Asian antique sales rocket in New York

by Wendy Moonan

NEW YORK — Any trends in the American market for Asian antiques were eclipsed by Asia Week in New York last month when, suddenly, the appetite for Chinese art and antiques could not be sated.

For five days, the market went from healthy and vibrant to hotter than the surface of the sun. The dollar may be weak, and America may be in a recession, but there was a lot of what can only be called “irrational exuberance” — and money spent — particularly at the auction houses.

“They were not the best sales in terms of merchandise, but they were the best sales ever in terms of prices,” said Richard Littleton of Littleton & Hennessy, dealers in Chinese art and antiquities in New York and London.

Conor Mahony, director of the Chinese Porcelain Company in New York, was even more candid: “There was nothing extraordinary for sale, but things made extraordinary prices.”

It was standing-room-only at the Chinese art auctions, which began Sept. 14. Buyers from mainland China new to New York competed so hard for so many lots that the Manhattan, London and Hong Kong dealers tended to drop out of the bidding early on. (Top dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi of London was one of the few who successfully persevered.)

“It’s an entirely new game,” said Littleton. “Asia Week moved the goal posts. The market for Chinese art is very fluid, and a lot of money is coming into it.”

More than twice, in his enthusiasm one mainland dealer inadvertently out-bid himself, causing laughter in a packed sale room, as the auctioneer politely pointed out that the last bid was his.

Bidding was most animated in the room, on the Internet and phone when a piece had an imperial connection or came from a famous old collection.

“The high prices paid by Asian buyers reflect the fact there is a diminishing amount of fresh material anywhere on the market,” said Mahony. “Asian buyers especially like old American collections because they know they haven’t been messed with — there have been so many fakes made in the last 20 years.”

Bidding wars were frequent.

“People love a good provenance and good international competition,” said dealer Bryan Chow of Trio Art in Hong Kong. “The hunger for Chinese art is getting bigger and, as there is no history of prices, we accept new prices. I think they will continue to go higher.”

Grace Wu Bruce, a longtime dealer of Ming furniture in Hong Kong, explained the situation by analogy: “Lots of people would like to own Picassos, so the prices keep going up,”

For example, in Christie’s various- owners sale, an elaborately carved zitan wood inkstone stand and cover inscribed with a Qianlong poem, seal and the date 1778 was estimated at $20,000 to $30,000. It was the top lot of one of the Christie’s sales, going for $1.4 million to an Asian buyer.

“Chinese art has become a vehicle for investment for the Chinese because there are so few options,” said Bruce, known as “the Queen of huanghuali’‘ (referring to the prized Chinese wood found in the Ming furniture she sells).

At Sotheby’s Bruce bought a 17th-century huanghuali wood side table with unusually stylized brackets for $55,000 (estimate: $25,000 to $35,000) because she knew it was similar to one in the Palace Museum in Beijing (which, she hopes, might want it).

I t has been a year since the recession-scarred auction houses witnessed such exuberance. It briefly felt like old times in New York.

Christie’s dominated with $36.5 million in Asian art sales achieved, outdoing Sotheby’s total of $19.2 million.

Both houses boasted Chinese art consigned by relatives of the American psychiatrist Arthur M. Sackler, considered a golden provenance because there are Sackler museums at Harvard University and at Peking University in Beijing as well as Sackler wings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Not all of the Sackler consignments were stellar, especially the Ming furniture the Sacklers lived with, but it didn’t seem to matter.

Sotheby’s sold 40 lots of furniture and 45 works of art from the Sacklers for $4.6 million, triple the presale high estimate of $1.5 million. The top 10 lots all went to Asians.

The top lot, a rare pair of 17th-century huanghuali compound cabinets with stands estimated at $120,000 to $180,000, sold for $1 million.

Christie’s did even better with its 115-lot sale, 97 percent sold by lot, of Sackler art consigned by a different branch of the family. An Asian bid $362,500 for a bronze ritual food vessel, Early Western, Zhou dynasty, 12th-11th-century BC (estimate $20,000 to $30,000), the top lot.

An American dealer bought the third highest lot: an incredible jade pendant depicting a black cicada on a white pea pod, Qing dynasty (1644-1911). It made $128,500 (against a high estimate of $30,000).

In the various owners sale, Sotheby’s sold an Asian collector a carved jade vase and cover from the Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, for $926,000 (estimate $250,000 to $300,000).

An Asian dealer bought a 12-panel black-lacquer coromandel screen made for the Western market that is now on its way back East. Estimated at $80,000 – $120,000, it sold for $602,500, an auction record for a coromandel screen.

The screen’s recent history could serve as an inflation index for Chinese art: A New York gallery had sold the screen to an American about 10 years ago for $95,000.

Can the American market maintain this pitch?

The American market for Japanese art is steady but not nearly as hot, though New York dealers specializing in Japanese saw solid results during Asia Week.

Joan Mirviss sold 85 percent of her show of contemporary art ceramics by Japanese superstar Ogawa Machiko. Koichi Yanagi sold ink paintings, antique lacquer boxes and bronze sculptures.

Sebastian Izzard sold six of the seven paintings he spent 11 years accumulating for a small exhibition on Keisai Eisen, a Ukiyo-e School artist who dominated the market for paintings of beauties in the early 19th century. Erik Thomsen sold several scroll paintings, and Leighton Longhi sold two sets of screens.

“All the Japanese dealers were pleased with Asia Week this time,” Longhi said.

Results at the Japanese art auctions were mixed. Christie’s sale of Japanese and Korean art achieved $2.9 million, but only 57 percent of the lots sold. The top lot was an “O-Meibutsu,” a large brown stoneware tea-leaf storage jar from China (Southern Song/Yuan dynasty, 13th-14th century).

The jar, documented by generations of tea masters, was already in Japan by 1587 and named Chigusa (Myriad of Flowers). Dealer Yanagi bought it on behalf of an unnamed American museum for $662,500 (estimate: $100,000-$150,000).

Bonhams had its first-ever Japanese auctions in New York, with uneven success. A weak various-owners sale sold only 51 percent of its 170 lots, for a total of $727,801. However, the widely publicized sale of 277 netsuke miniature sculptures from the collection of Bluette H. Kirchhoff of California fared better, with 91 percent sold, for a total of $1.7 million.

“The Japanese auctions this time were not a good reflection of the market,” said Izzard, the under bidder for the tea storage jar. “The best things always sell here.”

Wendy Moonan covered the antiques market for The New York Times for the past 13 years. She is now a contributing writer for Architectural Digest.