The strengths of the Chinese works of art market were much to the fore at the recent round of Asia Week art sales in New York. That meant mark and period porcelain, classical Chinese hardwood furniture and well-provenanced bronzes.
Christie’s seven catalogues offered across September 12-15 dominated the series. The firm’s running total was close to $43.5m (almost three times the aggregate of its competitors) with a healthy 80% sold.
A bronze fangding from the Late Shang period (13th-11th century BC) was the top selling Chinese lot, hammered much as expected for $2.8m. The largest of these ancient ritual vessels were made exclusively for the kings and queens with this smaller 28cm size reserved for high-ranking officials. It is one of more than 200 extant ritual bronzes from Anyang in Henan province carrying the two-character inscription for the aristocratic Ya yi clan, who enjoyed a close relationship with the Shang royal family.
It is recorded in the Neiraku Museum, Nara, prior to 1961 and was acquired from the Gisèle Croës gallery in Brussels in 2003. It was offered for sale as the property of a private US collection.
Provenance is increasingly important in the sale of Chinese archaeological material. A history in the West before the UNESCO Convention of 1970 is key to commercial success.
At Sotheby’s, a bronze buffalo from the Western Zhou (1046-771BC) period sold for $600,000. It too had a long collecting history: part of an exhibition of Ancient Chinese Bronzes held by Yamanaka & Co., London in 1925 and later owned by both Mary Cohen and JT Tai. A good indication of where prices have gone in recent years: previously it had sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2011 for $110,000.
Classical furniture from the Ming and early Qing periods has moved into the spotlight in recent years. Several single-owner collections, including that of Christopher Ellsworth, dealer and author of Chinese Furniture, Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch’ing Dynasties (1971), have proved a sell-out.
Christie’s offered two good lots on September 14 as a part of the Asia Week art sales: a well-proportioned 17th century tapered cabinet or yuanjiaogui in the highly prized hardwood huanghuali ($380,000) and a pair of 18th century zitan quanyi (horseshoe-back armchairs) from well-known collectors Nancy and Ed Rosenthal ($650,000).
Representing the last flowering of imperial artistic and political power, early Qing porcelain appeals to bidders from Greater China on an aesthetic and emotional level. Sotheby’s offered a series of fresh lots with modest expectations that flew.
A top price of $920,000 (estimate 60,000-80,000) was bid for a 22cm Qianlong (1735-95) mark and period ‘lotus’ vase painted in blue with a typical display of auspicious flowers and ruyi heads on an unusual yellow and green enamel ground. Sold at $600,000 was a typical 30cm high ‘boys at play’ vase with a green ground from the Jaiqing (1795-1820) period.
The depiction of numerous boys at play in a garden, representing the wish for many sons, was a popular theme in the decorative arts of the Ming and Qing dynasties and here – just to add icing to the cake – the boys are depicted holding a series of auspicious objects.
Chinese works of art dominated the Asia Week art sales. However, the two top lots of the series came in the Indian and South Asian category. Untitled from 1996 was ranked among Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde’s (1924-2001) best late works. Appearing at auction for the first time it sold towards top estimate at $3.4m – the second highest price for the artist at auction.
Plenty of competition also emerged for a 13th or 14th century Nepalese gilt bronze figure of Buddha, consigned from the Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza collection. A sophisticated example by a master craftsman of the Newari and unusually large at 50cm high, it quadrupled hopes at $3.3m.
The Japanese art sale at Bonhams on September 14 was a patchy 50% sold but included a high price for Satsuma when a 37cm high vase by Yabu Meizan (1853-1934) doubled hopes at $165,000. Sold together with its original hardwood stand, it was probably exhibited at one of the international exhibitions attended by the Osaka workshop in the early 20th century.
The next stop for the Asian art juggernaut is Hong Kong where an 11th century celadon brush washer from the fabled Ru kiln in Henan is expected to surpass $10m at Sotheby’s on October 3.