London nearly burst its seams playing host to "Asian Art in London," Nov. 9-20, 1999, which saw hoards of people arrive from all over the world to battle it out in the salesrooms and educate themselves at museum exhibitions and lectures.
Christie's kicked of the auction week on Nov. 16 with its sale of Chinese ceramics and works of art. A high point of the sale came when a "sleeper," lot 206, which had been catalogued as an 18th-century, blue and white flaring vase with a £3000-£4000 estimate, was knocked down to London dealer A & J Speelman for £36,000. To the uninitiated this was an attractive but run-of-the-mill vase. To the dealers from London and Hong Kong who fought for it in the auction, it was a miscatalogued and very rare Ming dynasty piece from the 15th century ($1=£1.62).
The Chinese auctions were dominated by a handful of powerful Hong Kong dealers who consistently paid serious money for the big lots. Christie's cover lot, for example, a rare, archaistic gilt splashed bronze double vase made for the Emperor Qianlong (1736-95) sold for £72,000 -- seven times its estimate -- to the Hong Kong based dealers Chaks & Co.
Also standouts at Christie's Nov. 16 sale were two magnificent oil paintings, lots 266 & 267, by Thomas Daniell, R.A.(1749-1840). They sold for £360,000 and £370,000 against presale estimates of £150,000-£200,000 and £100,000-£150,000 respectively.
Full to the brim with historical reference, these accomplished works depicted the European factories that lined the waterfront at Canton and their ships anchored off Whampoa. The latter view prompted the American W. C. Hunter to write that "no finer sight of the kind can be seen in any part of the world than the Company's fleet collected at Whampoa."
On Nov. 18, Sotheby's auction of Chinese ceramics and works of art saw period porcelains and top items selling to the same buyers as at Christie's. The first big price of the day was paid for lot 719, a rare Northern Song (906-1127AD) Junyao flowerpot on a carved jade stand. It was bought by the Hong Kong-based dealers Ming Gallery for £165,000 (est. £40,000-£60,000).
Why so much money for a flowerpot? This was no ordinary container. To the 12th-century Chinese scholar for whom it was made, the work epitomized the subtle beauty that could be achieved through the marriage of form and glaze. And to the Chinese potter who made the piece, it represented a great technical achievement.
A more inexplicable price was paid later in the sale for a 15th- to 16th-century Vietnamese polychrome enamelled bottle vase, lot 743. Estimated at £40,000-£60,000, it sold for an astonishing £295,000 to the London based dealers (again) A & J Speelman, who bid for the piece against a tenacious New York dealer.
Sotheby's and Christie's were not the only auction houses to achieve high prices. Bidding soared for a group of 18th-century Chinese jades, lots 189-202, in Phillips sale of Chinese and Japanese ceramics and works of art on Friday, Nov. 19. The Hong Kong trade bid for the best pieces and £22,000 was paid for a jade carving of a ewe with its young, lot 193, estimated at £2,000-£3,000. A good start for Phillips, which is now under the new ownership of Bernard Arnault -- arch business rival and fellow French entrepreneur of Christie's owner François Pinault.
The Japanese art departments of Sotheby's and Christie's each triumphed with prestigious collections of Japanese netsuke. Christie's sale of netsuke and lacquer from the Japanese department of Eskenazi achieved the rare distinction of being 100 percent sold.
But how did Asia week's 47 participating dealers fare? Their wide range of expertise and exhibitions attracted vast numbers of people and the best openings had an upbeat atmosphere with plenty of red dots to be seen on sold items.
Several exhibitions focused on pottery tomb figures from the Han (206 BC-220 AD) to the Tang dynasties (618-906 AD), made to entertain, protect and serve the deceased in the afterlife. The star of Spink's "Treasures From The Silk Road" exhibition was a group of seven Tang pottery ladies galloping on horseback and playing polo. The works date from a time when ladies did not have to have their feet bound and were afforded a more prominent role at court. As a result they donned men's clothes to take part in this energetic Persian sport.
Round the corner from Spink, Priestley and Ferraro's exhibition, "Out of Wind and Dust," featured some appetizing early pottery and sculpture. An informative catalogue introduction placed the objects in an historical setting and brought them to life. A painted pottery figure of a foreign groom is a reminder of the huge numbers of foreigners that travelled the Silk Road to work, trade, entertain and preach in the cosmopolitan capital of Chang'an (present day Xian).
"Eternal Images" at Berwald Oriental Art included a voluptuous Tang dynasty pottery beauty with a moon-like face. In a world of emaciated supermodels, her full figure, dictated by court fashion, is a comforting reminder that big can also mean beautiful. The same can not be said about the very unusual pottery figure of a haggard old woman. Thought to be a shaman -- a spirit world mediator -- this subject is a magnificent portrait in clay.
A & J Speelman's exhibition embraced India and Tibet as well as China and focused on sculptural objects. One powerful Indian sculpture carved from a black silt stone, made in the Pala period, 12th century AD, depicts Vajravarahi in sexual unison with Shamvara. Seen together in worship, this group represents the union of wisdom and compassion.
But the perfect way to round off Asia week was a visit to the British Museum's outstanding "Gilded Dragons" exhibition of Tang gold and silver, with many pieces on show outside of China for the first time in 1,000 years. Running until Feb. 20, 2000, this one is a must.
The cocktail party held in the British Museum's Oriental galleries on Friday, Nov.19, marked the end of Asia week and provided a magical setting for collectors, trade, museum curators and auction house specialists to gather together and relive the events of a week that truly celebrated the wonders of Asian art.
KATE HUNT is a London-based Oriental art specialist.