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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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New York was host to no fewer than a dozen auctions of Asian art during Asia Week earlier this month. Though encompassing a variety media and spanning a dizzying array of countries and centuries, the Asian art market continues to center its focus on China, where Sotheby’s is soon to open a new headquarters, though not in time for the firm’s next round of sales in Hong Kong during the first week of April.

Chinese antiquities and classical paintings dominated the sales last week, which were for the for the most part devoid of contemporary art -- this market segment’s other cash cow -- since the auction houses will be offering contemporary wares in Hong Kong later this spring. 

Doyle’s 742-lot sale on Monday, Mar. 19, 2012, was headlined by a 17th-century Chinese cannon sold by the debt-ridden Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, which has come under fire in recent years for quietly selling items from its collection. The cannon, which is inscribed with the year of its manufacture and instructions for its use, sold for $362,500 against a low estimate of $400,000.

Bonhams held three sales, one for Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art, one devoted solely to Chinese snuff bottles, and another for Japanese art, all of which totaled $5.7 million. The first two sales had impressive sell-through rates of over 90 percent by lot, and the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian sale set a new auction record for the Indian artist Bagta when an 1808 painting showing a ruler spraying a group of courtesans with colored water in celebration of holi sold for $302,500, about ten times its $30,000 presale low estimate. Another sale highlight was an amber snuff bottle carved with a basket-weave pattern, which sold for $64,900.

Sotheby’s New York staged four sales, which totaled $61.8 million, including the auction house’s first dedicated auction of classical Chinese paintings during the March sales in New York.

First up was an 84-lot sale of modern and contemporary South Asian art, which totaled $2.1 million with 48 of 84 lots selling, or 57 percent by lot and just 40 percent by value. The top five lots -- works by S.H. Raza, M.F. Husain, Jagdish Swaminathan and F.N. Souza -- all went to Indian buyers, with an expressionistic 1965 portrait of a Scientist by Husain and a sweetly colored 2000 stripe abstraction by Raza each selling for $242,500.

The sale’s highest estimated lot was Raza’s Village with Church (1958), informally dubbed “the Rockefeller Raza” since it had once belonged to John D. Rockefeller III. A brightly colored, thickly painted scene that might be described as part Fauve, part proto-Cubist, it was expected to bring as much as $2.5 million, but failed to sell. Raza holds the auction record for a work by a living Indian artist, set in 2010 with a $3.5 million sale at Christie’s London.

On Mar. 20 Sotheby’s sold Chinese ceramics and works of art, totaling $20.7 million, with 224 of 318 lots selling, or more than 70 percent. The sector has been haunted by the 2010 fiasco in which a Qianlong vase, estimated at about $2 million, sold for a headline-grabbing $83 million at Bainbridge’s Auctions in London. As of December 2011, though, the vase’s Chinese buyer had reportedly still not paid in full.

Since 2007 Sotheby’s has had its own system whereby bidding on lots designated as “premium” require registration and a deposit in advance. Sotheby’s ceramics sale last week contained five such lots, including a pair of Qianlong brush pots in the Famille Rose palette, sold separately, that carried estimates between $80,000 and $150,000 and brought in a combined total of about $3.5 million. The pots came from a Massachusetts collection and, like at least eight of the top ten lots, sold to an Asian buyer. Jade and metalware also consistently outperformed expectations, while there was less demand for other materials, like wood and horn.

Sotheby’s sale of Indian and Southeast Asian art on Mar. 21 totaled $3.8 million, with 113 of 156 lots selling, or about 72 percent. Winning bidders came from all over for this sale, with about half coming from the U.S. or Europe. A gilt copper sculpture of Vishnu from Nepal originally gifted by the King of Nepal to a relative of the current owner between 1954 and 1965 sold to a U.S. buyer for $590,500, above the $300,000 presale high estimate.

The classical Chinese paintings auction on Mar. 22 totaled $35.2 million, with 119 of 163 lots selling, or 73 percent. Nine of the top ten sold for over $1 million, again largely to Asian buyers. An exception was a 17th-century album by Zheng Min of Eight Views of Huangshan that sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $2.3 million, more than ten times the presale low estimate. We would certainly love to know the inside story on that sale!

The top lot was a set of sheets of calligraphy inscribed by emperors of the Southern Song Dynasty that brought $5.7 million (est. $750,000-$1,000,000). A testament to the growth of this market, the work last sold at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2001 for about $119,000.

Christie’s New York held nearly twice as many auctions as Sotheby’s during the week, as was the case last year as well. Christie’s final tally was $69 million, only marginally higher than Sotheby’s $61.8 million.

First came the sale on Mar. 20 of the collection of the late Doris Wiener, the well-known collector and dealer who placed works in major institutional collections from her gallery on Museum Mile. The sold total of $12.8 million included 346 of 376 works, or 93 percent. An 18-inch-tall gilt bronze figure of Padamapani brought $2.5 million, about ten times its $250,000 presale low estimate, while a 16th-century Tibetan Thangka that contains four mandalas sold for $866,500, more than triple its $250,000 presale high estimate.

The Wiener collection outperformed Christie’s regularly scheduled sale of Indian and Southeast Asian art on Mar. 21, which saw 90 of 143 lots sell for a total of about $6.3 million. The South Asian modern and contemporary art sale, held the same day, totaled $7.8 million, with 85 of 124 lots selling, or 69 percent. The top lot was Tyeb Mehta’s 1984 Untitled (Figures with Bull Head), which sold at Christie’s in 2006 for $1.3 million. This time around it brought $1.7 million, right in the middle of its presale estimate.

Christie’s Mar. 23 sale of 70 early Chinese mirrors from the collection of another dealer, Robert H. Ellsworth, realized $2.2 million. The top lot was “A Magnificent and Very Rare Silvery Bronze Octalobed Mirror with Cranes” from the Tang Dynasty, probably produced as a wedding gift, that sold for $482,500.

For its third single-owner sale, held on Mar. 23, Christie’s produced a 14-minute video profiling the featured collector, Robert H. Blumenfield, wherein he describes his museum-like apartment as “a huge dinner party surrounded by all these treasures.” The auction totaled $6.5 million, with 88 of 138 lots finding buyers, or 64 percent. Two lots by Chen Mingyuan (1622-1735) were in the top five. Both were ceramic vessels meant to hold water, one in the well of a single delicately molded lotus leaf ($506,500), and the other in the hollowed interior of a peach, complete with pit ($386,500).

An 18th-century ceramic also starred in Christie’s sale of Japanese and Korean art on Mar. 21. The slip-decorated earthenware incense burner by the master potter Kenzan is ornamented with sgraffito in the manner of Chinese ceramics. It sold for $194,500, within its presale estimate. The sale total was $1.7 million.

Unlike Sotheby’s, Christie’s two-day sale of Chinese ceramics and works of art on Mar. 22-23 did not contain much in the way of sought-after porcelain. Instead, furniture and metalware carried the 762-lot sale, which totaled $31.3 million, with 72 percent of the lots finding buyers. Huanghuali, a species of rosewood, from the 17th century proved popular, with a huanghuali painting table selling for $1.2 million, double the $600,000 presale high estimate, and a large huanghuali plank-top table selling for $842,500 (est. $250,000-$350,000). Other star lots included an ancient ritual vessel in bronze ($1.1 million) and an 18th-century parcel gilt figure of the female Bodhisattva Tara ($842,500).

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.