April 20, 2006:

[achtung! kunst] *market* : The Chinese advance: More bids, many buys

IHT, APRIL 8, 2006
The Chinese advance: More bids, many buys
By Souren Melikian International Herald Tribune

NEW YORK The phenomenal economic rise of China, and of Chinese
communities around the world, is changing the face of the market for
Chinese art. Literally so. Chinese dealers and intermediaries filled row
after row in a Christie's room last week, bidding on every kind of
object embedded in Mandarin culture, and, for the first time in American
auction history, matched in numbers their Western counterparts.

As the March 29 sale ended, $20 million had changed hands, with roughly
two-thirds of the works of art going to Chinese bidders.

The day after, at Sotheby's, the Chinese presence was larger still. In
Christie's session, the inclusion of the porcelain collection formed by
the late Evelyn Annenberg Hall, a noted New York society figure,
attracted a wider attendance than the usual collectors and professionals
in the field. Those who sat in Sotheby's room were there strictly for
the sake of the art, and at least two-thirds of them were Chinese,
driven by the ever intensifying yearning, whether in China or in
overseas communities, to reconnect with their centuries-old tradition.

Already, this Chinese search for roots through art has radically
reshaped the makeup of Western auctions. A new aesthetic hierarchy
dictated by Mandarin culture prevails. Until a few years ago, the tastes
of the West and of Japan gave precedence to ancient bronzes recovered
from tombs, Buddhist sculpture and Tang glazed pottery, from vessels to
horses. Not anymore.

Porcelain now rides a crest. As if moved by the same inspiration,
Christie's and Sotheby's both ran blue and white porcelain vessels on
their catalogue covers. While these all turned out to be the winning
tickets, the competition they triggered reflected the transitional phase
through which the market is currently going.

The Chinese fought hard, but they are not all psychologically prepared
to run the extra mile in the auction arena. The bottle painted with two
dragons wriggling amid scrolls that Christie's ran on the cover of the
Annenberg Hall catalogue had everything to satisfy them. The dragon and
the imperial seal mark on the underside identify it as palaceware made
early in the long Qianlong reign (1736-1795). But if some Far Eastern
bidders were determined, so was the American dealer, who won the battle
to the tune of $1.13 million, nearly double Christie's estimate.

When the second-most desirable lot of blue and white porcelain came on
the block, the Chinese again proved too timid. The pair of meiping
vases, also with the Qianlong seal on the underside, probably made right
at the beginning of the reign, are the finest of their kind. The Hong
Kong dealer William Chak badly wanted them. So did the London dealer
Stewart Marchant, who outbid him. But he in turn had to concede defeat.
I wrote last week that Japanese collectors are back in the auction
battlefield. It was one of them who picked up the $755,200 tab for the

However, when came the greatest rarity of the day, a blue and white vase
in the shape of a double gourd from the mid-14th century, Chinese
bidders felt sufficiently stimulated to hold on to the bitter end.
Interestingly, the vase sums up the aesthetic revolution that took place
when the Mongol dynasty called Yuan (1279-1368) by Chinese historians
introduced an entirely new repertoire of shapes, sizes and patterns
borrowed from Iran, which, like China, had been conquered by the Mongols.

The massive form, the dense floral pattern that covers the entire
surface, and the deep blue color known as "hui" ("Iranian," later
understood more broadly as "Muslim") all have a boldness that would have
horrified the literati of the Song age. These very qualities, on the
other hand, hold an irresistible appeal to Western and Japanese
collectors. The overseas Chinese, exposed to the wider world, are now
beginning to share this approach. One of them outbid the British dealer
Richard Littleton and paid just over $2 million for the superb object,
which has only one known parallel in the world, now in Istanbul.

Mystery still surrounds the third blue and white rarity in last week's
round of auctions, the early 15th-century jar that adorned the cover of
Sotheby's catalogue. The estimate, set at a maximum level, deterred
bidders in the room from going for it. Fortunately for Sotheby's,
someone had found the object compelling enough to leave a commission bid
matching the estimate and assorted reserve. The vase thus sold for $4.72
million to the anonymous admirer of early Ming blue and white porcelain.

But if they did not find it in themselves to have the courage to pay all
the top prices at last week's auctions, the passion with which the
Chinese collectors and dealers swooped on nearly all objects in the
Chinese taste suggests that this relative timidity is unlikely to last
very long. A fascinating process of subtle interaction among the
overseas Chinese, those who live in Taiwan and those who are citizens of
China, is under way.

The overseas Chinese are financially bolder and more willing to bid for
Chinese works that traditionally appealed to the West and to Japan.

At the Annenberg Hall sale, it was a Chinese U.S. resident who went all
the way to $132,000 to buy a superb ewer with the Jiaqing seal (1796-
1820) precisely copying a Yongle period (1403- 1424) model now in the
Beijing Palace Museum. Later, a Chinese collector from the overseas
communities paid $50,400, far above Christie's high estimate, to acquire
a marvelous white bowl on a tall tapering foot of the Qianlong period.
The bowl is decorated with a rhythmic scrolling pattern incised under
the glaze. Aesthetically, both pieces bear witness to the imprint left
on China by the encounter with Iranian aesthetics four centuries
earlier – the ewer in its shape and blue and white pattern, the stem
bowl in its scroll with six volutes rolling around a central roundel.

Where pure tradition was at stake, collectors from mainland China were
more prepared to jump high if needed. A lovely vase with the Qianlong
seal reviving the delicate very pale green glaze with a faintly bluish
touch of the Song period ru porcelain cost $26,400, triple the high

Here, Chinese collectors impose their own hierarchy. A seemingly
identical vase with much the same hue but with no visible crackle in the
glaze and a subtly softer touch, which Christie's also estimated to be
worth $8,000 to $12,000, went up to $72,000. It was the ultimate example
of its kind, unmarred by the hair crack that affected the previous
piece. A Hong Kong dealer carried off the prize.

The Chinese also define the new price scale. In a fascinating parallel,
two water pots both shaped like a bowl turned upside down, both with the
same "peachbloom" (i.e., red) glaze and the Kangxi mark (1662-1722) on
the underside, sold within half an hour of each other. They were
estimated $6,000 to $8,000 apiece. One sold for $36,000 and went to a
mainland collector. The other was bought by a Chinese overseas collector
for $33,600.

For the longer term, the most telling Chinese acquisitions were those
that sold for the least. In the Annenberg Hall collection, a Hong Kong
dealer took the trouble to pick up a small rectangular brush pot, with a
pale green glaze and broad crackle, that brought a modest $2,640 - but
more than three times the estimate. A day later at Sotheby's, the
Chinese professionals again bought many of the less ambitious lots. This
speaks volumes about the rising wave of aspiring collectors in mainland
China. They may have limited means and knowledge, but China is a land of
fast learners.

For the moment, Westerners still play a major role. In Christie's sale
of works from various owners, the second-highest price, $419,200, was
paid by an American collector for the wooden figure of an early Han
horse. It came from an old American collection formed by the late
Stephen Junkunc III, with whose heir the deputy chairman of Christie's
America and Asia, Theow Tow, has cultivated a professional relationship
for years. The third-highest price, $408,000, secured a 17th-century
huanghuali wood bed for the Art Institute of Chicago. But it may not be
too long before even the wealthiest public and private collectors in
search of Chinese objects will find it very much harder to compete with
the soaring power of their Chinese rivals.




with kind regards,

Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)



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