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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.

Being An Asian Art Appraiser: Issues and Anecdotes

Being An Asian Art Appraiser: Issues and Anecdotes

Lemur monkeys and Asian art. What is the connection? Being an appraiser of Asian art means encountering the unexpected. And my “monkey experience” represents the sort of adventure which would make the appraisal profession and auction world rich material for a reality TV show.

The appraisal process often begins with a call from a client who is interested, most commonly, in knowing what his/her piece is “worth”. The word “worth” requires some explanation as I will outline later, however, determining value almost always entails a visit to the client in order to visually examine and evaluate the objects in question. It was on one such occasion many years ago while employed at an auction house, that I went to look at what was described as an assortment of exotic objects from various parts of the world acquired through travels. The home contained, among other bizarre things, an elephant skull, an African penis sheath collection, a taxidermied elk (covered in an inch of dust) in the living room, and as I was to be startled by, a pair of live lemur monkeys hopping about, with glowing yellow eyes and ringed tails. In fact, there were no familiar objects such as Chinese porcelain or Japanese prints to appraise, but to this day, that experience remains one of my most memorable.

I wish I could say that I had discovered an extraordinarily valuable Qing dynasty vase, like the ones recently appearing on the market in England, but that dream remains illusive. One such vase sold in November of 2010 at Bainbridges auction house outside of London, for the astounding record-breaking price of $85 million (includes buyer’s premium and taxes). The Qianlong vase, c.1740, was found during the routine clearing out of a bungalow belonging to a deceased senior. It is a rare reticulated double-walled vase featuring pierced archaic-inspired chilong dragons, and four reserved roundels depicting pairs of fish. Its trumpet neck of primrose yellow highlighted by a delicate Y-pattern in pink. While the happy relatives who inherited it were overwhelmed by their unexpected good fortune, imagine what might have happened to the vase if it had not been noticed by an auction employee with a good eye?

Much closer to home there is the true story of an elderly woman who in the 1980s unknowingly purchased a 17th century Qing dynasty rhinoceros horn libation cup (featuring finely carved detail of the ‘Hundred Boys’ motif) at a church yard sale of donated items here in Toronto for $1 (yes, that figure is correct, $1), which she consigned for auction at Waddington’s Auctioneers and Appraisers. Estimated at $40,000/60,000, it sold on Monday December 13, 2010 for $893,750. (Both of these auctions can be viewed on YouTube.)

That sort of experience, akin to winning the lottery, although infrequent, reinforces the lesson that individual owners need to educate themselves on their works of art. It is crucial to get an objective appraisal by a qualified professional appraiser before making decisions to donate, sell or distribute objects. Knowledge, as the cliché goes, is power, and could be of significant financial benefit as well.

What makes a good appraisal and appraiser?

Whether having Asian or other works of art appraised, the principles are the same. The selection of an appraiser is key to the quality of information received in the written appraisal. The client must consider whether this person is a member of an appraisal society which adheres to the code of ethics and practices of the Uniform Standard of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP). The International Society of Appraisers and the Appraisers Association of America are such organizations. Fortunately, public awareness is growing about the standards they uphold; standards which are required to be used, for example, if applying to the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board when donating cultural property for tax credit.

A proper appraisal will follow the standard Getty Object ID format of description which includes the artist’s name/object type; title; date/period of manufacture; medium; dimensions; signatures/marks; description; provenance; condition; and very importantly, a photo of each object because an image really is worth a thousand words. The appraiser’s certification should include the statement that he/she has no undisclosed past, present or future interest in the property; the values he/she determines should not be contingent upon reporting predetermined results desired by the client; and the compensation/fees for the appraisal should never be contingent upon the value of the items, because it is unethical to charge a percentage of the overall value of the appraised items for his/her services.

The purpose of the appraisal will determine the type of value sought. Simply explained, on a scale from from high to low value, there are four typical kinds of appraisals: for insurance (which is at the top because the values are comparable to retail replacement value); for fair market (which is defined in Canada as “the highest price, expressed in terms of money, that the property would bring in an open and unrestricted market between a willing buyer and a willing seller who are knowledgeable, informed, and prudent and who are acting independently of each other”); for auction (which is an estimate range the object might sell for within that environment); and for probate (which is done for estate tax purposes).

Other factors, in addition to the most basic ones of workmanship and age, which affect the determination of value are: condition of the piece, its provenance, and current market trends. It is the trained eye of a professional appraiser who knows what to look for and how to look at an object to find hairline cracks, ‘invisible’ repairs, and aspects of a work of art which could indicate that it is a newer reproduction. The Chinese are skilled at reproducing earlier pieces, often unfortunately with the intention of deliberately deceiving the buyer for monetary gain.

Provenance is another critical factor in determining the value of a piece. Knowing where an object was purchased, and having receipts and documents to prove whose hands and collections the object has passed through, can significantly increase the value of a piece. Therefore it is important to keep receipts when acquiring objects.

Market trends are a factor beyond an owner’s control. At present, Chinese art in the auction market is on fire. This trend has lead to the dramatic increase of prices across various media (painting, jades, bronzes, ceramics) for high quality or rare pieces. For example, prices for white jade carvings, prized in Chinese culture, have increased astronomically. A recent New York Times article noted that white jade from Xinjiang province in China is now surpassing gold in value, selling for $3,000 an ounce which is a tenfold increase from a decade ago. In November of 2010, again in London, an Imperial white jade carving of a deer sold for over $6 million. The growing and volatile market for Chinese art is fuelled by many newly wealthy Mainland Chinese buyers. This kind of electric atmosphere in auction houses has lead to frenzied buying and strong prices.

As an appraiser, one of the most pleasurable aspects of the job is having the chance to handle beautiful objects, and being challenged by identifying unusual objects, rather like a detective solving a mystery. I enjoy learning new things, such as I did when appraising a Korean celadon-glazed stoneware cup with pointed base which is displayed in the permanent Korean gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum (see illustration). Its function was initially perplexing, for how could a cup of such unusual shape be used? It is in fact an “equestrian or on-horse” cup (masangbae) for a rider to drink wine from while on horseback. The green glazed stoneware cup is inlaid with sangham-coloured chrysanthemums, and dates to the 12-13th century (Goryeo dynasty), part of a collection gifted by Mrs. George G. R. Harris in 2003. The cup is also exceptional because when it was chipped on the rim, the original owner valued it so highly, he had it repaired in gilt.

In conclusion, it has been my experience that individuals have varying levels of awareness of the value of their art objects. While collectors are often knowledgeable, many surprisingly leave themselves vulnerable because they do not insure their collections; and other owners who may have acquired pieces handed down through their family may not be aware of objects’ true values and lost their stories of origin over time. Then there was the gentleman I spoke with once, who religiously watched the Antiques Roadshow, and was convinced that his early 20th century Japanese Satsuma-style vase (broken and glued) was identical to one he saw on the TV show (which was an 18th century Edo piece in pristine condition with a maker’s mark and documented provenance.) Delivering disappointing news to the owner who was hoping for a luxury holiday on the sale proceeds of his vase, required the skills of a diplomat to reduce the impact of this information. However, regardless of whether the news is pleasantly surprising or disappointing, knowing the value of one’s objects should always be viewed in a positive light.