Christie’s head of sale for Chinese ceramics and works of art
As prices have gone higher and supply is reducing, many collectors are attracted by something that is good but damaged. Ten years ago they would not sell. Now buyers do not have a choice. Kate Hunt of Christie’s has certainly observed this at the top end of the market at a moment when perfect ‘mark and period’ ceramics are no longer a financially viable option for most buyers.
The multi-estimate response to the (often damaged) Chinese ceramics deaccessioned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art sold by Christie’s New York in 2016 provides a good example. “However, for more commonly seen pieces, buyers are less tolerant,” says Hunt. “A well-painted blue and white Kangxi bowl, for example, worth £1500 in a perfect state, will maybe fetch around £150 if cracked.”
“Location, location, location”
Global head of Asian art, Bonhams
Perhaps more than for any other field, location of sale remains vital for buying and selling Chinese art – despite globalisation and the rise of online.
The Asian art market has settled into a “well-defined pattern”, says Colin Sheaf, Bonhams’ global head of Asian art, “around the three major world centres of New York, London and Hong Kong – with different categories selling well in each city”.
Export ware sells best in its original destination markets of the US East Coast and Western Europe, archaic bronzes too as they remain outside the ‘Chinese taste’ and “sell better in New York and London than anywhere else”.
Meanwhile, the best imperial ceramics and white jade are sold in Hong Kong, such as a pair of imperial Qianlong pale green jade wine jue vessels, pictured above, sold for HK$11.1m (£1.1m) (including buyer’s premium) at Bonhams’ Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art in May.
Bonhams’ sale last month of the Presencer Collection of Buddhist Art took place in Hong Kong, “now one of the two most important places, alongside New York, for selling Tibetan and Himalayan art”.
“Early Chinese ceramics on the rise”
Director, Eastern, Oriental Art & Ceramics, Mallams
Chinese ‘classic age’ ceramics – in financial terms the poor relation of Qing magnificence – are enjoying an upturn in demand, one that has followed both the appearance of some fine early material on the market and a number of museum exhibitions on the subject in the Far East.
“A strong trend that we have seen in our sales has been the enduring popularity of ceramics from the Song dynasty (960-1279),” says Robin Fisher at Mallams.
“The monochrome glazes, restrained shapes, and organic decoration developed in this experimental era are easily identifiable, and part of the appeal is that the period’s influence can still be seen clearly in the pottery of the East and West today. This resonates with modern collectors.”
This market continues to offer value. Top-end Song has seen a shift in prices evidenced by Christie’s four-part sale of the Linyushanren collection and this has begun to filter through to mid-range material.
However, plenty of well-provenanced Song dynasty ceramics are still available. Qingbai ceramics with their distinctive bluish-white glaze can be bought in the £1000-3000 range.
A variety of Song ceramics are included in Mallams’ October 31 Chinese and Japanese art sale. Many are part of a private local collection formed by the vendor’s father while working in the diplomatic service in Hong Kong from 1950-80.
“Momentum behind Chinese paintings”
Head Of Asian Art At Chiswick Auctions
Chinese paintings have traditionally been the preserve of the selling centres of Hong Kong, New York and particularly mainland China where paintings made up close to half of all Chinese art sales in 2017.
But Lazarus Halstead, head of Asian art at Chiswick Auctions in west London, believes collectors and dealers are increasingly looking further afield for their quarry.
Chinese paintings are still to be found in English collections – entering these shores since the 19th century by the way of Western missionaries, diplomats and Chinese and Hong Kong immigrants. “The prices achieved in London are now closing in on those of Hong Kong,” he says.
Halstead is not alone in suggesting some works, particularly those directly attributable to an individual artist, may be undervalued.
He says: “Quite unlike much Chinese porcelain, which was generally mass produced by a large number of artisans working together, paintings are the result of an individual artist and his style and character. While ceramics remain the dominant force in the market, paintings could yet surpass other categories to become the most expensive category within Chinese art.”
“Lacquer is creeping up on porcelain”
London dealer in Chinese works of art
London dealer Roger Keverne says a selective market has created opportunities for the buyer who is not necessarily focused on the collecting zeitgeist.
Keverne says that ‘Chinese taste’, the phrase associated with the Chinese domestic market that has come to mean Qing porcelain, white jades and Beijing enamels, is evolving.
“There is now more interest in later Chinese bronzes, ‘classic age’ ceramics, in Ming and earlier jades, and in jades in ‘unfashionable’ colours. Spinach jade, for example, was important in the 18th century and personally appreciated by the emperor himself. It was prized in the Western art market from the 1920s to 1960s and then fell out of favour, but is now coming back.”
The market is also beginning to correct the gulf that exists between porcelain and less fashionable mediums such as lacquer. “Lacquer is creeping up, as it is much rarer than other types of Chinese works of art. I am finding it harder to buy the good things.”
“Young Chinese collectors are interested in Buddhism”
The taste of mainland Chinese buyers is changing, notes London Chinese art specialist Giuseppe Eskenazi.
“Demand for porcelain, that used to be focused on Qing and Ming, is definitely seeing a shift to the earlier dynasties and recently we are seeing greater demand, particularly from mainland Chinese buyers, for later (Yuan and Ming) Chinese bronzes. These bronzes are also being sold at auctions in Shanghai and Beijing – that did not happen before.”
Crucially in these neglected areas (less fashionable than archaic bronzes and pieces from the Qing imperial household), supply is currently relatively plentiful. “If there isn’t the supply, the demand is not there either. Buyers want to collect in areas where they have a chance to buy something.”
The dealer believes a generation of buyers – a second wave of collectors following the wake of those who entered the market a decade ago – is beginning to make its presence felt.
“In the last two years mainland Chinese collectors have expressed particular interest in Buddhist sculpture. Many of these younger buyers, coming from a non-religious Communist background, now want to rediscover their culture and there has been a resurgence in interest in Buddhism generally.”