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

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