The New York Sun, March 23, 2006
Asian Art Arrives
By CARLY BERWICK
China, in case you haven't heard, is a big market. As the country
lurches into free-market capitalism, a growing portion of its 1.3
billion people have the money to spend on the art of the past 5,000
years. Those buyers are helping to fuel higher prices at auctions of
Chinese art, which will be held next week at Sotheby's and Christie's as
part of a series of 11 Asian art auctions.
Each house is estimating it will sell around $30 million worth of
Chinese, Indian, Southeast Asian, Japanese, and Korean art.That's double
what they were making just three years ago, when Ding bowls and Ge brush
washers fetched grand totals of $3 million and $4 million at sales.
Last year, everything changed. The once sleepy, genteel auctions of
Asian art, where collectors could bid in relative peace for Ming vases
and Tibetan thangkas,were ushered into the modern world. At the Hong
Kong auctions, mainland Chinese buyers practically threw money at
anything blue and white on porcelain. Sotheby's cleared around $92
million in six sales last October and November, while Christie's made
approximately $100 million in eight sales. In New York, Sotheby's sold
$12.7 million worth of Chinese art last September and Christie's $14.5
million. Both totals were dramatically higher than just a year earlier,
when Sotheby's sold $3.9 million and Christie's $11.6 million.
"The market is growing phenomenally," Sotheby's head of Chinese art,
Joe-Hynn Yang, said. "It's not just the number participating but those
with deep pockets. One of the reasons why this auction market is booming
is because of the competition."
In the global economy, everyone - from mainland Chinese to Taiwanese to
Americans - is a player. A chilling effect could come if China's
requested ban on its antiquities imported to America (which is still
under consideration by the State Department) is granted. For now, it
looks to be in limbo.
Sotheby's estimates its sale of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
next Thursday will make between $14.5 million and $20.3 million.A single
blueand-white Yuan dynasty (14th century) jar may bring in $4 million."
It is one of the finest of its type," Mr. Yang said. "We're dealing with
one of the earliest types of porcelain to be fired."
The floral, non-narrative patterns on the jar were designed to appeal to
Sufi Islamic tastes, at a time when China was trading along the silk
road to the Middle East. The jar is being sold by an Asian family who
bought it at Christie's Hong Kong in 1993 for $1.2 million.
Another Yuan dynasty porcelain work is the highlight of Christie's
Wednesday sale, which carries a low estimate of $10 million. It, too, is
decorated with peonies. It has a rare double gourd shape and is
estimated to sell for between $1 million and $1.5 million. "It's to both
Western and Chinese tastes," Christie's head of Chinese art, Athena
Zonars, said. "Interest comes from everywhere now: Taiwan, Hong Kong,
the Chinese mainland, Europe, and America."
Mainland buyers in particular like strong symbols of artistic patrimony,
and nothing says national pride quite like early porcelain and Ming
vases, which are well-represented in the collection of Evelyn Annenberg
Hall, also being sold Wednesday. The Hall sale is expected to make at
least $2 million.
But as much as Chinese buyers are eager to purchase pieces of their
history, they also are expanding their tastes to encompass contemporary
art, which flourished mainly after 1976 and the end of the orthodoxies
of the Cultural Revolution. Both houses have introduced contemporary
Chinese and Asian art sales in Hong Kong within the past four years.
Sotheby's is inaugurating its first Contemporary Art Asia sale in New
York next week, with a pre-sale estimate of $6 million to $8.3 million.
Michael Goedhuis of Goedhuis Contemporary, which specializes in recent
Chinese art, has watched the market closely. "In the last 18 months, the
market globally has tripled in value," he said." China is in my view the
dominant reality in the future, and people are beginning to realize that."
But there are just a handful - less than a dozen - of committed
contemporary Chinese collectors, he said, which means the market still
has plenty of room to grow. "The top Chinese artists are selling for a
tenth of what their counterparts in the West are selling for."
Some of the artists in the auction are already well-known on the global
contemporary art market and have come up at contemporary evening sales.
This is particularly true of Japanese artists in the sale, such as
Hiroshi Sugimoto and Yayoi Kusama. New York-based Chinese artist Cai
Guo-Qiang has had works sell for six figures at both the Asian
art-specific Hong Kong auctions and at the New York contemporary auctions.
"Chinese contemporary art just started to boom in the past two years,"
Sotheby's specialist in charge of the sale, Xiaoming Zhang, said.
"Everyone is learning about what has happened in the past 30 years,
including the specialists."
Some of the first buyers of post-Tiananmen Chinese art were Europeans
and Americans attracted to the strong political sentiment in the work.
Contemporary collectors in the West continue to flock to the field
because Chinese art is seen as undervalued. "That material really
blossomed outside of China," Ms. Zhang said. "Now we are seeing a return
and greater interest coming from domestic collectors. The buyers are no
longer bound by region."
The most expensive lot in the sale is an installation by New York-based
Chinese artist Xu Bing, "The Living Word," (2001) estimated at $250,000
to $300,000. Mr. Xu's previous auction record is $146,510, for a
conceptually driven woodblock scroll, "Book From the Sky - Scroll of
Analyzing the World, no. 4-1," at Christie's Hong Kong last May.
The new Chinese market is not just auction house wishful thinking.
"There has been a dramatic change in the past two years," Karen Wender
of New York's China 2000 Fine Art said. She has seen prices for early
20th-century artists she sold 20 years ago, such as Hwang Binhong or Qi
Baishi, suddenly jump tenfold to $100,000. "That was all accounted for
by the fact that the Chinese people themselves decided they wanted to
invest in their art. There's still lots of room to go."
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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