News & Updates

Ai-Weiwei-AGO-Rebar

What’s the Big Deal About Ai Weiwei?

Ai-Weiwei-Zodiac-Head

What’s the Big Deal About Ai Weiwei? 

Toronto has been invaded by the art work of Ai Weiwei.  This past summer and fall, his bronze sculptural installation at Nathan Philips Square of Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (a reinterpretation of the originals looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860), and the exhibition “According to What?” at the Art Gallery of Ontario, have permeated the local art scene.  As well, Scotiabank’s Nuit Blanche event was dominated by his work Forever Bicycles.  Consisting of an arrangement of 3,144 bicycles, it took 15 days for workers to assemble it.  Combined with the opportunity to walk through the structure, the lighting, and dry ice, it made for a dramatic and memorable hit with the public. 

So what is the fuss all about and why is his work so ubiquitous?

Cardboard-Ai-Weiwei

Sean Martindale, “Love the Future/Free Ai Weiwei,” 2012, 8′ cardboard sculpture of Ai Weiwei

The main themes embodied in his work usually fall into, or combine, two categories:  1) an emphasis on the value of every individual human life, and 2) the creation of new works of art from destroyed materials, often wood from Qing dynasty temples which he reassembles.

Around the time of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai emerged as an influential blogger and social activist.  He is known for his social commentary, and as a result, he has had frequent run-ins with Chinese authorities, as depicted in Alison Klayman’s documentary about Ai, titled “Never Sorry.” 

Accessibility to his work is significant.  You don’t have to be an expert on Chinese culture or art to appreciate the creative force behind it.  His work speaks cross-culturally.  This is a common denominator to all great art.  Anyone can emotionally access the impact of his work Straight, consisting of 38 tons of rebar (the steel bars which reinforce concrete in buildings).  Ai’s response to the earthquake is embodied in a work which consists of metal bars from the twisted wreckage of collapsed schools where more than 5,000 children lost their lives.  Ai has straightened each bar to represent a lost child.  This work of art, 40 by Ai-Weiwei-AGO-Rebar20 feet, varies in height like a rolling landscape.  From the side it has the appearance of an earthquake seismic graph.  There is even a fissure down the middle.  Visually, and literally, this is a heavy piece.  It protests the corrupt concrete construction business which built the schools, and the government’s refusal to officially acknowledge the number of people who perished in the disaster. 

An example of Ai’s assemblage of old materials using traditional techniques to create a new work of art, is China Log, 2005. Using tieli wood (iron wood) salvaged from eight Qing dynasty temple pillars, Ai creates an “opening” in the shape of a map of China.  The nation symbolically appears within the pieces of jigsaw-like assembled pieces.  It is both a political statement (due to the geographical boundaries Ai chooses to use to define China’s borders), and a social comment on how new creations evolve from the destruction of China’s Ai-Weiwei-Map-of-Chinatraditional architecture. 

A final, and interesting question to consider, from an appraiser’s or collector’s perspective is: “What is Ai Weiwei’s art ‘worth’?”

Given his mainstream popularity, his work is commanding high prices in the auction market.  Three pieces to consider which have similar counterparts in the AGO exhibition give us a glimpse into value in the auction market.  For example, a Group of 9 Coloured Vases, consisting of Neolithic vases painted by Ai Weiwei in 2007, sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2012 for $156,325 USD; a porcelain Ruyi Sceptre, made in 2006, sold at Hosane auction (in Shanghai) in 2011 for $159,940 USD; and a Stool, signed and dated by Ai Weiwei, made from two joined Qing dynasty (1644-1911) stools, sold at Christies in New York in 2012, for $206,500 USD.  (All prices include buyer’s premium.)

Why is everyone talking about Ai Weiwei?  Simply put, he is many things to many people.  The ‘worth’ of his art goes beyond the monetary.  He is not only a master of various media, as sculptor, photographer, architect, ceramicist, and Internet blogger but also a galvanizing figure in the struggle for freedom of expression in a country where human rights are not always respected.  He is an artist who deliberately takes risks and suffers consequences for his authenticity.  As such, Ai Weiwei can be counted as among the most influential artists of the 21st century.

Want to learn more about contemporary Chinese art in Toronto? Check out the UCCA booth (Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art) visiting from Beijing at Art Toronto this October 24-28, 2013.  They will be featuring limited edition prints of other famous artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, and Yue Minjun, along with emerging artists.  Still want more?  Visit the monumental public stainless steel sculpture The Rising by Zhang Huan installed in front of the Shangri-La hotel on University Avenue.  Explore the work of Xiao Gui Hui, currently living and working in Toronto, who is represented by the Christopher Cutts gallery; and visit the Gendai gallery which features Asian contemporary exhibitions.  To read more in English about Contemporary Chinese art, pick up a copy of the Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art

Susan Lahey, MA ISA

President, Eastern Art Consultants Inc.

www.easternartconsultants.com

EAC Logo

The Dragon Awakes: Sensational Auction Results for Imperial Chinese Porcelain, Jades and Paintings

The Dragon Awakes: Sensational Auction Results for Imperial Chinese Porcelain, Jades and Paintings

The dragon is in fact more than just awake, it is already breathing fire and has rocketed to the sky. China’s recent staggering economic growth and prowess is well-served by the symbolic dragon, as is the phenomenon of the stellar (described by some observers as “crazy”) prices realized at auction houses around the globe for works of Chinese art.

For those of us who are passionate about Asian art, these are heady days. Even if the reader has only a passing interest in Chinese art from the headlines of record-breaking prices in mainstream media, people are wondering about the reasons behind remarkable growth in this particular art market. In my experience as President of Eastern Art Consultants Inc., I have witnessed Mainland Chinese buyers flocking to auction houses in London, Hong Kong and New York, replacing Americans and Europeans as buyers of Chinese art. In many cases it is Western collectors selling off their artwork which is being snapped up by Chinese buyers with an insatiable appetite.

A Canadian example of this phenomenon is an 18th century rhinoceros horn cup sold at Waddington’s in Toronto on a snowy evening in December 2010. Excitement filled the auction house as bids on a libation cup, decorated in the ‘Hundred Boys Motif’, rose steadily, with the hammer finally coming down at a breathtaking $893,750 CDN (buyer’s premium included) to a Mainland Chinese buyer. Although the provenance was fairy-tale like (the consignor being an elderly lady who stumbled upon the cup at a church yard sale in the early 1980s, for $1),the high prices for Imperial works of art, especially those of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), and specifically Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796), are becoming the new norm.

Similar stories can be found elsewhere, as in Scotland, where a Bonham’s appraiser visiting a home happened to notice a pair of elegant famille rose melon-shaped porcelain teapots. Unbeknownst to the owner, they were from the Qianlong period, and subsequently achieved the astonishing price of £1,341,600 on May 12, 2011.

Who is driving this market? And why are pieces made during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign considered so desirable? The Chinese traditionally prefer works produced in the Imperial workshops, especially those of Qianlong because they are regarded as the pinnacle of technical and aesthetic achievement. The emperor himself was an avid collector and scholar who accumulated a vast storehouse of treasures with cultural significance. There is also a history of art collecting in China which goes back as far as the Neolithic period, and the nouveau riche in China apparently hope to demonstrate their taste and connoisseurship as modern day collectors following the Imperial example.

And what is behind this incredible surge in prices? The economic reasons for the financial readiness of Chinese buyers is straightforward, including millions of individuals who are making fortunes in various business enterprises, and now have disposable income to spend. But their motivations are more complex.

Observers point to new Mainland Chinese buyers compelled by nationalist sentiments, wanting to repatriate cultural heritage, such as that looted from the Imperial Summer Palace by French and British soldiers in 1860; while others emphasize their practicality as buyers seeking alternate investments in which to store their cash.
The areas which have seen the most impressive results are jades, porcelains and paintings.

Jade is the new “gold” rush. The Chinese have had an affinity for this stone for millennia. Prices are booming because like gold, it is an ideal form of storing portable assets, and is regarded as better than bank accounts. Examples of jades surpassing estimates at recent sales include items from the British Estate of Mary Anne Marten sold last year. Most talked about were a pair of pale green jade elephants believed to be from the Imperial court of Qianlong which sold for £1.2 million, tripling its estimate. The same is true in the case of a remarkable Imperial piece, a spinach jade brush pot which sold in Hong Kong, October 5, 2011, for $6,620,000 HK.

Another fabulous jade, a fine Imperial brush washer carved from a solid block of white jade (Qianlong mark and period), from the Dillingham Estate of Hawaii, doubled its estimate when it sold at Sotheby’s New York this September for $782,500 US. Chinese collectors will pay such prices, and fight bidding wars, for rare white jade, thus making it worth literally more than its weight in gold.

As for paintings at recent sales, the highlight was an 18th century painting by the artist Dong Bangda, Thatched Hut Among Autumnal Mountains, ink on silk, a hanging scroll dated 1743, selling for $386,500 US at Sotheby’s New York September 14th 2011, because there was a written account that Emperor Qianlong admired this painter’s work. Of note, the average price of a classic Chinese painting nearly doubled in the past year.

Yet it is the porcelains which have truly exceeded all possible expectations. At Christie’s September 2011 sale in New York (Property from the Xu Hanqing collection) the top lots were purchased by Chinese buyers. Typical of this, is the rare blue and white Ming-style moonflask with Qianlong seal mark in underglaze blue which sold for $2,658,500 US.

A yellow-ground famille rose vase in the double gourd shape sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2010 for $32.4 million US, to a Hong Kong based collector who is quoted as saying about her purchase: “As long as you like something, even if it’s expensive, it’s worth it.” It featured a six character Qianlong mark on the base in red, and had an impeccable provenance traceable back to the 19th century.

One might wonder…..will the prices stop climbing? At a talk at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum in April of this year, Michael Bass of Christie’s Chinese Works of Art, New York, stated: “Outstanding results demonstrate the continued and remarkable strength of the Chinese art market.” The current state of the market is certainly more than a trend, and its rise seems destined to grow in step with the burgeoning Chinese economy. So, the next time you are at a yard sale, take an extra careful look. That Chinese porcelain vase or brush painting might just be the next record-breaking sale.

Susan Lahey, MA, ISA President, Eastern Art Consultants Inc.
Written for The Upper Canadian Antique Showcase, November 2, 2011

Inaugural Asian Art Auction: Walker’s Auctions

October 27, 2011

This date marked the inaugural auction of Asian art at Walker’s Fine Art and Estate Auctioneers in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. With almost 200 lot offerings covering a wide range of decorative and fine Asian art, attendees were treated to an exciting evening. Preceeded by previews in both Toronto and Ottawa, clients had the opportunity to handle a variety of objects from Chinese export silver, to Indian bronzes, Japanese cloisonne and ivories, in addition to many fine Chinese jades and paintings, and Japanese prints. Some of the highlights from the sale included a bound, publisher-assembled album of 100 prints by Toyokuni III (Kunisada) 1786-1864, featuring images from kabuki plays; a rare Sino-Tibetan ivory ceremonial scabbard featuring tourmaline, turquoise, coral and lapis embellishments; and Qing dynasty white “mutton fat” (hetian) jade objects, such as the seated figure of a lohan, a lotus-form vase, and a white nephrite snuff bottle of flattened ovoid shape with pale orange skin. That evening, with Jeffrey Walker presiding as auctioneer, the auction space was full to capacity with eager buyers, many from the Ottawa area, keen to participate in this special occasion.

Walker’s Auctions was founded in 1937 by William Scott Walker, whose grandchildren, Jeffrey and Christine, continue to this day to run the respected family business. It has grown from humble beginnings to an auction house with an international scope renowned for its sales in Canadian, European and Inuit art.

This first sale of Asian art marks the next chapter for Walker’s as an auction house with global presence.

Susan Lahey, MA, ISA
President, Eastern Art Consultants Inc.