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global woes
hit asian sales

by Fred Stern  

Rare horseshoe
back armchair
late 16th century
at Christie's
Sept. 16

Huanghuali four-poster
canopy bed
late 16th-early 17th century
at Christie's
Sept. 16

Cizhou Sgraffiato Meiping
(flower vase)
of Northern Song dynasty
at Sotheby's
on Sept. 17

Tang dynasty equestrians
at Christie's
Sept. 16

Ferghana horse
6-9 century AD
at Christie's
Sept. 16

Boddhisatva figure
early Tang dynasty
at Christie's
Sept. 16

Ming dynasty
guardian figure
at Christie's
Sept. 16

Gandhara bronze-lotus
bud-form censer
3rd-4th century
at Christie's
Sept. 17

Tibetan iron stand
15th century
at Christie's
Sept. 17

Nepalese bronze
Tara figure
7th century AD
at Christie's
Sept. 17

Buddha Sakyamuni
ca. 1300-50
at Sotheby's
Sept. 17

Nepalese gilt-bronze
figure of a bodhisattva
1300-50 AD
at Sotheby's
Sept. 17

Khmer bronze
figure of Buddha
Ankor Wat style
at Sotheby's
Sept. 17

Nepalese mask of Bhairava
probably 16th century
at Sotheby's
Sept. 17
   Nobody expected the Asian art sales at Sotheby's and Christie's last week, Sept. 14-18, to match the March records, when sales hit the $25 million mark. A lot has changed in just six months.

The much-talked-about collapse of the Asian financial markets has extended to the art world, perhaps more quickly than anyone had expected. Lots of Asian buyers, dealers and collectors stayed away, with one important exception -- the Taiwanese. Relatively unaffected by the changes in the currency picture, Taiwanese collectors and dealers scooped up mid-priced Chinese 17th- and 18th-century paintings, many at bargain rates.

In total, an anemic 50 percent sold at both houses in all the sales (Chinese furniture at Christie's was the stand out, with 67 percent sold by lot). That result compares to about 62 percent for Asia sales last March. Note that the auction-house average of all sales is about 70 percent sold. Apparently, according to some insiders, the houses took most of what was offered in an effort to accomodate their Asian clients who were in desperate need of U.S. currency.

Overall, the most severe drop-off occurred in the sales of Chinese paintings and calligraphy at both houses. Christie's garnered only $940,040 this time around against $2,109,443 in March. The results were even more discouraging on 72nd Street, where Sotheby's realized less than $300,000 against $815,000 in March.

One other factor played a major role here. The need for "hard currency" drove many dealers and collectors to consign a larger number of items to the market -- more than the market could absorb.

American collectors, too, turned cautious and in a number of cases just visited the pre-sale exhibitions, neglecting to return for the sale. Still, Americans bought heavily in in the sales of Chinese ceramics, Indian and Southeast Asian sculptures and Indian gouache paintings. Chinese snuff bottles also moved quite well.

The somewhat anemic prices also appeared to encourage American and European museums to buy, as they realized that their purchase funds would go a lot further at this week's auction than previously.

Chinese furniture
Christie's Chinese art specialist Theow-Huang-Tow, delighted by the results of the Sept. 16 auction of Chinese furniture and works of art, commented enthusiastically about "bidders coming back in droves and competing for the top lots of today's sale." Results rivaled those achieved in Christie's spectacular sale in Sept. 1996 of the collection of the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture (located near San Francisco), which was 100 percent sold and totaled $11.2 million.

One factor contributing to the popularity of these 16th- and 17th-century items is their rarity. Many Huanghuali (dark hardwood) furniture items, in particular four- and six-poster beds, were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution or damaged when the moneyed classes departed Shanghai and other large cities in the post-war days of "The Long March," in which the Communists won their hold on China.

The five top items in the sale were bought by the London dealer Eskenazi, Ltd., for their London gallery (and for a branch the family plans to open soon in the U.S.). Included were a 12-panel late-17th-century Weiping screen (lot 126) and an armchair of the late 16th century (lot 32) which sold for $310,500 and $200,500, respectively.

The major piece of the sale, a rare Huanghuali four poster canopy bed, also was knocked down to Eskenazi for $354,500, exceeding its presale estimate of $280,000-$320,000 (lot 81).

Christie's realized $2,674,160 from this sale. Classical Chinese furniture is not a major factor in Sotheby's version of Asia week, but still its mid-level offerings moved quite well.

Chinese ceramics and bronzes
Strong private participation in the sale of Chinese ceramics and bronzes at both auction houses was very encouraging. Theow-Huang-Tow noted a "discerning market that picked the highest quality items in both Buddhist sculpture and tomb pottery ... especially horses."

James Godfrey, director of Sotheby's Chinese works of art, had similar comments and seemed particularly gratified by the fierce bidding that took place on Sept. 17 for the top item in the sale: a rare Cizhou Sgraffiato Meiping (flower vase) of the Northern Song Dynasty (926-1127 AD) (lot 202). Estimated to sell for $140,00-$180,000, it brought $530,500, or almost three times the high estimate.

Bidding at both houses was international in scope with the American, European and Japanese participation. However, many pieces brought prices close to or at their low estimates.

As usual, however, the sales included rare works of star quality that did exceptionally well. The top lots follow:

The star of Christie's Sept. 16 sale of Chinese ceramics and bronzes proved to be a group of eight painted pottery hunters from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) (lot 315). The lot brought $354,500, close to the low estimate, and went to an unnamed U.S. gallery. A magnificient Sancai-glazed pottery figure of a Ferghana horse in dark amber glaze with green-glazed saddle cloth (lot 312) went to a private collector, also at its low estimate of $310,500.

European collectors acquired the sale's two boddhisatva figures from the early Tang dynasty (lots 284 and 283). These rare limestone carvings brought $266,500 and $222,500, respectively, near their low estimates.

A U.S. collector snagged the bronze guardian figure of the Ming Dynasty (1368-164 AD) (lot 292) for $178,500, close to its low estimate.

Christie's totaled $3,543,000 in this sale -- about a million less than last March's auction. A carved and painstakingly painted wood figure of Guanyin from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) exceeded its high estimate and sold for $57,500 at Sotheby's.

Sotheby's totaled $2,050,000, less than half of the March sale total.

Indian and Southeast Asian
Surprisingly effective were the auctions in the relatively new specialist area of Indian and Southeast Asian art. Sotheby's inaugurated this category as a separate sale last March, and achieved very good results. Back then, the standing-room-only crowd bid lots up to the fabulous total of $6,900,000, a result that was sparked by the sale -- the first time at auction -- of a 5th-century Gupta Buddha from Uttar Pradesh for over $1,000,000 alone.

This year, Sotheby's Indian and Southeast Asian sale on Sept. 16 reached a more modest total of $3,897,000.

Christie's had its first sale ever in this category on the following day, Sept. 17, and reached the very respectable figure of $3,250,000. Hugo Weihe, who heads this division for Christie's, said he was gratified that "bidders were willing to pursue top objects with top prices across the board."

The star of Christie's sale was a 3rd-century Gandhara bronze-lotus bud-form censer. No other such object has yet been discovered. Unique in its structure and design, the object bears some similarities to Greco-Roman representations of the goddess Nike. The object exceeded its high estimate of $220,000 three-fold, bringing $717,500 (lot 11).

Other lots at Christie's included a unique 15th-century Tibetan stand, elaborately worked in silver and damascened iron (lot 93), which experts assume was used in Buddhist rituals. It brought $387,500, almost four times its high estimate of $90,000.

A Nepalese figure of a bronze Tara (a female counterpart to a boddhisattva) from the 7th-century AD (lot 39) was the third highest object in this sale. It brought $244,500 in fierce bidding, topping the high estimate of $220,000.

A large, bronze figure of Jina (a Jain saint) from Bihar, India (5th-century AD) (lot 59) went to a European collector for $244,500, far above its high estimate of $180,000.

At Sotheby's on Sept. 17, the top lot was a Nepalese figure of Buddha Sakyamuni (lot 62) that had dominated the scene at the pre-sale exhibition, which also exceeded its high estimate of $500,000 -- but by a mere $8,500. Surprisingly, the statue went to an American private collector.

Another Nepalese figure, this one of a bodhisattva of the same Malla Period (1300-1350 AD) (lot 63) sold for $255,500, above its pre-sale estimate. The buddha is shown seated and at ease, in a most lifelike and animated pose.

A Khmer figure of a bronze Buddha in the Ankor Wat style, proved the third best item in the Sotheby's sale (lot 46). The imposing, fully ornamented figure came from a New Jersey collector. Another private U.S. collector paid $142,750 or close to the high estimate.

A Nepalese gilt-copper repousse mask of Bhairava, an angry manifestation of Shiva probably from the 16th-century, was used during the Vedic festival honoring Indra. Alcoholic beverages were consumed from funnels coming out of the mask's mouth (lot 74). The work was sold for $123,500, or 50 percent over its high estimate, and is destined for a museum -- though the auction house wouldn't say which one (odds are it's Cleveland).

Christie's has postponed its sales of Japanese art until the end of October, so we can't give comparative figures for total Asian sales this half. The overall result, however, was one in which most lots that sold came in at or near low estimates. Everyone hopes for better sales in March, when some of the financial crises in the world may be solved.

Meanwhile, here are some thoughts for improving next year's auction results:

Have fewer and better objects, so that market absorption will exceed the roughly 50 percent figure reached last week.

Have a stronger representation of classic Chinese furniture, if offerings in sufficient quality and quantity can be found.

Include more Himalayan objects, which seem to have found new collector interest at this year's sales. These include pieces from Tibet, Nepal, the Silk Route and Sikkim.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.