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asia week
tests the market

by Fred Stern  

South Indian Shiva Nataraja
12th century
at Sotheby's

Nepalese Vasudhara
ca. 1300-50
at Sotheby's

Early Western Zhou
wine vessel
at Sotheby's

Tang dynasty
earth spirit figures
at Sotheby's

Huanghuali four-poster
canopy bed
late 16th-early 17th centuries
at Christie's

Ming dynasty
guardian figure
at Christie's

Tang dynasty equestrians
at Christie's

Khmer figure
of Avalokiteshvara
12th century
at Christie's

Nepalese Indra,
king of the gods
17th century
at Christie's
   In March of this year, in a round of auctions, art fairs and exhibitions, New York effectively became the Asian art center of the world.

To bring this about took a super effort by Christie's and Sotheby's, which staged a fantastic eight-day series of spectacular sales of objects from every region of the Asian continent. More than 3,400 lots in all categories of collecting were put on the block, and the sales totaled in excess of $25 million.

The auction houses were aided by two important art fairs, one at the armory on 67th Street, the other smaller in scope at Lexington Avenue and 26th Street. Additionally, there were a number of museum shows, most notably the mammoth "China: 5,000 Years" at the Guggenheim Museum.

Now, beginning this week, we have the Return of Asia Week. Both of the top auction houses as well as Doyle Galleries will again present the world's collecting public with close to 4,000 lots in similarly kaleidoscopic categories.

Projections this time around must take into account two important factors:

1. Although the Asian financial markets were already in disarray this spring, the malaise has since progressed exponentially, with a good many Asian buyers sidelined for the duration.

2. Many American collectors have recently suffered financial setbacks and may have fewer funds available for Asian art purchases.

"Cautiously optimistic," say the auction house specialists. "We have a lot of fresh material that has not been on the market before, all at prices we have not seen in years. It is a fabulous, probably one-time acquisition opportunity in the high quality range clear across the board without too much Asian competition."

Will the emerging bear market be felt at the auction houses? We'll see!

Here's the lineup:

Chinese paintings, Sept. 14, 2 p.m.
Chinese snuff bottles Sept. 15, 10:15 a.m. & 2 p.m.
Indian and Southeast Asian art, Sept. 16, 10:15 a.m. & 2 p.m.
Chinese works of art, Sept. 17, 10:15 a.m. & 2 p.m.
Japanese inro, Sept. 18, 10:15 a.m.
Japanese works of art, Sept. 18, 2 p.m.

Chinese paintings and calligraphy, Sept. 14, 10 a.m.
Chinese furniture and artworks, Sept. 16, 10 a.m.
Chinese ceramics and artworks, Sept. 16, 2 p.m.
Indian and Southeast Asian art, Sept. 17, 10 a.m.

At Sotheby's Indian and Southeast Asian art sale on Sept. 16, watch for lot 39, a 12th-century representation of Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. This bronze figure from Southern India, stands 30 inches high and is estimated at between $400,000 and $600,000.

Among the Nepalese sculptures is a 14th-century Buddha Vasudhara in gilt bronze (lot 62). Brilliantly cast, the 11-inch-tall figure is clad in a diaphanous robe and has a strikingly modern appearance. It's presale estimate is $300,000-$500,000.

One highlight of Sotheby's Chinese works of art on Sept. 17 is lot 143, a rare archaic bronze hu (ritual wine vessel) of the Early Western Zhou dynasty (ca. 800 BC) with mystic designs and four slender dragons that carries a presale estimate of $200,000-$250,000.

Another lot to watch is 182, a pair of monstrous-looking pottery earth spirit figures from the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) that may frighten the casual observer. Their bodies in brightly streaked colors and their great height (39 inches) made them great guardian figures in the subterranean world. Now they are estimated to sell for $150,000-$200,000.

Among the most prized possessions of Japanese museums and collectors are screens. Sotheby's features in its Japanese sale on Sept. 18 a total of 11 such screens. The highlight is lot 510, a six-fold screen decorated with a pine tree and two cranes by Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958). Each fold of the gold leaf screen is signed and sealed with the artist's name. The presale estimate is $400,000-$600,000.

The furniture of the Ming dynasty aroused Western interest early in the 20th century and has since become almost an obsession with collectors and decorators. At Christie's sale of Chinese furniture and works of art on Sept. 16, a late 16th-century four-poster canopy bed with latticework railings (lot 81) is the star of the sale. Estimated at $280,000-$320,000, it is sure to attract many competitive bids.

In Christie's Sept. 16 sale of Chinese ceramics is a dramatic, bronze figure of a guardian in full regalia (lot 292). A superb example of Ming dynasty Buddhist sculpture, the 76-inch-tall figure stands on a square limestone base, carved with dragons ranging amidst clouds. The statue's gilding is visible beneath its heavy green patina. The ornate armor attests to the wealth of its ruler. It is expected to reach $180,000-$200,000.

Also in this sale is a group of eight equestrian hunters riding in their full splendor, many carrying their favorite dogs on their saddles. The riders appear to be of different ethnic types from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Standing approximately 15 inches high and offered only as a group, they will no doubt be fiercely fought over by collectors. The presale estimate is $350,000-$450,000.

The Tang dynasty also had its devotional side, as is attested to by a number of Christie's offerings, especially by two rare limestone figures of bodhisattvas (beings who forego entering nirvana in order to help men achieve greater spirituality) (lots 283 and 284). The two statues are thought to bring between $250,000 and $350,000 each.

At Christie's Sept. 17 sale of Indian and Southeastern Asian art, one of the highlights is a Khmer figure of "The Lord of Infinite Compassion," or Avalokiteshvara (lot 179). This 12th-century Bayoin-style statue with heavy patina and eight extended arms is expected to bring between $120,000 and $150,000.

Also in this sale is a copper statue of Indra, king of the gods and master of the earth (lot 51). He is shown with arms extended, a horizontal third eye implanted on his forehead. This statue from 17th-century Nepal is richly inlaid with semi-precious stones. It's presale estimate is $280,000-$350,000.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.