June 02, 2006:

[achtung! kunst] *market* Art fairs steal the show from the auction houses

iht, APRIL 23, 2006
Art fairs steal the show from the auction houses
By Souren Melikian International Herald Tribune

NEW YORK In the battle for business between auction houses and the art
trade, both dependent on dwindling supplies, some dealers are exploiting
art fairs with extraordinary effect. Strengthened by selling shows in
galleries and prolonged by the activity they later generate, the best
art fairs far outshine what auction houses offer.

During last month's Asian Week in New York, Chinese art offered at
Christie's on March 29 and Sotheby's a day later compared well with what
was on view at the Asian Art Fair, held in the Seventh Regiment Armory
on Park Avenue. Selling shows organized across town by American and
European dealers, however, tipped the scales heavily in favor of the art

A few magnificent lots at the two auction houses were not enough to
restore the balance. At Christie's, a mid- 14th-century blue and white
bottle in the shape of a double gourd, one of only two known such
pieces, shot up to just over $2 million. At Sotheby's, a squat blue and
white jar, early 15th century, brought $4.72 million.

Other outstanding pieces included, at Christie's, a rare Han wooden
horse of the first or second century from an old Chicago collection,
which sold for $419,000. At Sotheby's, a 12th-century Song brush washer
potted under an off- white glaze with a wide crackle, formerly in a
famous English collection, brought a gigantic $688,000.

Otherwise, the riveting treasures of Chinese art were on view in the trade.

Metalwork from Ancient China prior to and including the Tang period
(A.D. 618-907) has nearly vanished from the auction arena. Yet in the
Fuller Building, at 41 East 57th Street, Gisèle Croes of Brussels had a
bronze Tang mirror with a low-relief pattern of animals and scrolls
covered in chased-gold foil that was a masterpiece of its time. Croes
says that she acquired it from a Taiwan collector. Priced at $400,000,
the mirror sold the day before the show formally opened - as did a vase
from the third century B.C. inlaid with gold and silver, of a size
unknown in that style, despite a $1.8 million price tag.

An early Tang reliquary, with horizontal fluting on a cylindrical body,
a gem of pure beauty that seemed inexpensive by comparison, went within
a day of the opening for $120,000.

James Lally, the U.S. leader in early Chinese art, showed a footed
bronze ritual food bowl of the eighth century B.C. with bold abstract
motifs. The bowl sold hours before the opening for less than $100,000.

Even more stunning to modern eyes was a bronze lamp of the first century
B.C. in a rare early Han style that is never seen in Western auction
rooms. It cost a West Coast buyer a modest $50,000.

Other pieces of a kind rarely seen at auction appeared at the Asian
Fair. Conor Mahony sold an earthenware jar from the Majiayao culture,
dating from the middle of the third millennium B.C., on which stylized,
almost geometrical human features were molded in low relief. For $85,000
he also sold a set of 14th-century funerary figures in gray earthenware,
of which few have escaped dispersal.

Dealers outdid the auction houses in the later periods, too. Richard and
Stewart Marchant of London offered an 18th-century oval bowl in
off-white jade richly wrought on its rounded sides with characters in a
landscape. It sold at the opening, despite its $265,000 price. Two small
bowls with scenes and calligraphy painted in blue, obviously by great
masters, were inscribed on the underside with the seal mark of the
Qianlong emperor, who ruled from 1736 to 1795. The Marchants had bought
them back from a client who had them on extended loan at the Denver
Museum of Art. The price, $75,000, was reasonable and a Chinese
collector swooped on them.

More modest dealers with years of experience and an eye for beauty
further increased the attraction of the fair. Dries Blitz of Amsterdam
showed a beautiful 12th-century qingbai bowl and Jan van Beers of London
displayed a ravishing Song dynasty bowl of the same period, with
so-called tortoiseshell glaze, which was sold for an approachable $13,000.

The auction houses lacked pieces of comparable subtlety. At Sotheby's a
host of lumpy wares, described as Song (960-1279) but possibly inspiring
doubts about their period, failed to attract any bids.

Top dealers, with a reputation for connoisseurship stretching back
decades, clearly hold a trump card. They select beautiful pieces and
provide an irreplaceable insurance policy.

In the field of Old Masters, the role of leading dealers in guaranteeing
quality is even more marked, and is amplified by fairs, such as the
European Fine Art Fair at Maastricht, the Netherlands, where rigorous
vetting committees include famous museum curators. Add the
self-censorship practiced by the best dealers, anxious not to lose face
among their peers, and the result is a quality level that auction
houses, in need of quantity, cannot match.

This year, Maastricht did better than ever. Robert Noortman of
Maastricht sold 32 pictures for more than €18 million, or $22 million,
and Johnny Van Haeften of London 26 pictures for around $10 million. Van
Haeften sold another $10 million of paintings as a follow-up.

Some of his pictures, including a Jacob van Walscapelle still life
acquired in Boston, came from private sources. Others came from
auctions. A still life by Harmen Loeding, bought at Sotheby's London in
December for £34,500, or $61,300, was priced in Maastricht at $150,000.
Reserved at the private viewing, the Loeding was bought the next day by
a Washington collector after the first prospective buyer missed his
extended deadline by two minutes.

Next door, Konrad Bernheimer, the chairman of Colnaghi's, parted with a
€2 million panel depicting Jesus surrounded by small children. Once
attributed to Lucas Cranach the Elder, this was sold in Sotheby's July
2005 auction with its attribution downgraded to Lucas Cranach the
Younger. In Maastricht, Bernheimer proposed a qualified restitution to
"Lucas Cranach the Elder, and studio." The panel quickly found a German
buyer unconcerned by the qualification.

Richard Green of London, who had also bought some pictures recently at
auction, sold them with equal brio. A client came to Maastricht looking
for a quality Venetian view that would fit a specific emplacement. A
Lucas Carlevarijs priced around £3.75 million met his requirements.

Whether in Chinese art or in Old Masters, the top dealers are
increasingly seen as supreme arbiters. To new buyers who dread the
pressure of making a decision at auction, they offer the opportunity to
acquire the best with greater safety. That is worth quite a premium.




with kind regards,

Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)



To (un)subscribe or to access the searchable archive please go to:

For postings earlier than 2005-02-23 please go to: