight of the sales. It went for $442,500.

A handscroll by Xueren Hongren (1610-1664) brought avid bidding and tripled its low estimate of $60,000 with a price of $211,500. Titled Mountains and Streams in the Clear Distance, it delighted the eye with the clarity of its vision.

An oval 12th-century fan, done in ink and color on silk, showed a joyous scene at cherry blossom time. At $211,500, it exceeded its high estimate of $20,000 by ten times.

Christie's Chinese Ceramics and Bronzes, Mar. 25
According to Theow-Huang Tow, international director of Christie's Chinese art department, "solid sales results from a strong market in these materials with easy participation of East Asian collectors and dealers assured a higher than expected sales result." A total of $4,687,523 was reached, with 62 percent sold of 430 lots.

Indeed many of the top items in this sale went to the East Asian Trade or two private collectors there.

A rare bronze hu (wine vessel) in the form of a bird of the Warring States period (481-221 BC) fetched the highest price at $332,000. Featuring a distinctive finely cast taotie mask, the vessel stands 16 inches high on a spreading pedestal foot. Its price more or less matched the low estimate.

A rare massive bronze Ming figure of the goddess Guayin seated on a lotus throne garnered $310,500 -- slightly above its low estimate. And a pair of tapered round corner huanghuali led a very strong furniture group at $244,500 -- two and a half times its high estimate.

Christie's Japanese Art, Mar. 26
Christie's sold 49 percent of its 325 lots of Japanese art, for a total of $1,025,803. Yoshi Munemura, vice president and head of the Japanese art department at Christie's, stated "we saw selective buying today. The most competitive aspects of the sale were in the netsuki and print departments. We had a great deal of participation from the Japanese trade as well as private Japanese collectors with a good mixing of European and U.S. sales."

A wooden figure of a Zochoten (guardian king) was the stellar attraction here. Dating back to the Kamakura period (early 14th century), the fierce figure stood 56 inches tall on a grimacing demon. A Japanese dealer paid $63,000 for this sculpture.

Two ivory netsuke (a toggle-like decorative device used to secure a robe) from the Edo Period (late 18th or early 19th century) brought $51,750 and $46,000, respectively, near their low estimates.

Christie's total for the week was $7,822,769. Younger faces and strong participation by European and especially German dealers indicated the ever widening interest in Asian art of all types and dimensions.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.