Six years ago Sotheby's Asian art specialist Suzanne Mitchell (now a private dealer) had an idea. How about doing all the Asian art auctions in a single week? "Asia Week."
Sotheby's was willing, and launched the first, modest Asia Week in March 1993. It proved a success, and a second Asia Week in mid-September was added. Christie's soon decided to join the party, and scheduled its Asian art sales for the same time. Before long, there were two art fairs linked to the festivities: the Arts of Pacific Asia Show at the 26th Street Armory (in March and September) and the Asian Art Fair at the 67th Street Armory (in March only). Galleries not taking part in the fairs participated with their own special exhibitions.
Last year, prospects for the Asian art market looked grim. With the big tumble in Asian economies, Korean collectors were staying home, and only a very small Japanese contingent was showing up. But low and behold, the U.S. kept churning out new collectors and investors, and the Asia Week auctions and fairs held last March did well. And it looks like the forthcoming Asia Week -- slated for the middle of September -- will be phenomenal.
For the first installment of Artnet Magazine's new Asian art report, Art from the East -- hopefully a regular column -- we decided to give you a sampling of gallery happenings in the first weeks of September 1999. We called on four galleries specializing in Asian art, two of them active in the Japanese sector, and one each in Chinese and Indian art. (In our next installment we'll give you a preview of the Asia Week auctions, with an eye towards picking good buys for a beginning collector.)
"What does Asian Week do for you?" we asked James Frankel of E. & J. Frankel on upper Madison Avenue. "It gives us a real focus," he said. "We can build around it. We know visitors will be coming to our gallery, either before or after the auctions sometimes both times. So we have a special show for them. This year it's painted fans."
In the 18th century, the production of painted fans was highly developed. With their irregular surface, fans required subtle foreshortening and other adjustments to perspective. A special resin was used to guarantee uniformity of image. Never sold commercially, the fans were originally gifts to friends, family and patrons. Frankel's fans are each unique, and carry superb calligraphical inscriptions. The price range is $1,000 to $5,000. A fine example is Willow in the Mist by Zhao Danian. The fans come from two generations of collectors, including the founder of Flying Tigers Airlines.
Today's market is seeing lots of "crossover" buyers, moving to Asian art from other areas. Frankel recalls a collector in contemporary Western art who was intrigued by a Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) figure of a young girl that reminded him of a Picasso. He purchased the 18-inch-tall statue and renamed her The Astronomer because she appears to be pointing to the stars.
Indian art and art of the Himalayan Kingdoms (Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan) are the province of Subhash Kapoor at Art of the Past Gallery. Interest in art from that region started to bloom when Jackie Kennedy put together a fine collection of Indian miniature paintings, with the help of Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith. Subhash's father also advised the First Lady on her purchases.
Subhash will display a large terracotta plaque depicting the goddess Devi at the Arts of Pacific Asia show. She dates from the first century B.C. A rare find from a North Indian province, the figure has many Greco-Roman features. The plaque will be at the gallery's upcoming show, which will include a rendering on paper of Ganesh, the Elephant God with a halo of gold and red, and multiple arms. This last work is priced in the middle four figures.
"What accounts for the popularity of Tibetan art?" we asked Subhash. Rarity, for one thing. Much Tibetan art was destroyed during the Chinese takeover in 1959. Beauty for another. Twelfth-century temple hangings (thankas) are masterpieces of composition and design. Add to that the influence of the Dalai Lama, and a spate of Hollywood movies. And don't forget Richard Gere.
The Meiji period
For their booths in the armory show, two galleries on our list are concentrating on a single period in Japanese art: the Meiji period (1852-1912). Metalwork, ceramics and works in lacquer were the hallmark of this Japanese "Renaissance." Flying Cranes Gallery is located in the Manhattan Art and Antiques Center on East 55th Street and Orientations Gallery is housed at 200 East 66th Street.
Jean Schaefer of Flying Cranes showed me a Satsuma vase of enormous size covered with koi swimming on innumerable fishing lines. "We have just pried it loose from an important collector," she said. "It will be the top item in our show and should bring just under $100,000." A large square cloisonné enamel tray designed in wired and wireless technique displays an exquisite bird symbolic of spring's arrival. Jean expects it to "waltz out of the show on the first night."
Susan Tosk, the owner of Orientations Gallery, said her Asia Week selections include a spectacular 19-inch tripod incense burner in gold, silver and enamel with lotus-shaped handles, and a 12-inch cloisonné enamel vase with mandarin ducks and millefleur design. The incense burner is priced at $80,000.
"It's great to know that everything at the show is vetted and buyers can have confidence in all they see or purchase," she says.
The auctions and more
The Metropolitan Museum is getting a jump on Asia Week with "The Artist as Collector: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the C.C. Wang Family Collection," opening Sept. 3, 1999, and running through Jan. 9, 2000. The exhibition includes nearly 100 Chinese old master paintings.
Sotheby's kicks off Asia Week with a sale of Korean works on Sept. 13. This sale includes "placenta" jars, elaborately decorated vessels holding the placenta of a family's firstborn child that traditionally were buried on a mountain as an offering to the gods.
At Christie's, Asia Week begins at Christie's East with a sale of decorative art on Sept. 13. Phillips International Auctions offers early Chinese ceramics and bronzes from the collection of Dr. John T. Biggs on Sept. 17.
As for the Arts of Pacific Asia fair, 70 dealers will greet eager visitors at the Armory on 26th Street and Lexington Avenue, beginning with a gala opening on Sept. 15th. The show is open to the public on Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.